Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Best Program according to Don Knuth

The Nerd TV interview with Andy Hertzfeld contains another interesting bit. According to Don Knuth, MacPaint was possibly the best program ever written:

I have another anecdote that has to do with Open Source and the Macintosh. In January, 2004, the Computer History Museum had a little presentation about the marketing of the Macintosh with all the original Macintosh marketing team up on the stage. And a large percentage of the rest of the Mac team in the audience. They had a Q&A toward the end and an older guy got up and said he thought MacPaint was probably the best program ever written. Was it possible for him to see the source code? It turns out the person asking the question was Don Knuth - another one of my heroes. He came up to me afterwards.

Andy Hertzfeld on GNOME

I remember buying the Eazel T-shirt to show my appreciation for the folks who had shown the earliest signs of good taste in the free desktop world, back when I thought that the Linux desktop was going to make a huge impact. Raph's SVG work which resulted in the first SVG icons on the desktop were pretty cool, Nautilus generally seemed to be a notch above the rest as far as polish and attention to detail were concerned. Then came the crash and Eazel dissapeared. In an interview with Nerd TV Andy Hertzfeld explains what they set out to do and how things have actually turned out with GNOME.

We were just building on top of Gnome. Our goal was to make Linux easier to use and part of that is work on the GUI side of things and part of that was work on system management. We evaluated the alternatives and ended up picking Gnome. We built something called Nautilus, a new file manager. I never thought of it as a file manager, I'd call it a graphical shell. We got about halfway done what we wanted to. It's just disappointing we never got to take it as far as we wanted.

It is still used. If you install Gnome on your machine you'll be installing Nautilus. It has drifted away… it didn't live up to its potential. It still has some good stuff in it, but he people who took it over did not have much forward thinking vision. They ended up, "when all else fails just copy Windows." So it has kind of drifted into that modality.

The 37 Signals Way

I remember 37 signals vaguely as the company that the Ruby on Rails guy works for and they seem to generate quite a buzz from time to time with bloggers, for reasons that I have never cared to investigate. That is until I listened to a podcast - "Lessons learned while building BaseCamp" by Jason Fried, the founder of 37 signals recorded at the O'Reilly emerging technology conference earlier this year. What blew me away was the refreshing approach to software development these guys have and how cogently it was articulated. While Jason Fried himself admits inspiration from Agile programming, I think it deserves attention on it's own merits, and for being able to set out a bunch of actionable items. Putting a new spin something that many people might know or might be obvious to others is not without merits, there is always value in re-packaging good 'old' ideas.

The semi-transcription/notes from the talk:

The talk revolves around four main themes :
  1. Reducing Mass
  2. Embrace Constraints
  3. Getting Real
  4. Managing Debt
Reducing Mass
Mass could be people, high overheads, long term contracts etc. It's difficult to change with more mass, and being able to change is extremely important for any product development process. Find the right people -we look for people with certain level of skills. But, beyond a certain point it is not about skills alone, it's not about how many years experience you have with PhotoShop, it's not about bullet points. You need to work with people that are positive most of the time. In a small team of four one disgruntled person can bring down the whole team. Morale is incredibly important when building a product.You have to have people who are excited about what they are doing and are positive about what they are doing. Jason advocates hiring people who are well rounded, and can do multiple things. Don't hire someone who is just a programmer, or an information architect, or a designer, or a marketing person, especially on small teams. Hire people who can learn quickly new things (like AJAX) and apply it quickly.Hire Trustworthy people - trustworthy does not mean people who lock the doors at nights and remember to turn off the lights. It's very important that you don't have to cleanup after that person. The person you want to hire has to be a good writer - A programmer, or a designer, or a marketing person all have to be good writers, because of how people communicate with each other to each other these days - they don't talk that much to each other these days, they IM/email each other all the time. You have to find people who can communicate by writing. Jason's bottom line for hiring people - I will take someone who is happy and average, rather than someone who is a Guru, who is the best in the business, but is disgruntled and frustrated. Such people will bring down the team in the long run.

Once you have put in the team in place, you have put in the constraints. Most companies instead of embracing constraints start thinking, we don't have enough money - let's raise more money, we don't have enough people - let's hire more people, and so on. Don't do that! Look at your problems and come up with creative solutions. Embrace those problems, and don't push them under the rug. Some of the constraints that 37 signals had to deal with when building BaseCamp:-

Prior commitments: 37 signals was still a web design shop and initially BaseCamp was about 20% of the time spent. David Hanson the only programmer on the project was still in school and was committed to some of his own free lance work as well. We didn't put everything down and say 'let's focus on BaseCamp'. We made sure that the time spent on base camp is valuable time. The time difference between Chicago and Copenhagen (where Mr.Ruby on Rails lives) is seven hours -On paper it looks like disaster - we decided it was a good thing, you communicate mostly through IM and email. When you talk through IM, you have to be really specific. You chunk things into small pieces and you move on. We are self-funded. Spending money should be the hardest thing that you ever do. Make sure that every penny that you spend is a hard penny to spend. That will ensure that you end up making much better decisions and you spend money in better places. And finally having a small team - we had a team of three people, one programmer, and two designers. People in smaller teams have more power, you can't hide behind twenty other people.Everyone has to do something. It ensures that everyone cares about the product. These were constraints that were put upon us and there are ones that you can put on yourself. Building less software - that's the constraint that we decided to impose on ourselves. It's not about building feature-by-feature, but less features intentionally. When you have less software, you lower the cost of change.

Managing the opportunity for things to go wrong is the key thing. Less support is required. Technical support will kick your ass - It will destroy you. We don't advocate hiring a bunch of people to do technical support. You want to build something that is manageable. Outsourcing tech support is a bad thing. Finally, you also want to encourage human solutions. Less software, less features means less rigidity which means that people have to come up with their own way of dealing with the product. We all hate the paper clip guy in the corner - you should give people enough to solve their problems in their own way and then get out of the way.Ta-da list is an example - a really simple to-do manager.You look at the patterns in the users behavior and maybe there is an opportunity there to improve the product based on how people use it, based on real product use, not fake paper mock-ups etc. Look for usage patterns in a real environment and add a feature if it turns out to be necessary or if people ask for it. It's always better to start with less than more. The idea of building less software leads to the next idea - how do you do releases - You release half-a-product, not a half-assed product. There should be no scope creep, only scope reduction.Everyone is doing a beta these days and that's ridiculous, Everything is a work in progress and continue to improve it , have confidence in your product.

How to do scope reduction
Say No, by default, to all new features. You want to listen to the people who are using it. Your customer base will tell when you need to add something. If you get ten requests, then it's a "maybe", if you get twenty then it is stronger (demand), thirty requests - then probably it is something you need to add. Listen to your product, and listen to your customers. Say No by default, see where the gaps are, observe the usage patterns before deciding to add a feature. You will build a better product based on real data.
You want to ignore details early on - you can spend a week on something that doesn't really matter. A lot of small things that you think matter don't really matter. Take care of the big picture first. Fill in the details close to the release. If you have time before the release make existing stuff better instead of adding new features. The idea that every minute should be spent on a new feature is a bad idea. Focus on what you have - make it rock solid, make it bullet proof, make it great. There is always room to add stuff later.

All decisions are temporary. You should be able to change all decisions that you make, in theory - realistically you should be able to change almost all. You can change decisions if you have less mass. You want to make decisions that you can change, every decision should be temporary. You should should take decisions just in time - You should make decisions when you have real information to take a decision.

Make mistakes in the open, admit it to customers and fix it quickly. Jason admits that this is not applicable to every kind of project. It applies to web based software, especially the UI portion. Make small changes, iterate often.

