The Outhouse and the Mall

Wear­ing the soft­ware en­gi­neer’s hat: Code is the most triv­ial and the least­ im­por­tant part of a fea­ture.

—Michael Ia­trou

Michael tweet­ed that, I replied, he replied, but what the heck, I think ­some­times things can be bet­ter ex­plained in more than 140 char­ac­ter­s, thus this ­post [1].

So, why the mall and the out­house? Be­cause when we talk about soft­ware and code and fea­tures, we are not all talk­ing about the same thing. Imag­ine if I told you that bricks are triv­ial. Af­ter al­l, they have ex­ist­ed in their cur­rent form for t­hou­sands of years, they are pret­ty sim­ple to man­u­fac­ture, and have no in­ter­est­ing fea­tures, re­al­ly, ex­cept a cer­tain re­sistence.

Now, sup­pose you are build­ing an out­house. Since you are a fun­ny guy, you wan­t ­to build an ac­tu­al brick out­house so you will use bricks to do it.

Now, since bricks are so bor­ing, you may feel com­pelled to be­lieve bricks are the least im­por­tant part of your ed­i­fice, and that the over­all de­sign is more im­por­tan­t. Should you carve a moon-shaped hole in the door? How deep should the la­trine be?

How­ev­er, that po­si­tion is fa­tal­ly flawed, since if you ig­nore those triv­ial, ­bor­ing brick­s, all you have is shit in a hole in the ground. That is be­cause you are con­sid­er­ing the bricks as just a mean to your end. You on­ly care about the bricks in­so­far as they help you re­al­ize your grand out­house vi­sion. I am here to tell you that you are wrong.

The first way in which you are wrong is in that ar­ti­fi­cial sep­a­ra­tion be­tween means and end­s. Ev­ery­one is fa­mil­iar with the eth­i­cal co­nun­drum about whether the ends jus­ti­fy the mean­s, but that’s garbage. That’swhat you say when you try ­to con­vince your­self that do­ing things hap­haz­ard­ly is ok, be­cause what you do is just the means to what­ev­er oth­er thing is the end. Life is not so eas­i­ly di­vid­ed in­to things that mat­ter and things that don’t.

Your work, your cre­ation is not just some ide­al iso­lat­ed end to­wards which you ­trav­el across a sea of dirty mean­s, try­ing to keep your sil­ver ar­mour clean. It’s one whole thing. You are cre­at­ing the mean­s, you are cre­at­ing your goal, y­ou are re­spon­si­ble for both, and if you use shod­dy brick­s, your out­house should shame you.

In the same way, if you do crap­py code, your fea­ture is de­meaned. It may even ­work, but you will know it’s built out of crap. You will know you will have to ­fix and main­tain that crap for years to come, or, if you are luck­y, ru­in your kar­ma by dump­ing it on the head of some poor suck­er who fol­lows your step­s.

I am pret­ty much a ma­te­ri­al­ist. If you re­move the code, you don’t have a fea­ture, or soft­ware, you have a con­cep­t, maybe an idea, per­haps a de­sign (or ­maybe not) but cer­tain­ly not soft­ware, just like you don’t have a brick out­house with­out pil­ing ­some damn bricks one on top of the oth­er.

I al­ways say, when I see some­one call­ing him­self a soft­ware en­gi­neer, that I am mere­ly a soft­ware car­pen­ter. I know my tool­s, I care about them, I use them as well as I can ac­cord­ing to my lights [2] and I try to pro­duce as good a piece of fur­ni­ture as I can with what I am giv­en.

This tends to pro­duce hum­ble soft­ware, but it’s soft­ware that has one re­deem­ing fea­ture: it knows what it should do, and does it as well as I can make it. For ex­am­ple, I wrote rst2pdf. It’s a pro­gram that ­takes some sort of tex­t, and pro­duces PDF files. It does that as well as I could ­man­age. It does noth­ing else. It works well or not, but it is what it is, it has a pur­pose, a de­scrip­tion and a goal, and I have tried to achieve that goal with­out em­bar­ras­ing my­self.

My pro­grams are out­hous­es, made of care­ful­ly se­lect­ed and con­sid­ered brick­s. They are not fan­cy, but they are what they are and you know it just by look­ing at them. And if you ev­er need an out­house, well, an out­house is what you should get.

Al­so, peo­ple tend to do weird stuff with them I nev­er ex­pect­ed, but that’s just the luck of the anal­o­gy.

But why did I men­tion malls in the ti­tle? Be­cause malls are not out­hous­es. Mall­s are not done with a goal by them­selves be­yond mak­ing mon­ey for its builder­s. The ac­tu­al func­tion of a piece of mall is not even known when it’s be­ing built. Will this be a Mc­Don­ald­s, or will it be a com­ic book store? Who knows!

A mall is built quick­ly with what­ev­er makes sense mon­ey­wise, and it should look b­land and recog­nis­able, to not scare the herd. It’s a build­ing made for ­pedes­tri­an­s, but it’s in­tend­ed to con­fuse them and make the path form A to B as ­long and me­an­der­ing as pos­si­ble. The premis­es on which its de­sign is based are all askew, cor­rupt­ed and self­-­con­tra­dict­ing.

They al­so give builders a chance to make lots of mon­ey. Or to lose lots of ­money.

Nowa­days, we live in an age of mall soft­ware. Peo­ple build star­tup­s, get ­fi­nanc­ing, build crap­py soft­ware and some­times they hit it big (Twit­ter, ­Face­book) or, more like­ly, fade in­to ob­scu­ri­ty leav­ing be­hind noth­ing at al­l, ex­cept mon­ey lost and sad pro­gram­mers who spent nights cod­ing stuff noone will ev­er see or use, and not much else.

Far from me say­ing star­tups are not a no­ble or wor­thy en­deav­our. They are! It’s just that peo­ple who work on them should re­al­ize that they are not build­ing ­soft­ware. That’s why code does­n’t look im­por­tant to them, be­cause they are ac­tu­al­ly sell­ing eye­balls to ad­ver­tis­er­s, or col­lect­ed per­son­al da­ta from their users to who­ev­er buys that, or cap­tive pub­lic for game de­vel­op­er­s, or what­ev­er y­our busi­ness mod­el says (if you have one!).

They are build­ing mall­s, where the val­ue is not in the build­ing, which is pret­ty ghast­ly and use­less by it­self, but on the peo­ple in it, those who rent space in­ the mal­l, those who will use the mal­l, the soft­ware, the so­cial net­work, what­ev­er it is you are build­ing.

Twit­ter is not soft­ware, Face­book is not soft­ware. If they were, iden­ti.­ca and ­di­as­po­ra would be big­ger! What they are is peo­ple in one place, like a mall is not a re­al build­ing, but a col­lec­tion of peo­ple un­der a roof.

So, there is noth­ing wrong with build­ing mall­s. Just re­mem­ber that your ends and y­our means are one and a whole, that code is im­por­tan­t, that with­out code ­Face­book and Twit­ter don’t work, and that with­out peo­ple they are a bad­land, and ­know what you are do­ing.

Be­cause the on­ly hard thing in life is know­ing what you want to do. The rest is the easy part. And be­cause malls with­out toi­lets suck.

[1] If you really want to see the whole conversation, it’s here: http://bettween.com/ralsina/iatrou (if anyone knows a better conversation tracker please post it in a comment).
[2] Yet here I am, an Engineering Manager at Canonical. Sorry guys!

Comments

Comments powered by Disqus
Contents © 2000-2013 Roberto Alsina
Share