Baby, walk the walk

responded quickly to my little nudgeback earlier. And she’s sticking by her guns: But, dang it, this time I am not wrong.

Good on you, Dorothea. I like people who stand their ground. I rarely do so it’s very refreshing for me to see it in others. However, I have to respectfully disagree with your assessment that software can only be created by people who’ve done the work – walked the walk, so to speak. In some ways…, well, okay in some twisted ways, that’s the same as saying I can’t really understand what happens in the massage parlor business just from the explicit requirements given me by the Madame.

Good, well trained programmer/analysts are expert in interviewing clients and putting their words into requirements that other developers can follow. After you work in an industry for a while you pick up the talk, as I have with manufacturing; but you never need to actually do the work to get this understanding. It’s a question of meeting with the folks who are expert and knowing how to maximize their time. The key really is respect.

As for commercial software, at Sierra Geophysics, a petroleum industry software company, we would meet with engineers from the parent company, Halliburton, on a regular basis to check the requirements, and also to test out prototypes as well as review the manuals for completeness. We also had domain experts on site, which isn’t unusual for specialized software companies such as ours; but most of the requirements came from working directly with the clients.

When I worked at Skyfish, I also met with folks who ran airports and who manufactured planes to capture requirements from them. And our software was good because it was the only thing of value when the company crashed and burned.

If I had to walk the walk in each of these businesses in order to capture and document the requirements, as well as build the applications, I would be the first commercial pilot who knew how to drill oil wells, while working on an assembly line. (This in addition to being able to give a darn fine massage.)

Now, as Ralph mentioned in my comments, not all programmers can work with clients, or record requirements, and that’s cool, because not every programmer needs to. As long as everyone follows the spec, the application works.

The issue about having to be a domain expert in order to develop software just isn’t so. Not only that, it can be harmful to a company. A case in point: at one of the insurance company’s I worked with as a consultant, a group of insurance people who came over to the dark side and became programmers tried to convince management that it was impossible to document their application – too complex said they. You’d have to be a domain expert to understand.

Now, it is true that some of the calculations in the insurance industry put NASA to shame. However, the manager wasn’t buying it and called me in. His concern, rightfully, is that this group was about to split off into a separate company, forcing the insurance company to have to ‘contract’ for the software. The manager was a bit peevish about this because the insurance company had paid to develop the software in the first place.

I met with the manager as well as the lead developer and listened to the latter’s spiel about how the calculations were too complex to document, only a domain expert could understand them. He emphasized this by waving around an actuarial manual that could have killed a small dog if it landed on it. How to Intimidate Programmers, 101 – wave around a really big manual.

When he was done, I told him that if he could document the calculations within a programming language well enough so the computer could understand him, he could document them enough in English so I could understand them, because if I wasn’t a domain expert, then neither was the computer.

Ralph also weighs in on this subject.


Comments redux

Recovered from the Wayback Machine.

I’ve decided to re-enable comments for the weblog. Too quiet. At least the comment spams are a variation on the other email spam I get, and warblog baiting could become a favorite game of mine.

As for comments and their impact on writing and what we write – I found that web log statistics and page accesses provide more of a blunt assessment of writing than comments ever did.


Too much noise, too much chatter

A weblog I’ve been following forever is Dan Lyke’s Flutterby. Dave Winer pointed out an item at the Weblog User’s online discussion forum where Dan mentions that he’s been having problems with comments lately:

I always thought I wanted a daily readership of 10,000 or so, but recently I and my co-contributors made a few comments about the war, one of which ended up as on a popular Google search, and we’ve attracted some real schmucks to the comment areas, and I’ve gotten more than usual incoherent paranoid and frankly just dumb emails.

Almost every weblog I went to this weekend that had comments enabled had either comment spam, a comment war, or, as Dan calls them a comment from some “real schmuck” included. Junk, junk, junk. Nice junk, bizarre junk, or nasty junk, but junk.

Thanks to the efforts of the warbloggers and those who have pushed weblogging as the Next Great Thing, our intimate circles have been crashed. The digital termites have invaded. The days of thoughtful discussions on-topic within weblogs are over. Long live the flame, the spam, and the hit and run Google searcher who can’t resist a comment form.

Dan wistfully discusses the possibility of sneaking off somewhere and starting a new weblog among a small intimate group of friends. If you do Dan, make sure you turn off Google. And, invite me.

Personally, I’m beginning to think the thing to do is stop weblogging until the war is over, and the warbloggers have moved on. But I’m afraid it’s too late. Weblogging’s personal and intimate side has been lost.


Now, what were those requirements?

In a puckish piece of provocative titling, Dorothea boldly flings Why Software doesn’t Work out into the midst of a group of bloggers who are guaranteed to fall upon it, like ravenous dogs on a poor, defenseless baby bunny. If she continues this type of writing, I’m going to have to consider passing the Burning Baton of *Inciteful Blogging to D, I seriously am.