Getting Real
We don't do functional specs, we don't do diagrams, we don't spend a lot of time doing use cases, we don't spend a lot of time doing things the customer will never see or never use. We want to be in front of the customer experience close to 100% of the time.If it takes four months to make a product I want to spend 3.9 months in front of the actual product.I don't want to slap user experience at the end. That's what happens when you are talking about these functional specification documents - functional specs are political documents.They are documents used to blame one another - it was supposed to work this way,it doesn't etc.It's also an illusion of agreement. Someone will say inevitably - "that's not what I intended".Well you signed off on it and politics starts. The design is the functional specification - programming needs to follow the user interface. When you are in front of your interface all the time, it is almost like your version 1.0 is someone else's version 2.0, because you are constantly tweaking real user experience that is not based on paper prototypes - people always have something to offer when they see the real thing. You are postponing those inputs by writing functional specs. Build simple things for all users including expert users.

Managing Debt
Manager your debt - If you have earned debt through some ugly hacks, pay it off as soon as possible by setting the code right. Don't get stuck in hardware or software that you can't change.

Making most decisions just in time
Japaneses factories that have just what they need, use new or better parts. Just in Time systems allow people to make better products. Scalability is a myth. If you are a yahoo or a google, then you really need to worry about it. If something is slow for 2 weeks, it is slow for 2 weeks. It's OK to make mistakes in public. BaseCamp was running on a single server and was being used by thousands and thousands of users, till about three months back. Then we switched to 2 boxes and we are in the process of switching to eight. If you invest too much money and effort up front setting up a cluster and you don't need that for 12 months you have wasted an awful lot of money and you could have spent the time on something more valuable. Admin interfaces are another - don't spend time on writing stuff that will generate extensive reports and what not. Actual customer experience first. BaseCamp is free for 30 days. We couldn't bill anyone in the beginning;figured it out after a while. Make decisions when you have the real information, not before.

Feeling the Hurt
The people who build the product should do the tech support on the product for as long as possible. Jason still doing tech support and he owns the company. I want to know what's right, what's wrong. 37 Signals get only forty emails a day - simple product that is well designed. Don't want to get the same emails over and over again. Chefs have to be waiters in certain restaurants.

Publicity Amplifiers
Here are some publicity amplifiers - for getting the word out about your product. With no marketing budget,no PR budget,no money, how to get the word out ? Lace the product with feature food - features that users use and spit out small little features and people tell others about it. Small little features that users eat and spit out all over the place. In BaseCamp you can subscribe to your feature milestones via Ical. We talked to mac sites about it - this news blurb generated tons of traffic and tons of sales. Same feature is available via RSS as well - the blog world loves RSS. The Yellow Fade technique generated about 325 references on google. This small technique generated more buzz than the product itself. Hold back some features, and do it 30 days after launch. It will show that there is momentum happening. people will really love that and it shows your commitment to the product - You didn't build a product only to move on to something else.

Transparency and Trust
If you make a mistake, tell people.We made a mistake and had to be manually in front of our servers for forty hours. No data was lost and we had to re-start the server constantly. We could have hidden that;but, we posted a long explanation - lot of people trust us now.

Blog as much as possible about your product. Google will send lot of traffic your way.

Question from the audience:
How do you work with David Hanson (who is in Denmark) ?
Jason: We use BaseCamp to do 8-10 hr iterations in order of priority - we don't worry about what will happen eight months down the road.

