December 1, 2017
Don't Succumb To "Facebook Envy". Solve The Problem In Front Of YouA trend that's been growing for some time now is what I call "Facebook envy". Dev teams working on bread-and-butter problems seem almost embarrassed not to be solving problems on the scale Facebook have to.
99.9% of developers are not working at this scale, and are never likely to. And yet I see a strange obsession with scale that too often distracts teams from more pressing problems.
I use the analogy of a rock band obsessing over how their songs can be arranged for a 90-piece orchestra for a performance at the massive O2 Arena in London, and failing to prepare for their upcoming gig in the bowling alley at the back of the local pub.
Of course, we hear the stories about tech start-ups who didn't prepare for greatness and discovered that their architecture didn't scale. We hear those stories precisely because of the pervasiveness of those businesses in our lives after the fact. Just like all the stories we read about how bands became mega-successful, because who wants to read about bands that didn't? History is written by the winners.
What we don't hear about is the other 999/1000 tech start-ups who did prepare for greatness and wasted their time and their money doing it.
Before a tech start-up needs to scale, it needs to survive. Surviving means solving the problems that are in front of you. By all means, keep one eye on the future - a sense of direction's important. But not both eyes.
It's a similar thing to cash flow. Sure, your product may be super-profitable eventually. But if you can't pay your staff and keep the lights on in the meantime, you won't be there to collect.
The best way to scale-proof your start-up is to solve today's problems in a way that doesn't block you from adapting to tomorrow's. This is why I work so hard to persuade teams to focus on the factors that make software and systems hard to change, instead of on trying to anticipate those changes at the start. It tends to make the end product far more complicated than it needed to be, and things rarely turn out the way you planned.
Some common technologies are inherently scalable, too. Indeed, these days, most technology stacks are, even if it takes a bit more imagination to achieve it. Facebook are the best example of this. Who'd have thought, 12 years ago, that PHP and MySQL would scale to a billion users? Facebook solved the problems that were in front of them. They didn't adapt those technologies speculatively... just in case they ended up with a billion users.
If you use scalable technologies, design your architectures in such a way that they would be easy to partition if needed (i.e., separate concerns cleanly from the get-go), and - most importantly - deliver code that can be changed when new times require it, then you'll be able to solve today's tangible problems and keep the door open to tomorrow's intangible possibilities.
November 19, 2017
Everything Else Is DetailsFor pretty much all my freelancing and consulting career, I've strongly advocated driving software development directly from testable end user goals. I'm not talking here about use cases, or the "so that..." art of a user story. I'm talking actual goals. Not "reasons to use the software", but "reasons to build it in the first place".
Although the Agile movement has started to catch up, with ideas like "business stories" and "impact mapping", it's still very much the exception not the rule that teams set out on their journey with a clear destination in mind.
Once goals have been established, the next step is to explore and understand the current model. How do users currently do things? And this is where a see another classic mistake being made by dev teams. They build an understanding of the existing processes, and then just reproduce those as they currently are in code. This can bake in the status quo, making it doubly hard for businesses to adapt and improve.
The rubber meets the road when we work with our customers to build a shared vision of how things will work when our software has been delivered. And, most importantly, how that will help us achieve our goals.
The trick to this - a skills that's sadly still vanishingly rare in our industry - is to paint a clear picture of how the world will look with our software in it, without describing the software itself. A true requirements specification does not commit in any way to the implementation design of a solution. It merely defines the edges of the solution-shaped hole into which anything we create will need to fit.
I think we're getting better at this. But we're still very naïve about it. Goals are still very one-dimensional - typically just focusing on financial objectives - and fail to balance multiple stakeholder perspectives. The Balanced Scorecard has yet to arrive in software development. Goals are usually woolly and vague, too, with no tests we could use to measure how we're doing. And - arguably our biggest crime as an industry - goals are often confused with strategies and solutions. 90% of the requirements specs I read are, in fact, solution designs masquerading as business requirements.