Dorothea writes about the eBook business and the Cult of Programmers who seem to want to have little to do with the actual users when it comes to designing software:

Even the Alan Cooper brigade doesn’t seem to favor (or even talk of) direct experience feeding into software design. Instead, developers sit around and imagine what real people in real jobs do. That such imaginings all by themselves are a vast improvement over what has gone before is a pretty strong indictment of software development, to my way of thinking.

(Adherents to the Cult of the Programmer too often display a lamentable contempt for the implicit knowledge in other professions, incidentally, while vociferously insisting that no one else in the world is capable of absorbing theirs. Definitely this is part of the problem.)

I’ve not worked in the eBook industry, but I have in the technology, government, manufacturing, aerospace, academic, energy, and finance industries and can assure Dorothea that the number one complaint from programmers in these fields is that we don’t have enough user requirements and access to the users. I’ve seen meetings where some poor user has walked in and had technologists tripping over themselves trying to get direct access to the person. Geeks on stampede is a scary sight.

My favorite example of getting close to the users was when I prototyped a touch screen application for a door manufacturing company in Wisconsin. Every day found me donning my head phones, to protect against the noise, and heading into the product line to test the previous day’s efforts. I used a set of hand signals co-developed with my clients to check their reception of the current efforts. Too hard to use? Thumbs down. Just right? Thumbs up. Confusing? Scratching head, with an occasional finger pointed at the screen and exaggerated shrugs of the shoulder. After I would brush the sawdust off my clothes, back I would head to the computer to incorporate the day’s feedback into the next iteration of the prototype.

Perhaps that’s the difference between my previous efforts and the eBook industry – not enough sawdust.

Dorothea also takes on the Cult of Programmers as she calls them (us?), and has some points:

Not to mention that the Cult of the Programmer mandates that Real Programmers be computer hobbyists from youth. Real Programmers are never ex-accountants or ex-typesetters. Heaven forfend they should be ex-secretaries! Like, er, me. Yes, I know the Cult of the Programmer is not exactly representative of the entire field, but it does wield significant and in my opinion excessive influence on commercial-programming and open-source practices.

Liz will attest that this does tend to happen. In fact, one of the differentiators between men and women in the computer field is that men tend to be computer hobbyists in their youth more than women. What’s interesting though is that men’s earlier exposure to playing around with computers doesn’t typically increase their chances of success with technology, academically or professionally.

I consider myself a Real Programmer, for whatever that’s worth, but I didn’t play with computers at an early age. Heck, I didn’t even enter the computer field until I was 28. Before that I worked in a succession of jobs, including secretary, insurance underwriter, and photo studio manager. One of my more unique jobs was steam pressing ties for the Britannica Tie Company in Seattle. It was my only union job, and we would all take our vacations at the same time in the summer because the heat would get too much and people would start passing out.

(I still catch myself checking out the press on ties when I pass a rack in a department store. Old habits die hard.)

I’ve also had too many waitress jobs to count. In fact, my first real job was when I was 15 and a runaway from home living in Salt Lake City. I lied about my age, pretty easy back then, and got a job in a diner working minimum wage and tips. It paid enough for my boarding house room, but just barely. I didn’t make much, but it was better than the alternative, which happened to be in the massage parlour that several of the other boarders worked in and tried to recruit me to.

I did check the parlour out once because my friends seemed to have so much money. The head of the parlour showed me around this classy place with saunas, and showers, and clean, brightly lit massage rooms. All the women wore immaculate pastel colored uniforms, were quite attractive and seemed very professional, as they moved briskly from room to room with their massage oil and fluffy white towels.

To demonstrate their work, she boss lady had one of the other masseuses give me a steam/salt massage in a cedar lined room, soft music playing in the background. It was an incredible experience, I can still feel it now. This convinced me that the operation was the real thing. However, just when I was ready to sign on the dotted line, the head of the parlor explained all the requirements of the job.

I wasn’t a prude by any means, and I’ll have to admit, I thought about the job requirements for some time, and waivered more than once about signing up. Eventually though, I stayed with my minimum wage job, providing food for business people who used to leave an extra quarter just because I smiled at them when I poured their coffee.

Of course, once I got my degree in CompSci and entered the field, I knew I’d never have to wait a table again, answer phones, or press ties. Or work under the nom de plume of Candy at the local House of Delights.

*not a misspell


Forests I have Loved (original)

As beautiful as Austerlitz is, it is a difficult tale based on the holocaust and leaves one filled with a sense of sad melancholy. This mood has only been enhanced by the essays of Woolf and Dillard, though, again, beautiful in their own right; and one doesn’t have to mention the news of the day, which is distinctly not beautiful. My spirits have been left as damp as the rainy day outside.

How grateful I felt then when I read Loren’s review of Wendell Berry’s A Timbered Choir tonight, not so much because of the poem and his interpretation, though both are lovely; it was Loren’s mention that he had never walked in a deciduous forest before that intrigued me as much as it surprised me. However, I shouldn’t have been surprised because Loren is from the Northwest, with mountains full of fir and pine . Beautiful forests, true. But you’re missing a treat if you don’t walk at least once in a forest in the fall when the leaves are changing about you.