Looks like Ruby on Rails is not the only thing to come out a small software startup with less than half a dozen employees.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Bruce Eckel on Consulting

Great post from Bruce Eckel on consulting. His definition:

"I think consulting is when you have some kind of special expertise -- come by through hard struggle and learning -- that you transfer to a group of people, in a relatively short period of time, and in a way that is unique for that group. I also think that consulting involves addressing particular issues faced by that group. "

He also addresses a very common industry phenomenon:

"It's tempting to make the analogy to a ponzi scheme, but it's not that bad. Both forms of a consulting firm (first-class consultants only vs. high-tech body shop) have value. The problem is the temptation to present the second form as the first, in order to apply the same high fees of the first-class consultant to each additional body added to the shop. The goal of the company becomes "how do we transfer the aura of authority from the high-image consultant(s) to anyone who works for us, so that we can charge the highest fees possible?" Or to simplify, at some point the bean-counter mentality takes over and the mission statement of the company goes from "how do we provide the greatest value to the customer?" to "how do we charge the highest fees possible?" (You can argue that this is the fundamental shift that any publicly-held company goes through. After all, a public company is legally beholden to maximize shareholder value, so how could it be otherwise?)"

I have noticed this myself, when I was working in Boston during the tail portion of the dot-com years. I was chatting to an Indian body shopper who was a sub-contractor for Andersen Consulting; While Andersen made $450 plus per hour, this sub-contractor got about $70 - You can imagine how much would have trickled down ultimately into the pockets of the programmers, who were paraded as Andersen consultants to clients.

Another nugget from the article:

But advice that appears to be rational does not necessarily solve real design problems, as we saw in the "structured design" movement of the 70's. This seems to happen over and over in our industry -- it's easy to focus on one aspect that seems to be "the solution" and miss the big picture, and to produce unintended consequences that eliminate the benefit of what may seem so clear in isolation.

Slash Wisdom

From an "Ask Slashdot" posting titled "Uneducated IT Managers, and How to Deal ?", I found this gem posted by Pope Benedict XVI ;-) :

"It's just about impossible to find a job working for someone whom you respect. "

To me, that about summarizes the crux of the problem with working in the IT industry. But strangely this nugget of wisdom has been marked as funny, instead of insightful, or some such. Setting the filter at four and reading reveals more insightful comments. Slashdot, for it's flaws, sometimes throws up insights that knock out your breath momentarily, or better still has the reader in splits - Some of the trolls are outrageously funny without being crude or offensive.

Wisdom of the commons, or shall we say, Slash Wisdom !

Monday, August 08, 2005

Joel on Software Writing

A few interesting points ( mostly paraphrased) from a forty minute interview with Joel Spolsky on software writing:

  • Most software writing is awful. There is a high correlation between successful software and writing.
  • Programmers are used to writing code for compilers; compilers don't care about order. Humans comprehend stories - can't give them a bunch of definitions and tie it together. Most programmers, who write for compilers , don't know how to write for human brains.
  • There is an awful lot of writing there about technology, even internal functional specifications that just doesn't get read, because regular people don't understand it.
  • At Fog Creek software (Joel's company) they ask for writing samples, not necessarily technical stuff from all candidates. Because we (Fog Creek) really do find that the ability to communicate clearly and effectively, is the crucial difference between an acceptable programmer and a great programmer that can work on teams, and get their ideas understood by the world.
  • Once you make software that mediates between humans, then the design decisions in the software have anthropological implications. In Joel's latest book, Danah Boyd talks about some websites that require a strict social relations - such requirements are pathological, not normal. People are actually creating software and websites that require you to conform to a set of behaviors that in the real world would get you incarcerated.
  • Paul Graham's assertions about great hackers - they use open source, they don't use Java etc flies in the face of facts. But his essays are beautifully written. Joel said his hands start shaking whenever there is a new post on Paul Graham's site.
  • Phil Windley asks an interesting question about whether it is opninions that make software writing interesting. Joel says that's where the value is being added (in opinions) and goes on to add that with great respect to the American journalistic tradition of objectivity, the only thing it results in is lot of cnet's news.com, that is very bland, that reproduces a lot of press releases , or they get someone from Sun to say something about Microsoft's announcement.
  • According to Joel, the number one rule of technical writing is, "Show, don't tell". Technical writers violate that rule so often. So much technical writing reads like mathematical proof - all the information is here, if you can decipher it, you can understand it. That kind of stuff doesn't get read unless it has to get read. The stuff that people read are the ones with stories in it. Human beings are story tellers. We have been telling stories around camp fires for hundreds of thousands of years - that's what out brains are good at and that's we enjoy, that's why TV is popular and that's how messages get into our head.
  • When people started using PC's there was lot of piracy, lot of the books were just shovelware. Companies were trying to make the books as fat as possible. At one time software could not be used without books. It was not until the GUI generation and much later, that software companies realized that they don't have to produce the manuals at all. These days some of the best books are the ones written to explain the domain in which software is used. Quick Books' manuals, for example, teach you a lot about the basics of book keeping.
  • Amazon ratings are not accurate and are not done by professional people ( I personally disagree with this sweeping characterization). Joel said that there were folks with axes to grind who wrote reviews on Amazon and gave the example of a Microsoft techie, whose book got bad ratings, because he used to be aggressive in some news groups.
  • If you are a computer programmer, put yourself in another person's mind - what do they know at any given time ? Try to answer the questions in their minds in the order in which they are having it. If you write a document the reader first with what the document is about, and start answering the questions that they might have in their minds.
  • Some of the great functional specs are written like a story.
  • Blogging is a good way to exercise the writing muscle. Joel noted that he had gotten a bit over defensive in his writing of late.