This ought to be the job of a business analyst. Not to tell us what software to build, but instead to describe what problem we need to solve. What we need from them is a clear, testable vision of how the world will be different because of our software. What needs to change? Then our job is to figure out how - if possible - software could help change it. Does your team have this vision?
I continue to strongly recommend that dev teams ditch the backlogs (and any other forms of long-term plans or blueprints), sit down with their customers and other key stakeholders, and work to define a handful of clear, testable business goals.
Everything else is details.
July 18, 2017
Why Don't We Eat Our Own Dog Food?You may already know I'm a big advocate of developers eating our own dog food.
Using the software we create as real end users, in the real world, provides insights that no amount of meetings or documentation can provide.
A quick straw poll I ran on Twitter suggests 2 out of 3 of us haven't actually used the software we're working on for real.
Devs: have you used the software you last worked on a release of as an *end user*?— Codemanship (@codemanship) July 15, 2017
I've been banging this drum for years, for a largely reluctant audience. Managers say "Our users aren't happy with the latest release" and ask me what can be done. And I say "Walk a mile in your customer's shoes". And they say "Thanks for that. But no."
It's such a simple thing to do, and yet somehow so very hard. There's something psychological going on, I reckon. The same reason most hotel chain employees have no idea what it's like to be a customer in their own hotels...
I urge you to try it. Now.
March 6, 2017
Start With A Goal. The Backlog Will Follow.The little pairing project I'm doing with my 'apprentice' Will at the moment started with a useful reminder of just how powerful it can be to start development with goals, instead of asking for a list of features.
As usual, it was going to be some kind of community video library (it's always a community video library, when will you learn!!!), and - with my customer role-playing hat on - I envisaged the usual video library-ish features: borrowing videos, returning videos, donating videos, and so on.
But, at this point in my mentoring, I'm keen for Will to get some experience working in a wider perspective, so I insisted we started with a business goal.
I stipulated that the aim of the video library was to enable cash-strapped movie lovers to watch a different movie every day for a total cost of less than £100 a year. We fired up Excel and ran some numbers, and figured out that - in a group with similar tastes (e.g,, sci-fi, romantic comedies, etc) - you might need only 40 people to club together to achieve this.
This reframed the whole exercise. A movie club with 40 members could run their library out of a garden shed, using pencil and paper to keep basic records of who has what on loan. They could run an online poll to decide what titles to buy each month. They didn't really need software tools for managing their library.
The hard part, it seemed to us, would be finding people in your local area with similar tastes in movies. So the focus of our project shifted from managing a collection of DVDs to connecting with other movie lovers to form local clubs.
Out of that goal, a small feature list almost wrote itself. This is how planning should work; not with backlogs of feature requests, but with customers and developers closely collaborating to achieve goals.
It's similar in many ways to how TDD should work - in fact, arguably, it is TDD (except we start with business tests). When I'm showing teams how to do TDD, I advise them not to think of a design and then start writing unit tests for all the classes and methods and getters and setters they think they're gloing to need. Start with a customer test, and drive your internal design directly from that. Classes and methods and getters and setters will naturally emerge as and when they're needed.
When I run the Codemanship Agile Software Development workshop, we do it backwards to illustrate this point. Teams are tasked with coming up with internal designs, and then I ask them to write some customer tests afterwards. Inevitably, they realise their internal design isn't what they really needed. Stepping further back, I ask them to describe the business goals of their software, and at least half the teams realise they're building the wrong thing.
So, my advice... Ditch the backlog and start with a goal. The rest will follow.
December 28, 2016
The Best Software Developers Know It's Not All 'Hacking'A social media debate that appears to have been raging over the Xmas break was triggered by some tech CEO claiming that the "best developers" would be hacking over the holidays.
Putting aside just how laden with cultural assumptions that tweet was (and, to be fair, many of the angry responses to it), there is a wider question of what makes a software developer more effective.
