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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!

jjconti / 2011-02-23 02:28:

Como traducís "outhouse"?

Roberto Alsina / 2011-02-23 02:29:

Que buena pregunta. Letrina?

jjconti / 2011-02-23 02:42:

Creo que no necesariamente tiene que ser urinario. Piecita del fondo... no. Cobertizo?

Roberto Alsina / 2011-02-23 02:44:

En inglés outhouse significa exclusivamente un baño exterior separado de la casa principal.

Matías G. Ventura / 2011-02-23 12:28:

There are a lot of people who think that the code is "...the most trivial and the least important part of a feature". And when I hear that I respond: "remember the 'technical debt' and all the hair tearing when you code overtime late at nights and you realize that you will not make it for the deadline because everything is so tangled". I remember working with those crappy codebases...

Pierpaolo Da Fieno / 2011-02-28 22:04:

I totally agree with you on the importance of code. I'm an engineer, a mechanical engineer and I code for pure leisure. My work taught me that even the best ideas can fall to nothing if you don't have solid, trivial stuff to build on. You definitely need bricks, and you need to know them well to use them effectively. But I don't think that software and code are the same thing any more. Since software got "social" we broke that barrier. Maybe Twitter and Facebook are crappy, lousy code but they show that human behaviour can blend in with software. And this is nasty and fascinating. It's up to us to decide what to build with our old trivial bricks. We could build noisy malls. But we could build theatres. A theatre is built for humans to perform, but it must be built with utmost care and knowledge to be really functional to its aim. Ancient Greeks made beautiful theatres out of simple stone bricks and their plays are immortal. Can we do the same with 21st century software?

Roberto Alsina / 2011-03-02 15:57:

Thanks for the toughtful comment :-)