February 25, 2006

...Learn TDD with Codemanship

I Am To Blame

Right now I'm getting a little frustrated with the way the UK is headed. In particular, I'm getting very frustrated with the way things are being run here in the UK - not just by the government and the civil service (who I reckon are the REAL government here), but by us all. Every man-jack of us is to blame. If we don't like the way our government runs things, then why did we vote for them? If we voted for them because there's no credible opposition, then why have we allowed that situation to arise? If the whole system of government and democracy isn't working, then whose fault is that?

Today, the UK appears to be sleepwalking into a nightmare. Month after month we creep ever closer to a police state, where the government asks the police what powers they want, and then they do everything in their power to grant them. Our personal freedoms, which have been enshrined in law since before we even had a parliament, are being gradually eroded. But, say Mr Blair and his New Labour cronies, it is for our own protection from the imminent perils of international terrorism. The real risk of death from terrorism is stastically lower than being struck by lightning, and yet we don't see emergency meetings and hasty legislation about the War on Lightning.

And what about our economy? Like all previous superpowers - and one current superpower - things are on the decline. The problem is that we've gotten just too comfortable for our own good. I know for a fact that people in the emerging economies - the superpowers of tomorrow, like India and China - are hungry for progress. They want to learn. They want to be better. More specifically, they want to be better than us so they can compete with us. Frankly, I get a sense that the majority of us here in the UK can't be bothered to do anything to up our game. The market has been tipped in our favour for so long, we're failing to realise that the rules have changed and that our livelihoods and our comfy lifestyle really is under threat. So lazy have we become that - instead of digging out the books and brushing up our knowledge and skills - we turn to the government (you know, the one we all think is rubbish) and ask them why they're not doing something about it. In the UK, we are spoiled children who rely on Mummy and Daddy to fix the games for us, rather than our actual ability to compete in a fair and open market.

As the world gets smaller and TV brings us face to face with the consequences of protectionism and imperialism around the globe, we have to learn to rely less and less on Mummy and Daddy. We may be lazy and effete, but we're not complete bastards. We may like cheap brand-name clothing, but nobody likes to think that their trendy trainers were made by children working 14 hour shifts for a few pennies in a dirty, dangerous sweatshop somewhere.

Quite rightly, people campaign for the balance to be restored, for fair trade, and for human dignity to be a higher priority in business. We just don't seem to get the connection with fair trade and competition. "Nobody said anything about foreigners doing my job!", millions of us exclaim when we read the next "10,000 UK jobs to go to Mumbai" headline.

And education isn't helping. I'm a great believer that you get what you measure. The flip side of this is that you need to be careful what you wish for. If successive governments go to the educators and say "we need better exam results", then that's exactly what the educators will deliver. All schools and exam boards are under considerable time and resource pressures, so they will naturally look for the least expensive way of achieving any goal they're set. The cheapest way of improving exam results is to make the exams easier. And, despite the protestations of people with a vested interested, THE EXAMS ARE EASIER. I've seen the exam papers. GCSE Maths last year was laughably easier than O-Level Maths was when I took it in 1986. And I know from looking at O-Level Maths papers from earlier years that my exams were easier than the ones sat by people ten years older than me.

I also know from looking at the exam papers that my Physics finals at University were considerably easier to pass than they were 10 years previously. But, to keep the department alive, they needed funding, so thickies like me were allowed to play at being Physics students. A decade earlier, I would have had to pull my socks up and do some actual work - an idea which, even now, is absolutely unthinkable.

All this gradual lowering-of-the-bar conspires to create generations of people who aren't as good at maths, or physics, or biology, or engineering, or computer science, or english language and literature, or French, or World History, and so on, and so on. It conspires to create successive generations of progressively less capable people. Our education has a profound effect on the quality of our lives when we leave school or University, and I refuse to believe that it's not had a profound effect on our society as a whole. While we become more and more reliant on science and technology, and while we become more and more affected by current affairs, politics, the media, the arts, and society as a whole, we are becoming less and less well-equipped to deal with it in any meaningful way.