Saturday, August 06, 2005


Your brain does not use RPC to talk to your pancreas.
-Werner Vogels, CTO, Amazon.com

The talk titled E-commerce at the interplanetary scale is good, but a lot of it went over my head, especially the stuff about Epidemics; but he did admit that he was a recovering academic ;-) .

Friday, July 29, 2005

Miguel de Icaza on on J2EE domination

Miguel explains in an interview why J2EE has such a stranglehold in the application server market:

There is a segmentation of the application server space, which is the high-end market, the mid-market, and the low market. The low market is anything that costs less than $200,000 to develop and deploy. It includes every technology that you’ve heard of. Then you’ve got the high market, which is any project where the cost of deployment is over two million dollars, and in that market J2EE is firmly entrenched. There is no other technology considered today in that application space. In part that’s because people need to have multiple vendors providing the same solutions, so they like the fact that there’s BEA and there’s IBM and there’s Sun. There’s different J2EE providers. There’s also different hardware providers. So that market is very hard for Microsoft to penetrate.

"That leaves the mid-market, which today is about 50% Java, with the other 50% made up of ASP.NET, and a couple of other proprietary frameworks."

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Adam Bosworth on a new data model for the web

Following the excellent presentation by Michael Tiemann at the MySQL user's conference organized by O'Reilly media, itconversations has posted another great presentation - this time by Adam Bosworth at the same conference. The talk titled "Database requirements in the age of scalable services" and Adam Bosworth explains his vision to make data access on the web simple and standards based, and why he thinks RSS 2.0/Atom are the beginning of the unfolding of that vision.

The presentation starts with a joke about 'Microsoft Project' - Bosworth says he is amused to hear about people using Microsoft Project and how it is Microsoft's secret weapon to stop everyone else from competing. Some of the points I noted down while listening to the podcast.

