“Distance…is the one true enemy…”

Gregory Brown tweeted a great series on the problem of distance last week:

It’s amazing how much information can be conveyed in nine tweets. It’s amazing how many aspects of a very complex socio-technical undertaking, software development, are affected by this concept of distance. I would argue that this concept of distance applies likewise to the social systems that software development belongs to as a component part.

Distance between action and result as well as distance between result and response are just as much a problem for social systems as software systems. This was one of the main themes of “The Ignorance of Management – Deep and Wide”, trying to manage too far down the hierarchy just doesn’t scale. There are too many decisions at too deep a level of detail across too many areas for this to be effective.

It’s a case of mismatched impedance, resulting in overload. Increased distance equals increased transmission time, meaning that remote decisions will either take longer (risking timeliness of the decision) or will have to be made with less consideration (risking the fitness of the decision). Likewise, the greater number of decisions being made due to an inappropriate distance will force the same set of trade-offs. Time spent on lower-level issues also reduces time available for issues that are appropriate to the decision-maker’s level. This places even more pressure on the decision-maker in terms of being either hasty or late.

Ironically, better control is likely to come from delegating decision-making to the appropriate level of the organization than attempting to micro-manage. The true test of leadership, in my opinion, is not how things run when a leader is present, but how things run when they’re not. Adding distance stacks the deck, and not in your favor.

Form Follows Function on SPaMCast 381


This week’s episode of Tom Cagley’s Software Process and Measurement (SPaMCast) podcast, number 381, features Tom’s essay on Agile adoption, Kim Pries talking about technology’s gender gap, and a Form Follows Function installment on the fallacy of greenfield development.

Tom and I discuss my post “The Seductive Myth of Greenfield Development”. We talk about how nothing’s ever from scratch; even if the system is completely new, those developing it and those using it bring their own baggage to the table.

You can find all my SPaMCast episodes using under the SPAMCast Appearances category on this blog. Enjoy!

Engineer, Get Over Yourself

Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapse

Ian Bogost’s “Programmers: Stop Calling Yourselves Engineers” in the Atlantic, claims “The title “engineer” is cheapened by the tech industry.” He goes on to state:

When it comes to skyscrapers and bridges and power plants and elevators and the like, engineering has been, and will continue to be, managed partly by professional standards, and partly by regulation around the expertise and duties of engineers. But fifty years’ worth of attempts to turn software development into a legitimate engineering practice have failed.

Those engineering disciplines are subject to both professional and legal regulations, it’s true. That being said, bridges, buildings, and power plants (as well as power grids are not immune to failures. Spectacular failures in regulated disciplines, even when they spur changes, can still recur.

Fifty years might seem like a long time, but compared to structural engineering it’s nothing. Young disciplines have a history of behavior that, in retrospect, seems insanely reckless (granted, he wasn’t a nuclear engineer, but at the time there weren’t any). Other disciplines, now respectable, have been in the same state previously.

Bogost complains about the lack of respect for certifications and degrees, but fails to make a case for their relevance. He even notes that the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology’s “accreditation requirements for computer science are vague”. Perhaps software development is too diverse (not to mention too much in flux) for a one-size-fits-all regulatory regime. Encouraging the move toward rigor, even if the pieces aren’t in place for the same style of regulation as older engineering disciplines, seems a better strategy than sneering about who should be allowed to use a title.

I’m all for increasing the quality of software development, especially for those areas (e.g. autonomous cars) that have life safety implications. When I’m in the cross walk, I’d prefer that the developer(s) of the navigation system considered and conducted themselves software engineers rather than craftsmen. By the same token, I’d prefer that the consideration be a function of real rigor and professional attitude rather than ticking boxes.

[h/t to Grady Booch for the link]

First Do No Harm – the Practice of Software Development

Medieval Anatomy Illustration

Analogies are never perfect, but reading Erik Dietrich’s “Do Programmers Practice Computer Science?” brought one to mind. Software development has much in common with the practice of medicine. Software development, like medicine, involves the application of knowledge. Also like medicine, this application is made complex by considerations of context. Yet another commonality is that in both disciplines, there are (or, at least, should be, limits regarding experimentation).

Erik’s post used the following comparison of developers to electricians:

Let’s consider three actors in the realm of physics, as a science.

  1. A physicist, who runs electricity through things to see if they explode.
  2. An electrical engineer, who takes the knowledge of what explodes from the physicist and designs circuitry for houses.
  3. An electrician, who builds houses using the circuits designed by the electrical engineer.

I list these out to illustrate that there are layers of abstraction on top of actual science. Is an electrician a scientist, and does the electrician use science? Well, no, not really. His work isn’t advancing the cause of physics, even if he is indirectly using its principles.

Let’s do a quick exercise that might be a bit sobering when we think of “computer science.” We’ll consider another three actors.

  1. Discrete mathematician, looking to win herself a Fields medal for a polynomial time factoring algorithm.
  2. R&D programmer, taking the best factoring algorithms and turning them into RSA libraries.
  3. Line of business programmer, securing company’s Sharepoint against script kiddies uploading porn.

Programming is knowledge work and non-repetitive, so the comparison is unfair in some ways. But, nevertheless, what we do is a lot more like what an electrician does than what a scientist does. We’re not getting paid to run experiments — we’re getting paid to build things.

There is definitely some validity in this. The three roles in each example have many similarities. His observation that development work is “non-repetitive”, however, is key. Electricians work in a more certain context than doctors who may need to account for body chemistry or metabolism. Likewise, developers may find environmental factors (e.g. memory usage profile, network load, etc.) produce uncertainty in the course of their work. Whereas the plumbing and electrical systems in a house are mostly separate, biological systems and information systems tend to be more intertwined.

Another similarity between software development and the practice of medicine is the feedback loop. The physicist will never hear back from the electrician, but physicians doing research are not similarly removed from practitioners. Practice and theory in medicine have a chicken and egg relationship where neither is clearly dominant, but each influences the other. Likewise with software development. Ethics and practicality in both cases constrain pure research.

As Erik noted, developers are “…not getting paid to run experiments — we’re getting paid to build things”. That being said, the uncertainties mean that, like physicians, we can’t be positive about the exact outcome without trying a particular course of action (which isn’t really an experiment):

Like doctors, those involved in software development have an ethical obligation to let our “patients” know when we’re learning on the job and what the risks are (not to mention the obligation to try things that are in their best interests and not just something we want to test drive). In addition to considerations of professionalism, more open communication has its benefits. We can solve problems and advance the practice at the same time.