Some interesting lessons for Software Development can be obtained form outside our field. I was reminded of this while reading a running blog that looked at what lessons could be gained from outside of the field of running coaching…
- When something is new or gains popularity, it is overemphasized until it eventually falls into it’s rightful place. How long that process takes varies greatly.
- Research is only as good as the measurement being used is.
- We overemphasize the importance of what we can measure and what we already know, ignoring that which we can not measure and know little about.
- We think in absolutes and either/ors instead of the spectrum that is really present. …
Point 1. helps explain a lot of the original hype/hope surrounding the agile approaches to software development.
We go through a cycle of forgetting and remembering what’s been done before us. You see this in the reintroduction or rememphasis in certain training methods in the coaching world. That’s why it is incredibly important to know your history. And if you can, know your history from a primary source where you attempt to look at it through their eyes during that time period. For example, going back and reading Lydiard’s original work gives a greater appreciation of what he was trying to do, then reading someones summary now, 50 years later. We lose a little bit of the original message.
Sometimes there is useful information available from looking back at what worked in the past. Although many on the software field seem to try to forget the past, the pioneers in the field learned a lot, some of which is still applicable to our present circumstances.
Don’t normally link to Dave winer, but his The bosses do everything better is priceless…
When he looked at the code he must have been shocked to find something complex and intricate. Why isn’t the source code as simple as the software? Hah. When you figure that out let me know.
All too often in software development I hear the comment that there must be a “simpler/easier way.”
Unfortunately, although sometimes simple solutions are workable, in most cases the simplest solution is not workable. Or rather the simple solution would be workable in some circumstances, but not for the current project becasue of some fairly obvious deficiencies in the simple solution.
From On Bullshit by Harry G Frankfurt:
In the old days, craftsmen did not cut corners, They worked carefully, and they took care with every aspect of their work. Every part of the product was considered, and each was designed and made to be exactly as it should be. These craftsmen did not relax their thoughtful self-discipline even with respect to features of their work that would ordinarily not be visible. Although no one would notice if those features were not quite right, the craftsmen would be bothered by their consciences. So nothing was swept under the rug. [pp 20-21]
Parallels are uncanny in the way that both books address Scientific Management, but Soulcraft found a very interesting quote from one of Ford’s biographers
So great was labor’s distaste for the new machine system that toward the close of 1913 every time the company wanted to add 100 men to its factory personnel, it was necessary to hire 963. (pg 42)
Small wonder then that Ford was forced to double the wages of the factory staff in order to retain workers. Of course this has since been spun as Ford wanting the workers to be able to afford the cars they were making, but it sure seems like it was a defensive move based on turnover.
Basic idea in the article is that things like bridge building are now fairly static. The types of bridges we know how to build are well codified and replicable. Not mentioned in the article is that novel bridges still have novel problems, but after a few mistakes the construction engineers seem to resolve most of the issues.
Software development is different because it keeps on changing. The article argues that 10 years ago the future seemed to involve UML and CASE tools, but that the current state of the art of software development (Agile) does not use either of them.
There is a constant refrain that occurs whenever people try to achieve anything
There must be an easier way
We learn this lesson at an early age and never forget it. The toy problems we are “challenged” with while learning always have an easy solution. Sometimes the easy solution is non-obvious and hard to find, but there is always a trick that makes solving the problem easy.
Unfortunately the world does not work this way — but we want to be tricked into thinking that it does.
- Finding the one food that will help the pounds melt away
- A pill that will cure all diseases
- The invisible hand of the market
- Buying a CASE tool to improve code quality
- Adopting Extreme Programming
- Thinking that Requirements Traceability makes systems better
Whether we think of these as “Silver Bullets” or a “Technological Fix”, it seems that we are hardwired to seek out simple solutions. In part this could be because we are so good at pattern recognition that we see a pattern where none exists.
All of this makes progress in software development difficult, because collectively we don’t want to believe how hard it is to deliver reliable systems. There has to be an easier way …
Is there a Mathematics Generation Gap
Calculators became affordable in the mid- to late-1970s. Students in the 1980s were taught by teachers who had learned mathematics without calculators, and could do basic mental arithmetic. Students today might be taught by a teacher who is himself unable to work out 37+16 without help. The consequences are neatly described in an “Alex” cartoon I have on my fridge about a proposal to ban the use of calculators in school. “Faced with home work which requires him to work out simple sums in his head today’s lazy seven-year-old will instinctively turn to the quick and easy method of arriving at the answer… i.e. asking his dad, who, embarrassingly also wouldn’t have a clue without a calculator.”
Implications of this could be interesting for software development. When there is a large part of the workforce unable to do simple calculations without the use of a “Guessing Box” I expect there will be a lot more errors in software. Or at least errors that can be attributed to the Garbage In, Garbage Out problem of the users (and developers) not having the basic skills to detect implausible answers from systems.
An older article from The Atlantic, on Management Myths. Telling comment from the viewpoint of Scientific Management
the science of handling pig iron is so great and amounts to so much that it is impossible for the man who is best suited to this type of work to understand the principles of this science, or even to work in accordance with these principles, without the aid of a man better educated than he is.
Worth a read if only for the historical perspective.