  • Everything looked irrelevant to AB after he got excited about the web.
  • How did the web happen ? Tim Berners Lee hit a perfect storm of productivity and using HTML, HTTP any 'P' (Perl, Python, PHP) programmer could generate content. Simple was huge and everybody could play with HTML and HTTP. HTML is sloppy - everything is rendered
    without a complaint. It takes a licking and keeps on ticking. You don't have to be the high priest of syntax. But that's not the case with XHTML - and that's not a good user experience. Web pages could read/edited on all operating systems
  • Databases are not good at partitioning - partitioning of data is very important to scalability. But the web does a good job of this, by distributing data. The web is also good at caching - At google they
    observed 120,000 hits per second on a certain blog and the only reason the infrastructure didn't melt down was due to the amount of caching done on the web by proxies, front ends and google's own front end. Statelessness - the coarse grained interaction is also another reason for the scalability of the web. Clients talk to servers in terms of chunks of data: go to data when you are ready, not
  • Google combines lot of simple minded techniques with brute force to deliver. Google has lots of Ph.D's and everyone is a General Patton driving tanks. Take the spell check that google does when you type in an incorrect (or sometimes correct) search string - it's based on the very simple technique of tracking failed searches and what users type in after a failed search. This kind of brute force enables google togo through petabytes of data in seconds.
  • Once you start to search, this whole business of putting things in folders begins to diminish in importance. It's very hard with folders to remember where you put what. Folders are not efficient, searchesare.
  • The Vision is to take the database and do the same thing for the web (as was done for content). Can we take all the info on the web andmake it easily findable ? Now you get content, not information.
  • Need something that scales massively and linearly. Originally thought that we would do it using XML. We created a tower of Babel (with XML) - websites need to support only one grammar with HTML. A working group took four years to come up with a spec for a XML Query standard. It's
    better to spend six months and learn the rest from customers. The query standard was not simple like the web - the schemas were very complicated. AB also found the WS specs to be very complicated. Why did this happen ? The companies that came up with these standards were big and were trying to protect themselves. They were people at companies like IBM and MS. Frankly, they were trying to make it deliberately hard
  • AB apparently is a technical advisor to MySQL and had some advice for them as well: Basically MySQL is trying to be Oracle by adding support for procedures, triggers, and views. All of this is about centralizing processing logic in the database. To be blunt centralizing processing logic in the database is a bad idea - doesn't scale. Centralizing logic doesn't give you scale. Advice to MySQL - don't do something because you want to be Oracle. Because Oracle isn't big enough andcan't deliver on billions of queries.
  • We need an Open model for data. What's not open today is how you talk to a database - the actual wire format. There is nothing like HTML/HTTP for data. This is a very 20th century way of thinking. Open up wire formats to serve any kind of information - this will bring enormous changes to computing centered around data. Need open standards for different types of items with one single grammar. It will have to be sloppy. Open up and democratize the way data isserved.
  • Big believer in stupidity - virtues of dumbness.
  • We are actually starting to realize this vision - RSS2.0/Atom are going to be for data what HTML was for content. They are going to be the Lingua Franca of consuming data. Surprisingly simple and sloppy. These guys got the web and that's why it is catching on like wild fire. Atom was formed by a consortium of bloggers and the two formats areisomorphic.
  • Data queries have to be such that they don't need data spread across machines - if a query uses data from four machines, it isn't going to work very well. Queries need to run at an item level - it's not
    technically as complex as sql
  • AB made it emphatically clear that he was not talking about the semantic web and called RDF an empirical failure. RSS 1.0 had an RDF grammar, RSS 2.0 doesn't have an RDF based grammar. Ordinary programmers do not understand how to model something as arcs, nodes,and graphs
Update: Looks like the O'Reilly network and ONLamp.com have also covered Bosworth's remarkable speech.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Michael Tiemann on Open Source