Consider the same tweet but in a different context: the "best screenwriters" will spend their holiday "hacking" screenplays. There's an assumption there that writing is all there is to it. Look at what happens, though, when screenwriters become very successful. Their life experiences change. They tend to socialise with other movie people. They move out of their poky little downtown apartments and move into more luxurious surroundings. They exchange their beat-up old Nissan for a brand new Mercedes. They become totally immersed in the world of the movie business. And then we wonder why there are so many movies about screenwriters...
The best screenwriters start with great stories, and tell their stories in interesting and authentic voices. To write a compelling movie about firefighters, they need to spend a lot of time with firefighters, listening to their stories and internalising their way of telling them.
First and foremost, great software developers solve real problems. They spend time with people, listen to their stories, and create working solutions to their problems told in the end user's authentic voice.
What happens when developers withdraw from the outside world, and devote all of their time to "hacking" solutions, is the equivalent of the slew of unoriginal and unimaginative blockbuster special effects movies coming out of Hollywood in recent years. They're not really about anything except making money. They're cinema for cinema's sake. And rehashes of movies we've already seen, in one form or another. because the people who make them are immersed in their own world: movie making.
Ironically, if a screenwriter actually switched off their laptop and devoted Xmas to spending time with the folks, helping out with Xmas dinner, taking Grandma for a walk in her wheelchair, etc, they would probably get more good material out of not writing for a few days.
Being immersed in the real world of people and their problems is essential for a software developer. It's where the ideas come from, and if there's one thing that's in short supply in our industry, it's good ideas.
I've worked with VCs and sat through pitches, and they all have a Decline Of The Hollywood Machine feel to them. "It's like Uber meets Moonpig" is our equivalent of the kind of "It's like Iron-Man meets When Harry Met Sally" pitches studio executives have to endure.
As a coach, when I meet organisations and see how they create software, as wel as the usual technical advice about shortening feedback cycles and automating builds and deployment etc, increasingly I find myself urging teams to spend much more time with end users, seeing how the business works, listening to their stories, and internalising their voices.
As a result, many teams realise they've been solving the wrong problems and ultimately building the wrong software. The effect can be profound.
I'll end with a quick illustration: my apprentice and I are working on a simple exercise to build a community video library. As soon as we saw those words "video library", we immediately envisaged features for borrowing and returning videos, and that sort of library-esque thing.
But hang on a moment! When I articulated the goal of the video library - to allow people to watch a movie a day for just 25p per movie - and we broke that down into a business model where 40+ people in the same local area who like the same genres of movies club together - it became apparent that what was really needed was a way for these people to find each other and form clubs.
Our business model (25p to watch one movie) precluded the possibility of using the mail to send and return DVDs. So these people would have to be local to wherever the movies were kept. That could just be a shed in someone's garden. No real need for a sophistated computer system to make titles. They would just need some shelves, and maybe a book to log loans and returns.
So the features we finally came up with had nothing to do with lending and returning DVDs, but was instead about forming local movie clubs.
I doubt we'd have come to that realisation without first articulating the problem. It's not rocket science. But still, too few teams approach development in this way.
So, instead of the "It's like GitHub, but for cats" ideas that start from a solution, take some time out to live in the real world, and keep your eyes and ears open for when someone says "You know what's really annoys me?", because an idea for the Next Big Thing might follow.
December 8, 2016
What Do I Think of "Scaled Agile"?People are increasingly asking me for my thoughts on "scaled agile", so I though I'd take a quiet moment to collect my thoughts in one place.
Ever since that fateful meeting in Snowbird, Utah in 2001, some commercially-minded folk have sought to "scale up" the Agile brand so it can be applied to large organisations.
I'll give you an example of the kind of organisation we're talking about: a couple of years ago I was invited into a business that had about 150 teams of developers all effectively working on the same system (or different versions of the same system). I was asked to put together a report and some recommendations on how TDD could be adopted across the organisation.
The business in question was peppered throughout with Agile consultants, Scrum Masters, Lean experts, Kanban experts, and all manner of Agile flora and fauna.
