Don’t Teach Coding

Before the pitchforks and torches come out, allow me to clarify – don’t just teach coding.

Jeff Susna and Mark M captured the essence of what I’m talking about:

The article Mark M referenced, “Is coding the new literacy?”, had this to say:

So you might be forgiven for thinking that learning code is a short, breezy ride to a lush startup job with a foosball table and free kombucha, especially given all the hype about billion-dollar companies launched by self-taught wunderkinds (with nary a mention of the private tutors and coding camps that helped some of them get there). The truth is, code—if what we’re talking about is the chops you’d need to qualify for a programmer job—is hard, and lots of people would find those jobs tedious and boring.

But let’s back up a step: What if learning to code weren’t actually the most important thing? It turns out that rather than increasing the number of kids who can crank out thousands of lines of JavaScript, we first need to boost the number who understand what code can do. As the cities that have hosted Code for America teams will tell you, the greatest contribution the young programmers bring isn’t the software they write. It’s the way they think. It’s a principle called “computational thinking,” and knowing all of the Java syntax in the world won’t help if you can’t think of good ways to apply it.

Whether you call it computational thinking or computer literacy, understanding the high-level basics of the technology is what is useful. Conflating the ability to create Hello World in JavaScript with that understanding is both simplistic and counter-productive. Chris Granger, in “Coding is not the new literacy”, observed:

Being literate isn’t simply a matter of being able to put words on the page, it’s solidifying our thoughts such that they can be written. Interpreting and applying someone else’s thoughts is the equivalent for reading. We call these composition and comprehension. And they are what literacy really is.

Languages come and go. Technologies evolve. Concentrating exclusively on specific languages and technologies risks creating future obsolescence. The underlying concepts that must be understood to effectively use them, however, have longer lives. It’s the 21st century equivalent of the difference between giving someone a fish and teaching them to fish. Erik Dietrich in “Don’t Learn to Code — Learn to Automate” points out the broader utility of computer literacy:

It’s obtuse to suppose that a prerequisite for every job in the future will be the ability to implement sophisticated, specialized computer applications. But it’s not at all obtuse to suppose that, given the ubiquity of computing, a prerequisite for every job in the future will be the ability to recognize which tasks are better suited for humans and which for computers. Learn at least to recognize which parts of your job are a poor use of your time. After that, perhaps learn to use your ingenuity and creativity to automate using the tools that you know (such as googling for solutions, leveraging apps, etc). And, if you’ve come that far, maybe it’s time to roll up your sleeves and take the plunge into learning to code a little bit to help you along.

The need for greater numbers of people with computer literacy is real, as is the need for greater diversity within the ranks of those who work with technology. It serves no one to misrepresent the skills needed or the nature of those skills. People who know how to google for code but lack the ability to understand and evaluate what they get back are no better off than if they had never seen a computer. We owe them, and ourselves, better.

Who Needs Architects? Well, Nobody Needs this Kind

The question above came up while recording SPaMCast 357 with Tom Cagley, and it’s an extremely important one. The post we were discussing, “Who Needs Architects? Because YAGNI Doesn’t Scale”, is one of many discussing the need for architectural design in software development. While I’m firmly convinced that the need is real, it should also be realized that there is a real danger in unilaterally imposing the design on a team.

Tom’s question about an “aristocracy of architects” was taken from his post “Re-Read Saturday: The Mythical Man-Month, Part 4 Aristocracy, Democracy and System Design”, part of a series in which he is reviewing Frederick Brooks’ The Mythical Man-Month. In the essay reviewed in this post, “Aristocracy, Democracy and System Design”, Brooks discussed the importance and value of conceptual integrity (i.e. a cohesive, unified design) to software systems. While I agree wholeheartedly that both architectural design and someone (or more than one someone) responsible for that design is necessary, I disagree that establishing an aristocracy is beneficial or even necessary. In fact, the portion labeled “Reality” on the graphic in Kelly Abuelsaad‘s tweet below, although talking about imposter syndrome, also illustrates why dictating design can be a bad idea.