The peerless ITConversations.com features a talk by Michael Tiemann of RedHat, formerly of Cygnus and the guy who first wrote the GNU C++ compiler. Some interesting points from the talk:
  • In 1995, when MySql started (this was a talk at the 10th anniversary MySql conference), Tiemann had already turned over the reins of the company to a president at Cygnus; the company was then making $6 million in revenue and employed more than sixty people, disproving the fact that you cannot do business with open source. Larry McVoy was kicked out of Sun in the same year for advocating open source as a strategy.
  • McVoy brought to Tiemann's notice a small company in North Carolina called Redhat - Tiemann advice to acquire a stake in that company was ignored and five years later, Redhat bought Cygnus.
  • It took him two years to figure out how to do business with open source.
  • Tiemann addressed the question of why OSS had succeeded and drew an analogy with the observation made by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1830s, that the sum of all individual undertakings in America exceeded the efforts of the government.
  • Disruptive technology always comes from unexpected quarters.
  • Cost cutting is not always the most interesting question - there is always more upside to inreasing revenue than to cutting costs. There are limits to cost cutting, while there are none to increasing revenues.
  • The real value of architecture is when something comes along and it can be accomodated quickly. Explained the value of strategy with an example from a Wall St. firm - a strategy that was 10-20% different resulted in a ten-fold increase in growth.
  • According to research done at CMU, the Apache project has ten to fifteen people who do eighty five percent of the work. But the total number of people who contribute is closer to 400 ( 388 ?). It's this extra non-core contributions that add lot of polish and quality to the software. Tiemann asked a rhetorical question about going to a venture capitalist to ask for money to recruit all 400 developers. (I thought this was a particularly effective illustration of the role of a large pool of contributors - more about this aspect in a future post, if time permits)
  • Quoted Eric Von Hippel, faculty at MIT and the author of Democratizing Innovation, on the role of user participation in design. EVH in his book explains in his book how Jack Welch managed to make GE a leader in plastics by bringing in the concept of user design toolkits. Previously GE's business model made it possible to get into selected market segments, in fact the largest customers. Jack Welch said that GE doesn't need to be the exclusive designer of plastics - Why can't customers design their own plastics ? This idea of moving of moving the locus of design from the supplier to the customer resulted in 85% of the designs coming from the customers ultimately. MT then asked "What rational person would let go of this opportunity ?"
  • Drew some analogies between disruptive open source technologies and themes from the book "Guns, Germs, and Steel" by Jared Steel. (The analogies about the conquest of the native american population by the Spanish seemed out of place to me)
  • He recalled reading Stallman's code for the first time - first time he said, he saw good code. The architecture and implementation unfolded in one view.
  • He remarked that even the newly elected board of the OSI did not have a clue about the reasons for the success of open source. That's the territory that needs to be protected and grown. He urged the audience and sophisticated users to think about it.
  • Over 70% of all projects on sf.net are covered by the GPL or BSD style license.
  • Quoted designer Bruce Mau about the fact that design is not very visible unless there is a failure and used Micrsoft's out-of-control spending on security to conclude that the shared shared model was a design failure. Microsoft's spending on security in Jul 2002 was $100 million and in Mar'2005 $2 billion. At this rate they should end up spending the rest of their bank balance on security. MT contrasted this with the improvements in open source software. The Fuzz report noted a 20% failure rate in Unix utilities in 1985. In 1990, by which time the GNU tools had appeared, the failure rate was down to 25% of that of Unix tools. In the same period the Unix utilties/tools had not improved substantially. Later the failure rate of GNU tools went down to 2% and by 1996 the GNU tools were a 100% clean.
  • Software patents are the lead banner for massive stasis - it really means that innovation will stop for the next twenty years.
  • Referred to Bruce Mau's work which rejects the notion of a client-designer relationship. The notion of an open source license may be obsolete, when it tries to break the above law.
  • How to enage the plurality of potential contributions in OSS.
A recommended addition to your IPod/whatever. A very thought provoking lecture from a person who has written a compiler, founded a company, been a CTO - a man of many hats.

Update: Looks like Michael Tiemann gave a similar talk (pdf) at the Redhat summit.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Dave Winer on working groups

Dave Winer in a podcast explaining the evolution of RSS makes a interesting remark about working groups:

What happens when you put together a working group is that, you get people who like to be on working groups, not people who like to write software. And they have very different interests. They like to fly places, they like to have meetings, they like to discuss things, and discuss them again and again and again. They really like the discussions. They don't live to make the software. They want to make the discussions.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Links to articles in Joel Spolsky's book

Kiran Jonnalagadda has listed the links to the online versions of the articles that form the chapters in Joel Spolsky's book , The Best Software Writing.