Teams all used user stories, all had Scrum or Kanban boards, all did daily stand-ups, and all the paraphernalia we associate with Agile Software Development.
But if there was one thing they most definitely were not, it was agile. Change was slow and expensive. There was absolutely no sense of overall direction or control, or of an overall picture of progress. And the layers of "scaled Agile" the managers had piled on top of all that mess was just making things worse.
It's just a fact of life. Software development doesn't scale. Once software projects go above a certain size (~$1 million), chaos is inevitable, and the best you can hope for is an illusion of control.
And that, in my considerably wide experience of organisations of all sizes attempting to apply agile principles and practices, is all that the "scaled agile" methods can offer.
I've seen some quite well-known case studies of organisations that claim to be doing agile at scale with my own eyes, and they just aren't. 150 teams doing scaled agile, it turns out, is just 150 teams doing their own thing, and on a surface level making it look like they're all following a common process. But they're still dogged by all the same problems that any organisation trying to do software development at scale is dogged by. You can't fix nature.
Instead, you have to acknowledge the true nature of development at scale; that these are highly complex systems, not conducive to overall top-down control, from which outcomes organically emerge, planned or not.
Insect colonies do not follow top-down processes. A beehive isn't command and control, even if it might look to the casual observer that there's a co-ordinated plan they're all following. What's actually happening is that individual bees are responding to broadcast messages ("goals") about where the pollen, or the threat, can be found, and then they respond according to a set of simple internalised rules to that message, co-operating at a local level so as not to bump into each other.
In software development teams, the internalised rules - often unspoken and frequently at odds with the spoken or written rules - and the interactions at a local level determine what the outcomes the system will produce. We call these internalised rules "culture". Culture is often simple, but buried so deep that changing the culture can take a long time.
In particular, culture round the way we communicate and collaborate tends to steer the ship in particular directions, regardless of which direction you point the rudder. This is a property of complex adaptive systems called "strange attractors".
Complex systems have a property called "homeostatis" - a tendency, when disturbed, to iteratively revert back to their original dynamic state, as determined by their strange attractors. Hence, a heartbeat can rise to more than 150 bpm, but will eventually return to a resting heart rate of about 70-80 bpm.
We can apply external stimuli to a system to try and change the way it performs, but the intrinsic properties of the agents within that system, and particularly their interactions, will ultimately determine the outcome.
Methods like SAFe, LeSS and DAD are attempts to exert top-down control on highly complex adaptive organisations. As such, in my opinion and in the examples I've witnessed, they - at best - create the illusion of control. And illusions of control aren't to be sniffed at. They've been keeping the management consulting industry in clover for decades.
The promise of scaled agile lies in telling managers what they want to hear: you can have greater control. You can have greater predictability. You can achieve economies of scale. Acknowledging the real risks puts you at a disadvantage when you're bidding for business.
But if you really want to make a practical difference in a large software development organisation, the best results I've seen have come from focusing on the culture: what do people really value? What do people really believe? What are people's real habits? What do they really do under pressure?
You build big, complex products out of small, simple parts. The key is not in trying to exert control over the internal workings of each part, but to focus on how the parts - and the small, simple teams who make them - interact. Each part does a job. Each part will depend on some of the other parts. An overall architecture can emerge by instilling a set of good, practical organising principles across the teams - a design culture, like we have in the architecture of buildings, for example. The teams negotiate with each other to resolve potential conflicts, like motorists on our complex road systems trying to get where they need to go without bumping into each other.
Another word for this is "anarchy". I advice you not to use it in client meetings. But that is what it is.
I think it's very telling that so many of the original signatories of the Agile Manifesto have voiced scepticism - indeed, in some cases been very scathing - of "scaled agile". The way I see it, it's the precise opposite of what they were trying to tell us at Snowbird.
This is why, as a professional, I've invested so much time in training and coaching developers and teams, rather than in management consulting. I certainly engage with bosses, but when they ask about "scaled agile" I tell them what I personally think, which is that it's a mirage.