By accident and restless choice I am the ultimate stone that gathers no moss and have lived all over this country, In each location, I’ve hiked whatever wilderness the area boasts, and one doesn’t truly know how beautiful this country is until you’ve walked the fields and forests, beaches and rivers.

In the Northwest, the wet rainforests of the Peninsula be-grudge every inch of path and at times you feel as if the forest will swallow you whole, so rich and close it is. If one is fanciful, and the rainforests generate fancy, one would think to look close at the bushes, to see if a set of eyes looks back. And cold water droplets down the back of one’s collar – a unique Northwest experience. Elsewhere in the region, the forests are less dense but no less wild, whether walking the foothills of Cascades, or the high hills of the Inland Empire.

As a break from the forests, one can walk the desert-like petrified forests, the rich meadows, or the beaches of the Oregon coast, getting lost among the rocks and the tidal pools, to climb sandy dunes and rocky cliffs. I have walked a thousand miles of Washington and Oregon through the years, every mile unique from the other 999.

In Arizona, the forests are in the north and consist mainly of Ponderosa and scrub pine. In the red rock country, the trees fight for a life among the rugged rocks, their green a brilliant counter-point to the rust reds of the ground, and the azure blue of the skies. In the Arizona deserts, one can turn about once, twice, and get lost if not careful, and during the summer, the wilderness is unforgiving of fools. But, oh the beauty of an Arizona desert in the Spring, with flowering cacti and cool breezes, snakes warming themselves in the sun, lizards scampering about. And the area is so rich with minerals that one can find entire valleys literally sprinkled with jasper or black or white onyx.

One might expect fierce wilderness in Vermont, but you’d be surprised. The entire state was clear cut at one time, and the trees are of a uniform sameness and type and size. But in the winter, when the snow is on the ground and the lakes are frozen, that’s when Vermont shines for me. The irony though is that there are few places to hike easily in Vermont. In the winter, on Grand Isle, the local high school opened its doors in the evenings for community members to walk the corridors, get a bit of exercise and socialize. When snow is 4 feet deep, you don’t just cut across country for a bit of a hike. Unless you’re a red fox.

Once, when I stayed at a bed and breakfast in the central part of the state, I found a trail made by a snow trailer and was able to walk to the top of the hill the B & B was next to. The day was sunny, and cold, and fresh snow was pure white, all about me. As I walked further and futher up the hill, all sounds fell away until the only thing you can hear is your own heart.

In Massachusetts there are miles of coasts to walk if you can find them. The water is warmer than the Pacific, but more temperamental, and there are few experiences finer than to stand on a beach during a summer storm in New England. Wet. Truly wet.

I prefer hiking, but its hard to resist the lure of the Emerald Necklace in Boston for walking – the series of connected parks that traverse the city. In Boston, you’re always aware that the streets you walk were once walked by the likes of John Hancock, Samual Adams, and Paul Revere. It was in one part of the Necklace that I walked along a stream and a red-tailed hawk landed on a branch only a few feet away. Right in the middle of the city.

In Montana, the green forest gives way to mile after mind numbing mile of cattle ranches before hitting rocky mountains that tear through the earth in jagged layers, dangerous to walk, beautiful to see. And In Idaho, the lakes rest like blue saphires nestled in verdant green velvet.

In Northern California, you can walk among Redwood trees so tall that no other life grows on the forest floor, because no sunlight ever makes it past the trees. In the distance you can hear birds singing, but not a sound at the forest floor. As you walk, you can reach out and pat a tree that was born about the time when Abraham gave birth to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

I could go on, but this story started on a discussion about forests of deciduous trees.

Here in Missouri, where mighty rivers have carved a culture unique to this region, of blues and banjos, where north and south meet and co-exist, this is a land of many faces: river fronts give way to wild mountain, which gives way to city, which gives away to parks absolutely unique in this country. One can walk every day in the year and still not touch all the trails and paths this state supports.

The mountains here are smaller than in the Northwest, but no less wild and no less fierce with brambles and tangles and rocks and soft clay ready to trip you up at every step. Here is where one is likely to meet white tailed deer and beaver and black bear in addition to squirrel and opposon and racoon. The birdlife is as rich as the landscape, with bluebirds and red cardinals and mockingbirds and finch, hawk, eagle, and red-winged blackbird, all within a few miles of the city.

Howver, the real magic in this simple land is to walk the same path in all seasons, to see the land in winter, only hinted at behind lush trees and bushes in the summer. To watch a whole valley suddenly become dusted with green after a spring rain, to stand at the edge of the forest and see color that would shame the finest painters as the leaves of dozens of different trees of different heights and shapes change into their autumn colors, of gold and rust, pink and scarlet, with a hint here and there of defiant, stubborn green. To stand beneath a canopy of trees as golden leaves cascade down around you.