What we're left with is generations of people who neither know nor care about anything of any import. Your average housewife today is far more likely to believe what she reads in Hello magazine than anything in New Scientist or The Economist. (Not that a housewife would ever think to pick up a copy of either.) You could argue there's no change there. But what's really frightening is that your average Prime Minister is more likely to believe Hello than anything his most senior scientific or economics advisors tell him. The government can do as they please, safe in the knowledge that we're too ignorant and lazy to do anything about it.

This is no grand conspiracy. The global corporations didn't make us this way (though they helped). No secret societies or lizard-like aliens hatched an evil plan. The military-industrial complex has always attracted stupid and ignorant people, so - while I have no doubt they have conspired - I sincerely doubt their designs on us will ever be realised, unless by pure blind luck.

No, the people who are responsible for this state of decay are us - and us alone. We're the ones sitting on our well-upholstered behinds eating cheesy nachos and watching re-runs of Friends while the world crumbles to dust around us. We're the ones turning up the air-conditioning while the ice caps melt. We're the ones pumping man-made poisons into our rivers and seas, and then relying on foreign doctors and nurses - who actually studied, while we were at a student party getting sh*t-faced on beer and marijuana - when that little lump turns out not to be so benign. We're the ones who sold plastic crap to our kids and brought them up on a diet of ADD-inducing E numbers and non-stop video game violence, and then complained because it's not safe to go out at night anymore.

Life, in many respects, is turning out to be rather like the plot twist in Fight Club. Only now am I beginning to realise that it was me all along. Take a good look around you, and you may well come to the same conclusion.

The next, and most obvious question, is: what are we going to do about it? And, more pressingly, what does any of this have to do with the price of onions?

Well, just as a final note, consider the microcosm of software development. Ghandi once said that we should be the change we want to see in the world. As a consultant and coach, I've spent quite a lot of my time telling other people how it should be done. The effects are varied, and largely unpredictable. Certainly, people don't do exactly what I tell them to do. Sometimes they ignore me completely. They're grown-ups, and in a free world they're entitled to do that.

But, as a consultant and coach, I pride myself - and it's one of the few things in which I'm lucky to take pride - on being able to walk the walk. And, unlike some consultants and coaches, I still like to do real coding on real projects. Partly to keep my hand in, but partly because there are times when - as a conductor frustrated by inexperienced musicians - you just have to grab the instrument off them and play it yourself. It's working on real projects, with real teams, doing real coding when I remember just how it looks from the other side. I remember why developers don't do as they're told. Usually it's because what they're being told to do is complete nonsense. Occasionally, someone like me comes in and gives them sagely excellent advice, but that's rare. Like abused cats who won't let anyone stroke them, developers instinctively run away from any advice meted out by so-called "consultants" like me.

What I remember most vividly, though, is the nature of working in a team. In a team, everything is everybody's fault. It might not feel like it at the time, but when you get the chance to reflect on problems that have held the team back, you soon realise that there was always something you could have done - either to avoid it, or to rectify it.

In extreme cases, if someone on the team is just a crappy developer, then you have to ask: why did you hire them? If hiring them wasn't your decision, then you have to ask "why not?" If you hired them because there was no credible alternative, then you also have to ask why that should be so. If there aren't enough good developers out there, what could you have done about that? And if you think your project is being badly managed, why don't you manage it? And if they won't let you manage the project, ask yourself "why is that?"

In some eXtreme Programming tomes, the authors have told stories about team members deliberately taking the blame to diffuse situations where the teams were too busy figuring whose fault a problem was to do anything practical about solving it. I think they should ALL have t-shirts with "it was me" printed on them, and they should ALL have to wear them ALL the time.

Now, as with all authors who rant and rave and try to put the world to rights, I'm just as bad (if not worse) than most. So, my belated New Year's resolution - along with quitting smoking (again) and switching to red wine (again) and getting more exercise (er - again, honest) - is to try to remember that WE ARE ALL EQUALLY TO BLAME.

To help me in this quest, I have resolved whenever I see myself in the mirror (a traumatic experience by itself) to take a moment to point and say "you bastard!", and then to beat myself vigorously with whatever stick-like object is close to hand. I strongly recommend you do the same on your team. I may even get around to doing something about some of these things that I am equally to blame for. (Although I think perhaps I should learn to crawl before I can walk.)
Posted 14 years, 11 months ago on February 25, 2006