November 13, 2016
Think About Workflows Before You Think About FeaturesSunday morning's often my time for doing admin and logistical-type stuff, like booking flights or trains or hotels.
Today I searched for a hotel near a client's offices, then booked through the chain's website. After that I copied and pasted the hotel's address to search on Google Maps for a decent restaurant nearby, and then pasted the restaurant's name into Trip Advisor to see reviews. Satisfied, I then pasted the hotel's postcode into an app for booking a taxi to the client site on the first morning because it was 2 miles away (and I find walking to strange places in strange towns a bit risky on the first day).
Finally, I searched on Trainline and booked reserved seats, because it's way cheaper to do in advance.
In all, I used 6 different websites:
1. Google Maps (to find a hotel near client offices)
2. Hotel website to book a room
3. Google Maps again to find a restaurant nearby
4. Trip Advisor to see reviews of the restaurant
5. Restaurant website to reverse a table for dinner
6. Taxi booking site
7. Trainline to find and reserve seats for a return journey
And it occurred to me that there was a lot of browser tabs and copying and pasting involved, creating the impression of some kind of workflow.
This workflow sits above the use cases of Google Maps, the hotel's website, Trip Advisor, the restaurant's website, the taxi booking site, and Trainline.
We can visualise how this workflow maps on to the 6 different software systems involved, using a simple technique borrowed from the book Business Modeling with UML (and even as I type this, I'm copying and pasting the URL to the book, part of yet another higher-level workflow):
The reason I'm mentioning all of this is three-fold: firstly, if I were designing these systems, I would find this kind of context very useful. Right now, to move from one step in the workflow to the next, I have to open a new browser tab, go to the right web page, and paste in data from a previous step. Clunky! Studying these real world workflows can help us to smooth out these kinks. For example, if we found that 50% of people who book hotel rooms on our site then go on to search for nearby restaurants, we could add a link that will take us straight to Google Maps and fill in the data for us.
Secondly, and more importantly, when software design's done right, we start by thinking about business goals and about business workflows, not system features. This technique helps us to identify system use cases from the outside in, starting with the business context. That's as it should be.
And thirdly, it makes good business sense, when we're designing applications, to ask ourselves "where are the user's coming from?" Have they just booked a hotel? Did they just book a flight? Work your way backwards and build relationships with the developers of software that might - indirectly via search engines, perhaps - be sending users our way, so we can work with third parties to smooth that path. And, likewise, smooth the user's path to downstream activities in their workflow. What are they likely to want to do next? In sales and marketing, it's essential to understand what triggers buyers' needs, so you can pitch your tent right outside that triggering event, so to speak. There's a reason why late-night petrol stations sell flowers and firelighters, and it has absolutely nothing to do with selling petrol.
Arguably, this is how the web should work now. Not links to content, but controls for triggering actions in other people's systems - an event-based (rather than content-based) model. But it doesn't. So we'll have to hand-wire that sort of thing ourselves.
And this isn't just relevant to web-based workflows, of course. An end-to-end sales scenario in your company many involve multiple workflows, enacted using multiple systems. Work to understand those workflows, and smooth the user's path from one step to the next. See them copying and pasting data from one system to another? That's a hint that there's more automation to be done.
November 8, 2016
Business Benefits of Continuous Delivery: We Need Hard DataSomething that's been bugging me for a while is our apparent lack of attention to the proclaimed business benefits of Continuous Delivery.
I'm not going to argue for one second that CD doesn't have business benefits; I'm a firm believer in the practice myself. But that's just it... I'm a believer in the business benefits of Continuous Delivery. And it's a belief based on personal and anecdotal experience, not on a good, solid body of hard evidence.
I had naturally assumed that such evidence existed, given that the primary motivation for CD, mentioned over and over again in the literature, is the reduced lead times on delivering feature and change requests. It is, after all, the main point of CD.
But where is the data that supports reduced lead times? I've looked, but not found it. I've found surveys about adopting CD. I've found proposed metrics, but no data. I've found largely qualitative studies of one or two organisations. But no smoking gun, as yet.