I am a bit dissapointed though - it's nowwhere near Joel's other book that is based mainly on his personal experience as a developer and manager at Microsoft and other companies.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Tyranny of the degreed and pedigree'd

Sriram Krishnan lets off some steam about grades and getting a job in software companies. I have to agree with him and also sadly note that this particular article by Joel is not as good as many others that he has written. The desi obsession with grades, engineering degrees, and pedigree (IITs, RECs, etc) has now reached a point where it not only irritates and frustrates the truly bright(but who are not degreed and pedigreed folks), but is positively causing harm to the health of software companies.

Grades especially cannot be an indicator of problem solving ability or creativity in India! Why ? Because there is no examination system that the human mind can conceive of ,that, cannot be beaten by desis. Most institutions have a learn-by-rote learning system that squeezes out whatever little creativity and enthusiasm a young person entering college might have. More than any general arguments like these, I have encountered too many cases throughout school, college, and work, of friends and colleagues who have high grades or went to brand-name institutions, who are all too ordinary and in many cases have inferior problem solving skills, and in fact sap the morale of groups in which they work, due to the preferential treatment they get. I have to admit though that people with high grades tend to be careerists and 'get things done' types. Given the kind of work done by most indian software companies - mainly maintenance and enhancements, the get things done attitude find favours with managers dealing with demanding customers, mainly in western countries.

The other great desi obsession is with engineering degrees. A recent issue of Business World carried a discussion between HR heads of leading indian and MNC software houses, CEO of Mindtree and the head of the Indian School of Business , Hyderabad. The head of ISB and MNC HRs were all for diversity in the workforce - recruiting non-engineers, while the HR person from INFY played Bullshit Bingo, the chap from Mindtree typically blamed the educational system. Kiran Karnik, the head of NASSCOM surprisingly sounded rational . There seemed to a general recognition that the current policies were flawed at least amongst a section of the panel, with a MNC HR going so far as to say that recruting people who "fall through a round hole" is not good. I don't expect any change of heart on the part of indian HRs or managements. They are a reactive lot and might experience a change of heart only after losing a couple of deals to companies in Philipines, Sri Lanka or Vietnam. In any case how did this whole engineering fallacy start ? After all it is not confined to indian companies. Alistair Cockburn, the guy who started the whole agile thing , offers some fascinating insights into how software came to be regarded as an engineering subject in this interview with Doug Kaye of IT Conversations. It seems after the second world war , Physics was the most glamorous subject with very math-heavy topics quantum mechanics that started causing envy - "discipline envy" as Cockburn labels it. There were furious attempts to make every subject seem as mathematical as possible - and software development did not escape the attention of these folks who were suffering from discipline envy. The end result is a very contrived field called Computer Science/Engineering that helps many faculties with their tenure, and many airline companies make both ends meet . Paul Graham (himself a computer science Ph.D from Harvard) puts it beautifully :

I've never liked the term "computer science." The main reason I don't like it is that there's no such thing. Computer science is a grab bag of tenuously related areas thrown together by an accident of history, like Yugoslavia. At one end you have people who are really mathematicians, but call what they're doing computer science so they can get DARPA grants

Joel does point out the difference between software development and computer science/engineering.

So long as the work that was done was at the low end of the food chain, this didn't matter, but with increasing competition , increasing wage levels - the importance of creativity and problem solving skills is bound to become important in the near future - indian companies have to realize that software development skills cannot be the preserve of engineers or people with high grades. It's now possible to get software developers at 20-30% higher wages in some american states. Software developers in the US are not dumb and ultimately they will figure out a way to beat the cost advantage that Indian sw companies seemingly enjoy now. The cockiness and gloating attitude that results in a a shallow "software super power" attitude amongst many of our nouveau riche middle class folks sickens me. But hey why should I be bothered about the bigger indian companies, maybe a creative destruction of these behemoths will result in a true techie/hacker period of creativity in the Indian software market.

P.S. As you might have figured out by now, I don't have an engineering degree ;-)