Our opposable thumb makes us all professional mechanics, doesn’t it?!?

Usage of duct tape

Duct tape on Apollo 17, courtesy of Nasa

After watching the video of Uncle Bob’s Clean Code presentation at NDC 2009 last Friday, I’ve thought a bit about the paradox in which our profession lives, especially in light of the recent debate around testing ignited collaterally once again by Joel Spolsky’s blog post. This  paradox is interesting, because it is multifaceted.

Facet 1: most of the companies prefer to deal with many cheap, sloppy programmers instead of investing in a few very good programmers.

Facet 2: despite all the knowledge about software development is easily available a) on the internet b) in multiple ways and c) at a very convenient price (if not free), most of the developers don’t learn much after the university and don’t take any pride in exercising their profession.

Facet 1 may be a side effect of the whole “IT Doesn’t Matter” phenomenon: if investing in IT doesn’t give you anymore a competitive advantage, then maybe it’s not worth investing in the best developers you can find, but just in “developers”. While I generally agree with Carr, especially with regards to “simple” tasks like Office Automation or building corporate websites, there are still huge areas of inefficiency where IT can play a significant role. Maybe it will not give you a significant advantage over your competitors, but it can still save you a lot of money. I personally know a few examples in the logistics domain, but unfortunately I cannot disclose any details because of existing NDAs. Let’s just say that we are talking about many millions of dollars of savings because of problems that in theory have been solved already at the beginning of the nineties. IT wouldn’t matter, if only it was applied and used consistently!

I have also experienced personally the 10x productivity factor: I have seen sloppy programmers being 10x slower than good programmers (not exceptional programmers, just good ones), whose salary wasn’t even nearly 10x bigger than the former ones (let’s be optimistic, let’s talk about 30-40% more). So, it still seems kind of dumb to resolve to hire mediocre people, especially when you are a medium-large company: you certainly have bigger capacity to absorb inefficiencies, but those numbers are starting to be so big, that unbelievable amounts of money go down the drain just because of this. Having said that, there are not nearly enough good programmers in the world and it seems that HR and head hunters have just given up. Sidenote: I happen to know many good programmers and all of them are having a successful career, so it seems that there is always a need for good programmers, at least in this continent. Good programmers, people who care, please don’t give up!

Is there a cause-effect relationship between 1 and 2? I don’t think so. It seems simply that there is a bit of pressure to level software development discipline. I’m sure that this is not the intent of Joel Spolsky, quite the contrary, but singing an ode to the duct tape programmer, even when the programmer is a good one, doesn’t seem the smartest idea to me. Put duct tape in the hands of an exceptional programmer and he’ll do great things. Put duct tape in the hands of a sloppy programmer and he’ll do an awful job. Have you ever seen a participant to Canada’s Worst Handyman assembling a shelf?

For some reasons, everybody thinks he/she can program, even without the appropriate knowledge or background. After some practice in Excel, everybody can certainly write VBA macros (and do a terrible job anyway), but it’s like saying that because everybody can use a wrench then we are all professional mechanics. I guess it’s all about perception, so a lot of people oversimplify the complexity behind implementing and maintaining a code base for any significantly complicated business problem. I’m not saying that every software programmer needs to be as good as Ward Cunningham, but in my mind there is a clear trend towards embracing more and more people in the industry with less and less capable minds. Even worse than that: a lot of programmers seem simply to not care at all.

What is wrong about letting more people get into software development? Generally speaking, nothing – assuming that the complexity at hand has been reduced over the years, thanks to astonishing advancements in tools and technologies. To some degrees this is true: the things that we can do today would have been virtually impossible twenty years ago, but during the same period of time the industry has just raised the bar, tackling more and more complicated problems. The revolution that started with personal computing isn’t just done yet.

Hence, we need smart people, willing to learn new things every day, constantly looking for ways to improve their work. It’s like having your legs solidly planted in today’s problems, but your eyes are always looking at tomorrow.

Duct tape is an exceptional tool when you need to fix something quickly and for whatever reason you don’t have access to the appropriate tool, knowledge, etc. Maybe sometimes you leave duct tape in place for years (hell, my plastic pipe that conduct warm and humid air from the dryer outside of my house sticks into its place thanks to duct tape), but this is generally not a good solution, capable of lasting for a long time. Sooner or later somebody will have to come and clean the mess that the duct tape expert has left. Two, three times a year I have to replace the duct tape because it simply wears out over time: it’s annoying and I would have fixed it already if I wasn’t renting my house.

There may be specific situations where this is tolerable, but not in much broader terms. And yet, there seems to be a tendency to underestimate the effects over time of such short-sighted decisions in our profession. Is it a tolerance to mediocrity? Are we all getting dumber?

Think about it this way: would you accept to have a sloppy pediatrician taking care of your child’s health? Would you go into the surgery room with a mediocre surgeon? Would you put your life on the line in a judicial trial with an incompetent lawyer? Would you trust an ignorant plumber to do the plumbing of your house? Etc., the examples are endless. We are not talking about NASA-like situations – these are more or less very common problems.

The point is that you would NOT. And yet, many managers and entrepreneurs, even when they are technical, do with software development what they would not do in their personal lives. Is it because it’s not their personal wealth or beloved ones at stake?

I’ve always found that the best managers and entrepreneurs are the ones which know the difference between cost and investment. There is no return from a cost, but there better be from investments. If you are on the upper side of the food chain, which return do you expect from the developers working for you? How can you maximize it? But if you are on the lower side: how can you provide value to your company? How can you be always on top of your profession?

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3 Responses to “Our opposable thumb makes us all professional mechanics, doesn’t it?!?”

  1. Luca Minudel Says:

    > So, it still seems kind of dumb to resolve to hire mediocre people,
    > especially when you are a medium-large company: you certainly have
    > bigger capacity to absorb inefficiencies, but those numbers are starting
    > to be so big, that unbelievable amounts of money go down the drain just
    > because of this. Having said that, there are not nearly enough good
    > programmers in the world and it seems that HR and head hunters have
    > just given up.

    I’m thinking for a while about self-reproductive teams: team build with all top programmers, that reach the hyper-performance level and then can absorb junior/intermediate devs and take them up to spedd quickly. Or plit start new teams in the company with the same process/practices/hyper-productive state

  2. uberVU - social comments Says:

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by thinkingbox: Blogged: Our opposable thumb makes us all professional mechanics, doesn’t it?!? http://bit.ly/2zRePd

  3. xpmatteo Says:

    I think this state of affairs is because of the length of the feedback loop. It may take years between doing a sloppy programming work and becoming aware of the damage. There are many ways to pretend you’re on top of a programming job when in fact you’re performing poorly.

    I think the power of XP and Agile is in letting problems bubble up sooner rather than later. This, unfortunately, can be detrimental to the good programmers in the short term!

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