There's a mountain of data that backs up the benefits of defect prevention, but the case for CI currently rests on little more than smoke.
This, I reckon, we need to fix. It's a pillar on which so much of software craftsmanship and Agile rests; delivering working software sooner (and for longer).
Anything that supports the case for Continuous Delivery indirectly supports the case for Continuous Integration, TDD, refactoring, automation, and a bunch of other stuff we believe is good for business. And as such, I think we need that pillar to unassailably strong.
We need good data - not from surveys and opinion polls - on lead times that we can chart against CD practices so we can build a picture of what real, customer-visible impact these practices have.
To be genuinely useful and compelling, it would need to come from hundreds of places and cover the full spectrum of Continuous Delivery from infrequent manual builds with infrequent testing and no automation, to completely automated Continuous Deployment several times a day with high confidence.
One thing that would of particular interest to Agile mindsets would be how the lead times change over time. As the software grows, do lead times get longer? What difference does, say, automated developer testing make to the shape of the curve?
Going beyond that, can we understand what impact shorter lead times can have on a business? Shorter lead times, in of themselves have no value. The value is in what they enable a business to do - specifically, to learn faster. But what, in real terms, are the business benefits of learning faster? How would we detect them? Are businesses that do CD outperforming competitors who don't in some way? Are they better at achieving their goals?
Much to ponder on.
April 30, 2016
Goals vs. ConstraintsA classic source of tension and dysfunction in software teams - well, probably all kinds of teams, really - is the relativity between goals and constraints.
Teams often mistake constraints for goals. A common example is when teams treat a design specification as a goal, and lose sight of where that design came from in the first place.
A software design is a constraint. There may be countless ways of solving a problem, but we chose this one. That's the very definition of constraining.
On a larger scale, I've seen many tech start-ups lose sight of why they're doing what they're doing, and degenerate into 100% focusing on raising or making the money to keep doing whatever it is they're doing. This is pretty common. Think of these charities who started out with a clear aim to "save the cat" or whatever, but fast-forward a few years and most - if not all - of the charities' efforts end up being dedicated to raising the funds to pay everybody and keep the charity going.
Now, you could argue that a business's goal is to make money, and that they make money in exchange for helping customers to satisfy their goals. A restaurant's goal is to make money. A diner's goal is to be fed. I give you money. You stop me from being hungry.
Which is why - if your organisation's whole raison d'être is to make a profit - it's vitally important to have a good, deep understanding of your customer's goals or needs.
That's quite a 19th century view of business, though. But even back then, some more progressive industrialists saw aims above and beyond just making a profit. At their best, businesses can provide meaning and purpose for employees, enrich their lives, enrich communities and generally add to the overall spiffiness of life in their vicinity.
But I digress. Where was I? Oh yes. Goals vs. constraints.
Imagine you're planning a trip from your home in Los Angeles to San Francisco. Your goal is to visit SF. A constraint might be that, if you're going to drive, you'll need enough gasoline for the journey.
So you set out raising money for gas. You start a lemonade stall in your front yard. It goes well. People like your lemonade, and thanks to the convenient location of your home, there are lots of passers-by with thirsts that need quenching. Soon you have more than enough money for gas. But things are going so well on your lemonade stall that you've been too busy thinking about that, and not about San Francisco. You make plans to branch out into freshly squeezed orange juice, and even smoothies. You get a bigger table. You hire an assistant, because there's just so much to be done. You buy a bigger house on the same street, with a bigger yard and more storage space. Then you start delivering your drinks to local restaurants, where they go down a storm with diners. 10 years later, you own a chain of lemonade stalls spanning the entire city.
Meanwhile, you have never been to San Francisco. In fact, you're so busy now, you may never go.
Now, if you're a hard-headed capitalist, you may argue "so what?" Surely your lemonade business is ample compensation for missing out on that trip?
