Friday, May 6, 2016

Solving for Passion

For the last few years, I have had the pleasure, and the privilege, to participate in graduating students’ project reviews at a major university.  Students in their final semesters of earning a Computer Science or Computer Engineering degree are asked to come up with and implement a project of their own choosing, within the guidelines set forth by the professor for the course. Students typically identify a user or a client for their work – a university department or research lab, consumers, charitable organizations.

A few dozen projects I have reviewed so far have mostly been spectacular. Students put their heart and soul, and considerable skills and passion for the technology, into this assignment.  However, there are interesting differences in the presented work.

Some cohorts of students appear to have lofty, large-scale goals. They are interested in solving big important problems related to hunger, or low productivity, or deadly deceases for large populations using tiniest of tools. The teams pull research from international conferences and large NGOs, make highly speculative assumptions about complicated unknowns, and pull together technologies that are both rare and not really designed for these purposes.

For these projects, results are typically modest, presentations are ambitious on vision and poor on structure, and risk of running into crippling unknowns is high.

Other groups appear to be much better prepared. The projects capitalize on the cutting-edge technologies, tests are neatly recorded on video, and presentation slides showcase the scientific background and beautiful technical documentation.  However, these projects aim a bit lower: gadgets that offer a small improvement on the existing products.  Polish replaces passion.

When the focus is on delivering a good-looking presentation, creativity gets lost, or at least greatly diminished. This batch of working, well-documented projects lacks excitement, grand vision, reach into the unknown.

College is the time to dream, to stretch for the moon, to grow one’s ambitions. Most people go on to have a long and very practical career, where delivering a small improvement is valued higher than big ambitious undertakings. We will all be better off if we had more passion and creativity to go around. 

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Beyond the 'happy path'

In the context of software or information modeling, a happy path is a default scenario featuring no exceptional or error conditions, and comprises the sequence of activities executed if everything goes as expected

- Wikipedia

Software is possible because we have clear, well-defined expectations in a lot of common situations. Given a problem and a particular state of the world, software can reason through known information, and perform according to the expectations.

People who invent software are enterprising, excitable, focused on delivering a working solution for a problem.  Which mostly translates into building software that is great about performing the ‘can do’ portion of the expectations. It is the so-called happy path, where the software works as desired and designed, in the perfect world for the well-behaved user who happens to think in perfect lock-step with the inventor of the software.

However, the world is hardly ever perfect. People and users think differently. Not all users are both well-behaved, and can or will follow the detailed vision of the software designer.

Consider a bank application that allows read access to one’s account balance. It is important that it does NOT

  • allow read access to other people’s account balance.
  • allow write access to any account balance.
  • allow any user behavior to affect other user’s experience and access.

These kinds of expectations are less likely to be included in the specification, because we like to think about software in terms of what it can do, and not what it doesn’t do. These expectations are less likely to be designed into the software architecture, because we like to think of achieving our goals must more, than we like to be concerned about preventing bad things from happening. Finally, these expectations are less likely to be tested, because it is both harder and does not demonstrate a job-well-done even if successful. 

Better handling the non-happy paths requires a more systematic approach to specification building and testing, and range verification.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Leading by good looks

… you don't get trusted positions just because of your ability. You also have to attract the notice of superior[s…]. You have to be liked. You have to fit in with the system. You have to look like what the officers above you think that [leaders] should look like. You have to think in ways that they are comfortable with.
The result was that you ended up with a command structure that was top-heavy with guys who looked good […] and talked right and did well enough not to embarrass themselves, while the really good ones quietly did all the serious work and bailed out their superiors and got blamed for errors they had advised against until they eventually got out.

Ender's Shadow, by Orson Scott Card @1999

Likable people that fit within the system do a decent job advancing the system toward success. The kind of success that is easy to imagine, easy to prognosticate, and mostly means being ahead of the competition that does the same thing.

However, if one wants to shoot for the stars, to change the paradigm, to redefine success – expecting good-looking people who think in ways that are approved by the existing system to lead us there is doomed to fail. Occasionally, success is not so much ‘the same thing, just more and better’, but rather a long shot that could turn out to become something different, powerful and amazing. And then there is a need for a different kind of leadership, the leadership that does not work as hard to look presentable, to say the expected thing, to be liked by the superiors.

There have always been unlikeable leaders who changed the world in big and small ways. A few went against the system, and others simply disregarded the system and built their own way. The society at large considered most of them failures during a significant portion, if not the entirety, of their journeys. Others have reached the official definition of success, and occasionally even became liked and popular. Still, leading for change is a risky proposition with high potential for failure.

So when picking a leader, or aspiring to lead, put some thought into what kind of leader you want to follow, or to become. Good looks may not be required.