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Special, so special

Earlier today, I was plowing through some old emails, and I came upon a link Cory sent me a couple months ago.  He knew I was off to Microsoft to study new software engineers and thought I might be interested in a post from Paul Johnson’s blog about how there is no process for programming.  I commented on some of the details of his post, namely that I thought professionals deserve a little more respect than I thought he gave them by saying, “Think about other important areas of human endeavor: driving a car, flying a plane, running a company, designing a house, teaching a child, curing a disease, selling insurance, fighting a lawsuit. In every case the core of the activity is well understood: it is written down, taught and learned.”  What a load of crap.  (On my own blog, I can say that.  On his, I thought I was polite.)

I was excited to get an email response from Paul about my comment; he addressed specific points within my comment and clearly took some time to consider his responses.  The gist ended up being, “If you tried programming, you’d know I’m right, and then I would respect you.”  Another load of crap.  Clearly he thinks programming is different in kind from other professions.  While I agree that it is, I don’t think programming is different because it doesn’t follow a process or isn’t easily described as a process. Instead, I think it’s different because it requires an approach to thinking about problems (Paul made a nice comparison to mathematics) that seems procedural to an untrained, inexperienced eye.  I think what Paul’s missing is that the same is true about professions like management and medicine.  What looks to outsiders like process is often not at all.  Software engineering is not alone.  Many professions include something akin to “write the code” where the magic happens, and we should respect that.

I could’ve titled this post, “Why I Should Never Comment on Blogs.” I appreciated that Paul took the time to reply to me, but I did not appreciate the slapping he gave me.  Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive, but the stress I’ve felt since reading his email and then responding and now blogging is disproportionate to the importance of our conversation.  I love studying people, especially at work, because I get to learn how different they and their jobs are.  And today I stood up for similarity.  Now, I’m schizophrenic.  Sigh.


  • Andrea |

    I feel you on the “I should never comment” thing – I recently got a response on a listserv where the person clearly thought I was retarded. I’ll spare you the description of great irony attached to this story. 🙂

    We should chat about this, though. My research group has been doing some study of asynchronous decision-making in (open source) software development and one of the findings is that some software development tasks become routine when performed via distributed collaboration tools.

    Also, if you’re interested, we could do some really awesome collaborative research comparing proprietary and open source software development practices. This is rare stuff because it’s typically pretty hard to get access to observe proprietary software development, but you’ve already got that. I’ve got access to the FLOSS research community and data, so maybe there’s an opportunity for some interesting research collaboration here. I’d love to discuss the possibility, anyway, so drop me a line if you’re interested.

    Specifically for studying new software engineers – is that new in the organization, not necessarily new to software engineering? We might be undertaking a study that would relate to this, so I’d be really interested in hearing more about your findings, etc…

  • libbyh |

    I’ll respond to the “studying new software engineers” question here and the others personally. Bottom line, of course I’m interested in collaborating with smart colleagues like you, Andrea! Especially because we have complementary expertise that could be pretty exciting. Anyway, that’s for email. Re: the new software engineers. My study this summer is of developers who are new to Microsoft, and all of them have at least 9 months of private sector software development experience. We didn’t have a big enough pool to focus on college hires or experienced hires. My mentor, Andrew Begel, did a study with Beth Simon last year (see the Knowledge Acquistion section for papers) of college hire developers, and I can put you in touch with him.

So, what do you think ?

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