Well, maybe it is, and maybe it isn't. As I get older, I find myself more and more questioning "Why am I doing this?" I know too many people who got distracted by "success" and never took those trips, never tried those experiences, never built that home recording studio, never learned that foreign language, and all the other things that were on their list.
For most of us - individuals and businesses alike - earning money is a means to an end. It's a constraint that can enable or prevent us from achieving our goals.
As teams, too, we can too easily get bogged down in the details and lose sight of why we're creating the software and systems that we do in the first place.
So, I think, a balance needs to be struck here. We have to take care of the constraints to achieve our goals, but losing sight of those goals potentially makes all our efforts meaningless.
Getting bogged down in constraints can also make it less likely that we'll achieve our goals at all.
Constraints constrain. That's sort of how that works. If we constrain ourselves to a specific route from LA to San Francisco, for example, and then discover half way that the road is out, we need other options to reach the destination.
Countless times, I've watched teams bang their heads against the brick wall trying to deliver on a spec that can't - for whatever reason - be done. It's powerful voodoo to be able to step back and remind ourselves of where we're really headed, and ask "is there another way?" I've seen $multi-million projects fail because there was no other way - deliver to the spec, or fail. It had to be Oracle. It had to be a web service. It had to be Java.
No. No it didn't. Most constraints we run into are actually choices that someone made - maybe even choices that we made for ourselves - and then forgot that it was a choice.
Yes, try to make it work. But don't mistake choices for goals.
April 23, 2016
Does Your Tech Idea Pass The Future Dystopia Test?One thing that at times fascinates and at times appals me is the social effect that web applications can have on us.
Human beings learn fast, but evolve slowly. Hence we can learn to program a video recorder, but living a life that revolves around video recorders can be toxic to us. For all our high-tech savvy, we are still basically hominids, adapted to run from predators and pick fleas off of each other, but not adapted for Facebook or Instagram or Soundcloud.
But the effects of online socialisation are now felt in the Real World - you know, the one we used to live in? People who, just 3-4 years ago, were confined to expressing their opinions on YouTube are now expressing them on my television and making pots of real money.
Tweets are building (and ending) careers. Soundcloud tracks are selling out tours. Facebook viral posts are winning elections. MySpace users are... well, okay, maybe not MySpace users.
For decades, architects and planners obsessed over the design of the physical spaces we live and work in. The design of a school building, they theorise, can make a difference to the life chances of the students who learn in it. The design of a public park can increase or decrease the chances of being attacked in it. Pedestrianisation of a high street can breath new life into local shops, and an out-of-town shopping mall can suck the life out of a town centre.
Architects must actively consider the impact of buildings on residents, on surrounding communities, on businesses, on the environment, when they create and test their designs. Be it for a 1-bed starter home, or for a giant office complex, they have to think about these things. It's the law.
What thought, then, do software developers give to the social, economic and environmental impact of their application designs?
Having worked on "Web 2.0" sites of all shapes and sizes, I have yet to see teams and management go out of their way to consider such things. Indeed, I've seen many occasions when management have proposed features of such breath-taking insensitivity to wider issues, that it's easy to believe that we don't really think much about it at all. That is, until it all goes wrong, and the media are baying for our blood, and we're forced to change to keep our share price from crashing.
This is about more than reliability (though reliability would be a start).
Half-jokingly, I've suggested that teams put feature requests through a Future Dystopia Test; can we imagine a dark, dystopian, Philip K Dick-style future in which our feature has caused immense harm to society? Indeed, whole start-up premises fail this test sometimes. Just hearing some elevator pitches conjures up Blade Runner-esque and Logan's Run-ish images.
I do think, though, that we might all benefit from devoting a little time to considering the potential negative effects of what we're creating before we create it, as well as closely monitoring those effects once it's out there. Don't wait for that hysterical headline "AcmeChat Ate My Hamster" to appear before asking yourself if the fun hamster-swallowing feature the product owner suggested might not be such a good thing after all.
This blog post is gluten free and was not tested on animals