One can certainly influence, even control the architecture of a system via a mandate. The problem with being given control is that no one can give effectiveness to go with it. As such, it’s brittle, subject to the limitations of the person given the authority and the compliance of those implementing the system. This brittleness exists even when the architect stays within their level of detail. Combining a dictatorial style with Big Design Up Front all but ensures failure.

In my experience, a participative, collaborative style of design yields better designs. In addition to benefiting from a variety of skills and experience, it also engenders greater understanding and ownership across the team. Arrogance, on the other hand, can be costly.

I firmly believe that a product will benefit from having someone whose focus is the cross-cutting, architecturally significant concerns. I also believe that part of that job is teaching and mentoring as well as listening to the rest of the team so that architectural awareness permeates the entire team. There are many aspects to being an architect, but being a dictator should not be one of them.

Updated 4/8/2016 to fix a broken link.

Laziness as a Virtue in Software Architecture

Laziness may be one of the Seven Deadly Sins, but it can be a virtue in software development. As Matt Osbun observed:

Robert Heinlein noted the benefits of laziness:

Even in the military, laziness carries potential greatness (emphasis mine):

I divide my officers into four groups. There are clever, diligent, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and diligent — their place is the General Staff. The next lot are stupid and lazy — they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is stupid and diligent — he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief.

Generaloberst Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord

The lazy architect will ignore slogans like YAGNI and the Rule of Three when experience and/or information tells them that it’s far more likely that the need will arise than not. As Matt stated in “Foreseeable and Imaginary Design”, architects must ask “What changes are possible and which of those changes are foreseeable”. The slogans point out that engineering costs but the reality is that so does re-work resulting from decisions deferred. Avoiding that extra work (laziness) avoids the cost associated with it (frugality).

Likewise, lazy architects are less likely cave when confronted with the sayings of some notable person. Rather than resign themselves to the extra work, they’re more likely to examine the statement as Kevlin Henney did:

It’s far cheaper to design and build a system according to its context than re-build a system to fix issues that were foreseeable. The re-work born of being too focused on the tactical to the detriment of the strategic is as much a form of technical debt as cutting corners. The lazy architect knows that time spent identifying and reconciling contexts can allow them to avoid the extra work caused by blind incremental design.

Shut up, salute & soldier on?

Yes boss

Leadership and management are currently hot topics, with the #NoManager movement among the hottest of the hot. My detailed opinion on flat organizations/holacracy is a post for another day, but one aspect that I fully agree with is the differentiation between leadership and management. They can and should coincide, but they don’t always. Most importantly, the number of leaders should exceed the number of managers. To re-state a point I made in “Lord of the Repository”, the best managers develop their team members so that the team is never without leadership, even when the manager is away.

Tony DaSilva’s recent post on the subject, “In Defense of Hierarchy”, spoke to some benefits that derive from hierarchies. One of those benefits identified was “orderly execution of operations”, supported by the following quote:

Imagine if students argued with their teachers, workers challenged their bosses, and drivers ignored traffic cops anytime they asked them to do something they didn’t like. The world would descend into chaos in about five minutes. – Duncan J. Watts

For each of Watts’ examples, his point is, in order, wrong, possibly wrong, and correct. I have experience that speaks to all three.

My career in software development is my second career; my first was in law enforcement, serving as a Deputy in a county Sheriff’s Office. One of the positions I held during my tenure there was Assistant Director of the Training Academy. My role was split between administration, instruction, and supervision of students (limited strictly to their time in training, I didn’t hold a supervisory rank that would apply beyond that). My position was then and has always been, that any trainer or teacher that cannot tolerate respectful, appropriate challenge is unworthy of their position. A student probing and testing the information being presented was something to be celebrated in my opinion, not discouraged.

