Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Beyond Code


The article “What Is Code?” in the July 11 issue of Bloomberg’s BusinessWeek starts out saying, you’re a VP doing an SVP’s job. Your problem is overseeing software development.

Across your desk is “The man in the taupe blazer (TMitTB) [who] works for the new CTO. … [who says] ‘All of the computer code that keeps the website running must be replaced. At one time, it was very valuable … .’ [T]he new CTO thinks it’s garbage. She said the old code is spaghetti … .”

When I hear statements like this, I have to wonder when did the code become garbage? Was there no way to fix it (or at least the critical parts) before it was totally spaghetti?

In short, TmitTB is saying it can’t be fixed. And, apparently, no one knows why. Yet, the decisions that created it are still in place waiting to build the next, newer version of the company’s software. Why will those results be any better?

Addressing this article to VPs (and SVPs), Bloomberg editor Josh Tyrangiel thinks the solution is in the answer to the question, What Is Code? It’s not. Code is only a small part of the problem, although easily the most obscure part.

Code is complicated, but the bigger problem is that it runs in a complicated environment—much of it unknown to the coders. But even the known parts are very complicated. For example, there are many different versions of many different browsers.

Beyond code is this larger environment people (and VPs) need to understand. Unless it’s our job, we don’t need to know the technical innards of our TVs, microwaves, or car engines. We just need to know what to expect and how to get it.

There are fundamental lessons learned over the decades about the total software environment. These are the basics needed to control every company’s software development. First and foremost of these is program maintenance.

Maintenance is not even mentioned in this article. Obscure code is nearly impossible to maintain, i.e., it can’t be fixed so it must be replaced—with a new, equally obscure language.

Old code may not be popular but it can be maintained. COBOL (created by Grace Murray Hopper) has lasted over 55 years because it was essentially self-documenting. Yet the article says it’s “verbose” and “cripples the mind.”

If code is maintained by the people who wrote it, then their careers are the project and won’t advance until the project dies. Unlikely they’ll stay long. If skilled programmers know the new languages get the better jobs, they won’t do maintenance.

The way to quickly kill maintenance is to assign the job to junior programmers. Add obscure code and it’s is two-thirds dead. Then optimize for no reason. The plug is pulled and code must be replaced by newer, more expensive code.

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