Are We Smart Enough to Use Kind Words?

My title might seem oddly out of place on a tech blog, but a slashdot post today led me to an email thread for linux kernel developers, and the thread and its fallout leave me troubled.

Apparently, a veteran contributor is leaving the kernel dev community because she feels like the communication style there is too harsh. This is unfortunate, but what seems even more lamentable to me is the lack of sympathy in Linus Torvalds’ reaction. It seems to me that his attitude is: “That’s just the way us kernel devs are, and we aren’t going to change to accommodate anybody. If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

This feels sad to me. Kind words can be such a joy.

Secret 3
[Image credit: Glen J. Photography (Flickr)]

Linus is a brilliant guy, and I’m grateful to him. I use linux and git every day; the tools he’s built do a lot of good in the world, and they replace earlier approaches that are clearly inferior. I also agree with his complaint that an explicit standard of “professionalism” in communication can, in some cases, lead to opacity, disingenuousness, and inefficiency. Sometimes we need to say things that are difficult for others to hear, and we need to say them quickly–and that may not jibe with the communication style of a slick politician.

However, I find it ironic that a profession so passionate about message passing and interfaces and producer/consumer contracts could lightly dismiss communication concerns when they involve humans. Do the messes created by DDoS, attackers probing vulnerabilities, and poorly behaved clients teach us nothing?

We certainly need clarity in our careers, and we may occasionally need bluntness as well, but we don’t need ridicule, sarcasm, or disdain. I applaud the sentiments of Marvin J. Ashton:

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“Rockstar Developers” are a dangerous myth

Recently I’ve run across several uses of the phrase “rockstar developer” or “rockstar programmer” (“code ninja” is another hip variant). The term shows up on slashdot, for example. I’ve also seen it in job postings and in blogs.[1],[2],[3] A rockstar hacker archetype is standard fare in TV shows, where his or her computing feats are practically a superpower (Agents of Shield, Person of Interest, Leverage, Scorpion, …) Of course Hollywood loves the notion, too; I thought The Imitation Game was fascinating, but besides taking liberties with history, it portrays Alan Turing in a distorted way that feeds such mystique. (Turing was absolutely brilliant, and certainly one of the most important pioneers in computing. But he didn’t invent his codebreaking machine alone.)

Alan Turing and team members at Bletchley Park, with a forerunner of the modern computer-- technology invented by brilliant people to break the Nazi Enigma encryption. Screenshot from official trailer, under fair use.

from The Imitation Game: Alan Turing and team members at Bletchley Park, with a forerunner of the modern computer — technology invented by brilliant people to break the Nazi Enigma encryption. Screenshot from official trailer, under fair use.

It’s even in my inbox. After I began writing this post, I got an email from a recruiter on LinkedIn, looking for “superstars”:

superstar

The buzz about these mythical supercoders has begun to raise my hackles.

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Features are not chunks of code

photo credit: nandadevieast (Flickr)

Before the industrial age, “features” were noteworthy aspects of a face or a geography: a patch of color, abundant wrinkles, a scar… The human brain is stunningly good at identifying and comparing such features–perhaps because that ability has been central to our nurture as children, our bonding into family units, and our survival as a species.

When we want to say what a face looks like, we describe its features. They are an entrée into experience with it.

At the dawn of the computer age, the advertising and publishing industries were already talking about how products–or aspects of them–could be “featured” in media. Highlighted characteristics were called “features”, and this metaphor transferred seamlessly into digital language. Software product managers now traffic in “features” and “feature sets.”

We use the term so comfortably that we sometimes forget what it has to teach us.

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Smart Geeks Think Like Cheerleaders

Technorati code: FMUS579NQBM8

Saturday I went to a high school half an hour north of our home, to watch my 16-year-old daughter compete in a cheerleading competition. And I learned something about software.

Photo credit: neys (Flickr)

I’m not sure how many teams were there–maybe a hundred. The competition started at 9 am and was scheduled to run through 5. Every team consisted of dozens of girls, all dressed in spangles and glitter, with identical ribbons in their hair. They’d march out onto the floor, drop their heads and arms to their sides, and wait for the first blast of music to initiate the routine. Then they’d tumble and dance their hearts out, finishing out of breath with a flourish.

Every hour or so, the performances suspended so judges could announce winners in a particular division that had just fielded its last competitor.

I noticed a pattern. Even though I have no knowledge of competitive cheer scoring, I could tell who had won. Continue reading

On SEPs, Squirrels, and Meta Questions

In Douglas Adams‘ novel, Life, the Universe, and Everything, a spaceship lands in the middle of a stadium of screaming fans during a cricket match, and nobody notices. The ship doesn’t use a Klingon-style cloaking device to accomplish this amazing feat; instead, it is hidden by a “Somebody Else’s Problem” field, which operates on the principle that if something is perceived to be somebody else’s problem, the brain of onlookers will treat it as if it were invisible.

Adams was a sci-fi author, but I see applications of his metaphor in the day-to-day work of software engineering.

To one degree or another, we all exhibit inattentional blindness from time to time. And that can be a good thing. Being able to zero in on a particular block of code, to the exclusion of the guy sneezing or yawning in the next cube, is healthy. We don’t want to be like the dogs in Pixar’s Up!, who keep getting distracted by squirrels.

However, truly superb engineers have a capacity to see through the cloak of somebody else’s problem; they think simultaneously on multiple levels of abstraction. They tend to ask “meta questions” (judiciously) that poke at larger issues, broader contexts, or more distant time horizons. Not coincidentally,  Continue reading