An alert went out on the radio one afternoon that there was a fire in one of the housing units of the jail. After a quick run to the location, I found that the supervisors had succeeded in getting the fire knocked down, removing the person who had started it and detailed staff to evacuate the other inmates to a smoke-free secure area. However, the remaining staff were milling about without protective gear or spare fire extinguishers should the embers flare back up. While waiting for someone with authority, I took it upon myself to direct individuals to get the equipment that was needed. Once someone arrived and assumed control, I then headed back to normal duties.

While talking about the incident later on with a co-worker, they happened to mention that they were really shocked when I ordered the Major to go retrieve an air pack and he did so (n.b. the Major in question was the third ranking person in the department and five levels higher than me in the hierarchy). Needless to say, I was just as shocked. I hadn’t been paying attention to much beyond getting the situation safely under control and the Major hadn’t objected, so I didn’t notice the real-life inversion of control, though my colleague certainly did.

That incident illustrates several things about leadership. First, is the point I mentioned above that leadership and management/authority are separate things. I had no official authority, but exercised leadership until someone with authority was in a position to take over. Second, is that my unofficial authority rested on the trust and acquiescence of those executing my orders. I would argue that, far from undermining their trust, my openness to challenge in non-emergency situations made them more likely to follow me in the emergency.

So, to return to Watts’ examples – teachers should be challenged (appropriately), cops should be obeyed (until the emergency is in hand), and both you and the boss should be able to flex based on the whether the current situation requires a teacher or a cop.

Participative leadership is more likely to engender trust and buy-in. Smart leaders (be they managers, architects, team leads, etc.) aren’t looking for passive followers, they know it could cost them. As Tom Cagley observed in a his post “It Takes A Team”:

While a product owner prioritizes and a scrum master facilitates, it takes a whole team to deliver. The whole team is responsible for getting the job done which means that at different times in different situations different members will need to provide leadership. Every team member brings their senses to the project-party, which makes all of them responsible looking for trouble and then helping to resolve it even if there isn’t a scrum master around.

Lord of the Repository

The man on horseback

In Robert “Uncle Bob” Martin’s “Where is the Foreman”, he advocated for a “foreman” with exclusive commit rights who would review each and every potential commit before it made its way into the repository in the interest of ensuring quality. While I am in sympathy with some of his points, ultimately the idea breaks down for a number of reasons, most particularly in terms of introducing a bottleneck. A single person will only be able to keep up with so many team members and if a sudden bout of the flu can bring your operation to a standstill, there’s a huge problem.

Unlike Jason Gorman, I believe that egalitarian development teams are not the answer. When everyone is responsible for something, it is cliche that nobody takes responsibility for it (they’ve even given the phenomena its own name). However, being responsible for something does not mean dictating. Dictators eventually tend to fall prey to tunnel vision.

Jason Gorman pointed out in a follow-up post, “Why Code Inspections Need To Be Egalitarian”, “You can’t force people, con people, bribe people or blackmail them into caring.” You can, however, help people to understand the reasons behind decisions and participate in the making of those decisions. Understanding and participation are more conducive to ownership and adoption than coercion. Promoting ownership and adoption of values vital to the mission is the essence of leadership.

A recent Tweet from Thomas Cagley illustrates the need for reflective, purposeful leadership:

In my experience, the best leaders exercise their power lightly. It’s less a question of what they can decide and more a question of should they decide out of hand. When your philosophy is “I make the decisions”, you make yourself a hostage to presence. Anywhere you’re not, no decision will be made, regardless of how disastrous that lack of action may be. I learned from an old mentor that the mark of a true leader is that they can sleep when they go on vacation. They’re still responsible for what happens, but they’ve equipped their team to respond reasonably to issues rather than to mill about helplessly.

In his follow-up post, “Oh Foreman, Where art Thou?”, Uncle Bob moderated his position a bit, introducing the idea of assistants to help in the reviews and extension of commit rights to those team members who had proved trustworthy. It’s a better position than the first post, but still a bit too controlling and self-certain. The goal should not be to grow a pack of followers who mimic the alpha wolf, but to grow the predators who snap at your heals. This keeps them and just as important, you, on the path of learning and growth.


On the march

Napoleon nearly avoided his Waterloo.

Two days prior to the battle, Napoleon managed to divide the Prussian army from its Anglo-Dutch allies under Wellington. With the bulk of his forces, he attacked the Prussians while his subordinate, Marshall Michel Ney, screened Wellington’s forces dribbling in from Brussels. Napoleon’s main body had beaten the more numerous Prussians and he called on Ney’s I Corps, nearly twenty thousand strong, to fall on the Prussian right and complete the victory. Ney, meanwhile, called for I Corps to continue on to him and sweep away Wellington’s forces.

The French I Corps marched back and forth between the two battles, taking part in neither. Had either allied army been decisively defeated, then the outcome could have been much different. As it turned out, Wellington’s army was reinforced in the nick of time by the Prussians, and together they made Waterloo synonymous with downfall.

Uncertainty is an ever-present factor in the design and development of software. It is extremely important to recognize and acknowledge that uncertainty in order to mitigate it. Given that choices carry the risk of locking you into a particular approach, increasing flexibility by deferring commitment is a logical technique. One of the principles of Real Options is “Never commit early unless you know why”.

However, another principle of Real Options is “Options expire”. Decisions cannot and should not be deferred indefinitely. Failure to choose is a choice in itself and all the more dangerous if its nature isn’t recognized.

Architectural choices are architectural constraints. However, it should be recognized that constraints provide structure. Just as the walls that bound a building define it, so too design choices define systems. The key is that the definition of the system aligns with its goals and retains as much flexibility as possible.

Commitment can bring with it its own set of anxieties. Second-guessing is human nature and circumstances can be remarkably fluid. Once committed, however, radical change should be approached more carefully. Ignoring the cost of changing directions can be as much a source of analysis paralysis as failing to decide in the first place. It’s better to get into the battle with your best effort than to march around in circles hoping for something a little better.

Who’s Your Predator?

Just for the howl of it

Have you ever worked with someone with a talent for asking inconvenient questions? They’re the kind of person who asks “Why?” when you really don’t have a good reason or “How?” when you’re really not sure. Even worse, they’re always capable of finding those scenarios where your otherwise foolproof plan unravels.

Do you have someone like that?

If so, treasure them!

In a Twitter conversation with Charlie Alfred, he pointed out that you need a predator, “…an entity that seeks the weakest of the designs that evolve from a base to ensure survival of fittest”. You need this predator, because “…without a predator or three, there’s no limit to the number of unfit designs that can evolve”.

Preach it, brother. Sometimes the best friend you can have is the person who tells you what you don’t want to hear. It’s easier (and far cheaper) to deal with problems early rather than late.

I’ve posted previously regarding the benefits of designing collaboratively and the pitfalls of too much self reliance, but it’s one of those topics that merits an occasional reminder. As Richard Feynman noted, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Self-confidence is a natural and desirable trait. Obviously, if you’re not confident in your decision, you should probably defer committing to it. That confidence, however, can blind us to potential flaws. Just as innovators overestimate consumer interest in their product, we can place too much faith in our own decisions and beliefs. Our lack of emotional distance can make it easy to fool ourselves. In that case, having someone to challenge our assumptions can be invaluable.

Working collaboratively increases the odds that flaws will be found, but does not guarantee it. Encouraging questions, even challenges is a good start – you don’t want to cause a failure because people were afraid to question the design. However, groups can be as subject to cognitive biases as individuals (for a great overview, see Thomas Cagley Jr.’s excellent series on the subject: July 8th, July 9th, July 10th, July 11th, and July 12th). No bad news is not necessarily good news.

Some times you have to be your own predator.

Getting ideas out of your head is helpful in getting the distance you need to evaluate your ideas in a more objective manner. Likewise, writing and/or diagramming forces a bit of rigor and organization, making it easier to spot gaps in the design. The more scrutiny a design can withstand, the more likely it is to survive in the wild.

When the wolf’s at the door, you’ll want to rely something that’s been proven, not pampered.