27 June 2009

Heroes and Monoliths

I'm sure it's no surprise to anyone, but huge, monolithic software is extremely hard to ship.

It used to be that when I encountered a particularly complex software problem, I would work at mastering the complexity until (by hook or by crook) I figured it out. Then I would proclaim myself victor. It was often the case that people were waiting for me to figure out the hard problem, and would congratulate me on a successful resolution.

However, those congratulations feel empty to me now. I think I can finally appreciate what Dijkstra meant in The Humble Programmer (and here), argument #6:
... the only problems we can really solve in a satisfactory manner are those that finally admit a nicely factored solution. ... By the time that we are sufficiently modest to try factored solutions only, because the other efforts escape our intellectual grip, we shall do our utmost best to avoid all those interfaces impairing our ability to factor the system in a helpful way. And I cannot but expect that this will repeatedly lead to the discovery that an initially untractable problem can be factored after all.
Now I remain unsatisfied until I've solved that problem at hand "in a satisfactory manner", i.e. in a manner that is tractable to read, understand, and change in the future. Not just for me, but for any other competent software developer that comes behind me.

I think this links to the IEEE Code of Ethics, items #5 and #6, in which computing professionals agree:
5. to improve the understanding of technology, its appropriate application, and potential consequences;

6. to maintain and improve our technical competence and to undertake technological tasks for others only if qualified by training or experience, or after full disclosure of pertinent limitations;
While I was writing this, someone came over and asked me a question about complex software I wrote part of, and I helped him. And I laughed at myself for being unsatisfied about helping him. :)

15 June 2009

Vote with your money

There are prediction markets that people have set up. But those feel like a gimmick to me.

I want a place where I can say:
If you can provide a product that meets the following specifications, at the following price, I obligate myself to buy that product at that price.
I want to be able to state conditions like:
  • all software in this product conforms to an OSDL-approved license
  • the model of car you build has received at least 3/5 rating by Consumer Reports in such-and-such a category
  • this cell phone comes with a data-only plan
  • the out-of-print book that you publish must be hardback
  • the eBook reader you create must be able to display scaled PDFs that can be zoomed and panned
I want to be able to have a publicly-viewable, prioritized wish list. I want to put things on my wish list that do not yet exist, but that would be very useful to me. I want to be able to say "Me too" to an item on my friend's list and place it on my list at the appropriate priority. And I want to be able to set an annual spending cap, beyond which I am not obligated to purchase anything further.

And I want vendors to be able to query this site for what kind of demand there is for certain kinds of products. And I want vendors to be able to say: "OK, you said you'd buy it, I'm producing it, and if I give it to you in 6 months, you're committed to buy it." The user who posted his/her desired product can specify how much lead time would be acceptable. For instance, I could say: "I don't want you to require any more than 3 months production time for this item."

And it is a binding contract at that point, as long as the item ends up meeting the stated criteria when it is delivered. After the production process starts, a purchaser would be prevented from re-prioritizing or otherwise adjusting his list in such a way that pushes that item below the "obligitory purchase" spending cap line. And if a user defaults on the contract, then the details are publicly visible; likewise for a vendor.

My intent is to have a system that can create REAL demand for useful, not-yet-existing products without having a bunch of focus groups giving stupid requirements to business execs who work up some product that pins its users into a corner in one way or another.