Monday, June 02, 2008

On a lighter note, how do we change the culture of software development

I just noticed this ad on the back of a recent print edition of Information Week. I'd seen these ads before (mainly on CNET's web site), but not in print form in a magazine geared towards data management professionals.

The ad campaign looks like it's targeting 12 year old boys, but I suppose it must be targeting the 12 year old boy within us all... or geeky software developers. But before I start shooting fish out of a barrel, I thought I share with you a very strange subtext to this mini-narrative. If you look closely into the crowd scene there is in fact one character who stands out. This of course is the busty bird woman I suppose our hero is fighting to impress. In case you missed it, here's the zoomed in version below.
If anyone has any theories as to why this particular bird woman was chosen (maybe she is in fact concerned about the cow-man in the magic bubble) - I'd really love to know!

But for me, what this ad is is a reminder of how haphazard IT decisions tend to be, and how many still view IT as a crafts-based practice. It's a bit like those sugar cereal commercials that would run during Saturday morning cartoons, as the parental pressure points are well understood.

Most developers tend to be intelligent, analytical, and creative types. If they're lucky, they will work for a dynamic software company that embraces their talents in all phases of product management and design. However, most are not so lucky and end up working for bureacratic IT departments with similar expectations. The developers role here, is to merely take requirements for a System Design Specification, code them in a development environment, and do a little unit testing to ensure the requirements are satisfied. That's all folks.

Yet so many developers I meet want to take on business analysis (well, the fun parts), project management (the fun parts), human factors (the fun parts). Sometimes these guys even want to take on data modeling (but usually treat the DB like a bit bucket for their in-memory data structures). These guys will also tell you about some new gizmo or technology which is on the cusp of solving all our problems, or will introduce us to the modern age. Of course all that Change Management, training, data interoperability, service management, risk management, quality management, and all that other stuff is just pointless busywork that gets in the way of true innovation.

But I actually relate to these guys and totally know where they're coming from. When they show up for their first week on the job, it's all sunshine and lollilops with so much optimism and hope in the air. I try my best to foster this passion and excitement, but also explain that large organizations tend to have role-based cultures, and don't always appreciate talented and knowledgable individuals. I describe career paths which include business analysts, project management, and application architecture. But it's never as exciting or free as what they have in mind.

I personally remember a time not so long ago where systems were being developed on unstable resource constrained platforms with low level languages (e.g. Windows 95 and C++). System stability was a major issue, and talented developers who could analyze a core dump file, or who knew the inner works of memory management, or who could create helper systems to better recover from instabilities were invaluable. To this day I would reckon there is still value to these talents. However, most people can't really describe these talents, so their importance is greatly diminished now that Windows is a stable OS, and that software development has been highly abstracted.

But these killer developers were more than just killer debuggers, they were full on rennaisance men and women, capable of tracing a low level _if_ statement all the way back up to a business rule, and even suggesting new business processes to accomodate hardware limitations (this still happens). These were the only people who had complete line-of-site to all aspects of the business, and these were the people who held the true power.

My point is, with no new problems for these people to solve, they now must bring the business back down to their level of tools and technologies. So, I reckon that it is perhaps a cultural issue we must solve first, before we can tackle the obvious problems at hand. In the meantime, the vendors will be selling more sugar cereal. Can't get enough of those Sugar Smacks!

No comments: