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Two German Maxims That Will Save Your Neck (and Others’ Necks as Well)

I quite remember the uneasy sensation that I had when a former coworker told me a story — a story about a senior engineer who went to jail because of a bug, a fatal one, as it turned out.

The bug lurked in an electronic control unit (ECU) which was, among other things, controlling the manual deactivation of the front passenger seat’s airbag. Under normal circumstances, you wouldn’t want to disable an airbag, a feature that saves lives every day around the world. However, if you intend to put a rearward-facing baby seat in the front, you have to do it, or you risk severe injury of your child in case the airbag deploys during an accident.

Now, this unfortunate engineer discovered that under extremely rare conditions there was a tiny window of opportunity for the airbag deactivation mechanism to fail silently; that is, it would appear to be deactivated when in fact it wasn’t. I don’t remember the necessary prerequisites, but what I do remember is that the combination of inputs and actions sounded so silly, so unusual, so improbable that he — like probably most of us would have — expected that the fault would never ever show up in practice. But what a terrible mistake this was, as this is exactly what happened and a child lost its life.

How unlikely or likely is the higly improbable? The chances of winning a 6-number lottery game are typically 1 against many tens of millions; yet, the likelihood that some player (not a particular player, of course) wins is quite high. Why? Because there are millions of players who take part in such lotteries. The same is true for ECUs which frequently find their way into millions of cars.

The developer was punished not for creating the bug but for not telling his managers about his discovery, for keeping it secret. But why didn’t he report the problem to his superiors? I can only guess. Maybe there was a lot of schedule pressure, perhaps he didn’t want to upset his boss. Or, the product was already released and a recall would have cost a lot of money, let alone reputation. If you ask me, it was a deadly cocktail of fear and pride.

When I did my military training at the German Armed Forces, one of the first rules I learned was “Melden macht frei”, which more or less translates to “reporting is liberating”. It is your duty to report an incident and it has a liberating effect on you, both emotionally and legally. After reporting, it is your superior’s problem. He has to decide what to do next. That’s not dodging responsibility — it’s passing on an issue that is outside your area of responsibility to the right person.

In the same spirit, as professionals we also have to report any issue that is harmful to customers or the company, regardless of how unlikely it appears to us. Even if management makes a (hopefully prudent) decision to ignore the problem (like it was the case in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, where engineers clearly raised their concerns that the O-rings on the rocket boosters would not seal at low temperatures), at least you have behaved professionally and are saved from prosecution and guilt feeling.

There is, however, a strange phenomenon: People sometimes forget that you informed them, especially when they have to testify in court. That’s why I want to share another important German wisdom with you: “Wer schreibt, der bleibt”, which can be translated as “you write, you stay”. It means that (only) if you write something down, you will be remembered. In other words: always keep a paper trail; email usually suffices.

The Game of Life

game_of_life

“Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky”

— John Lennon “Imagine”

Once again, like every year, time has come to celebrate Towel Day, a great occasion to ponder Life, the Universe and Everything.

Speaking of Life — a surprising number of people, including software developers, don’t know about LIFE, also called Conway’s Game of Life; an even smaller number is aware of the corollaries, let alone accept them as a fact of life (pun intended!). So what is LIFE?

In LIFE, which isn’t really a game, but rather a simulation, there is an infinite field of cells; cells can be in either of two states: dead or alive. Conway defined four simple rules:

  1. A live cell with fewer than two live neighbors dies (think: dies of loneliness).
  2. A live cell with two or three live neighbors continues to live.
  3. A live cell with more than three live neighbors dies (think: dies of overpopulation).
  4. A dead cell with exactly three live neighbors becomes a live cell (think: birth of a cell).

You start with an initial (e.g. random) set of live and dead cells, let time increase in discrete steps and after every step you apply these four rules. That’s all. After every step the board contains a new set of live and dead cells.

It is quite fascinating to see how structures, patterns (or objects) emerge, move, disappear and reappear. Some of these objects have been given names that aptly describe their nature, like “pulsars”, “gliders”, “glider guns”, just to name a few.

What is even more fascinating is that these objects are governed by higher-order “laws” that are not obvious from the four simple rules. For instance, you can observe that “blocks” never move, “gliders” always move diagonally and “lightweight spaceships” always move from right to left. (Here is a great site for trying out various patterns yourself.)

Isn’t this very much like our own universe? In our universe, we have some fundamental laws, which give rise to higher-level structures and laws, up to highest-level laws of physics or principles of human behavior.

What Conway proved was that complex structures can emerge from simple rules; he proved that you don’t need a Creator to obtain a complex universe, just simple rules, time and favorable circumstances.

Religious people often have a hard time accepting that. One the one hand, they argue, Conway didn’t prove the absence of a Creator, and second, Conway himself acted as a Creator himself since he — after all — created the rules of the game. Isn’t there, in our world, at least room for such a “Creator of Rules”?

Nobody knows, but I personally don’t think so. What Conway did was not create the rules — he rather zoomed in on a particular universe with a particular rule set, chosen from an infinite set of rules: He just shed light on one particular universe that is favorable of life in an infinite multiverse.

Let me close this post with the words of Stephen Hawking. Like all human beings, he doesn’t know everything, but he is probably one of the persons who has the best grasp of our universe:

“We are each free to believe what we want and it is my view that the simplest explanation is there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate. This leads me to a profound realization. There is probably no heaven, and no afterlife either. We have this one life to appreciate the grand design of the universe, and for that, I am extremely grateful.”

The Reason We Have a Job

“There’s truths you have to grow into.”
― H.G. Wells, Love and Mr. Lewisham

Let me ask you a simple question. Why do you have a job?

Maybe you are convinced that you have a job because you have a lot of obligations, like hungry mouth to feed and bills to pay. Or because someone told you that every decent citizen simply must have a job these days.

But no, that’s not the answer I am looking for. These are all valid reasons why you want or need or should have a job.

Or maybe you believe the reason is that you are such an irresistibly smart person that every company just wants to posses.

No, again, such factors only make you attractive to your employer, they give you a competitive edge over other people.

So what is the real reason you have a job? Here is my answer: unless you work for a non-profit organization (or the government) the only reason why you have a job is that someone — the business owner — believes that, overall, you generate much more money than you cost.

The verb believes is essential here. It could be that you, objectively, turn out not to be such a great investment for your company, maybe even a massive waste of money, but that doesn’t matter much: you can still keep your job as long as your boss’ belief in your money-generating abilities remains strong.

However, once this belief (or hope) is gone, your days are numbered. You may stay on the payroll for quite some time, but you will be walking around neither dead nor alive, just like a zombie. The question is not if you will lose your job — the question is when.

But how cruel are these greedy company owners? What about social responsibility? Is it always just about the money?

This attitude arises from a common misconception, and yes, it is always just about the money. It is not the responsibility of a business owner to make employees rich (not even happy) — it is just the other way around. Sure, there are hip companies which treat their employees extremely well, pay high salaries and grant extraordinary benefits; but let’s not forget: it is only because there is (still) an enormous belief in a high return on investment. If everything turns out well in this gamble there is a win-win situation: happy business owner, happy employees — all the ingredients for a long-lasting virtuous circle.

In the not-so-fortunate case — and every company will face stormy weather, even the hippest — a business owner has to eliminate cost to ensure that his business stays profitable; not performing these life-saving amputations would put his and his employees’ future at risk. Unprofitable companies cannot exist for an extended period of time in a free market; they will sooner or later be eaten by the competition. And that’s not a statement — that’s a fact.

So wise developers should avoid becoming dependent on an employer’s dreams and beliefs. Instead, developers should constantly and aggressively invest in their knowledge portfolio and keep their resume up-to-date. They should neither mentally nor financially become too attached to a company or technology. Instead, they should always be ready to move on.

Give an outstanding performance for your money, but treat every day as if it would be your last. Get rid of those personal items on your desk. Accept that employments are transient. This not only gives you independence and self-confidence, it also makes you indispensable for your current employer — and your next.

Hero or Zero?

Andrea: “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero.”
Galileo: “No, Andrea: Unhappy is the land that needs a hero”

— Bert Brecht, “The Life of Galileo”

If you ask children what they want to be when they grow up, chances are that you get answers from this list: police officer, firefighter, astronaut, rock star. Children nearly always choose professions that are accompanied with acclamation, jobs where they can shine, where they can be big.

Even as adults, most of us still want to be heroes (or heroines), at least to some extent. This desire is deeply rooted in all human cultures and societies: Those who act, especially at the peril of their own lives, get praise and reward.

Strangely enough, the yearning for recognition is sometimes so strong, that people who should actually help in hazardous situations deliberately create them, just to get a chance to prove their bravery. You have probably heard about cases where firefighters set buildings on fire, just to be the first on the scene to extinguish it. This phenomenon is called “hero syndrome” and is an extreme form of degenerated professionalism, but it nevertheless does happen.

There is a lot of heroism going on in software development as well. Many software projects, for lack of software engineering knowledge and discipline, rely on heroics; the successful outcome totally depends on individuals who work crazy hours in an endless code-and-fix cycle. Especially the game industry has gained a sad reputation for such malpractice.

But sometimes it is not the companies which foist heroics upon their developers — sometimes, and much in line with the hero syndrome, developers deliberately create “hero situations” themselves.

One case in point is when developers accept impossible assignments in hope to get praise by their bosses for making the impossible happen, cases, where a clear, professional “No” would haven been the right answer. In his book “The Clean Coder” Uncle Bob cites a programmer whose words say it all: “I hit SEND, lay back in my chair and with a smug grin began to fantasize how the company would run me up onto their shoulders and lead a procession down 42nd Street while I was crowned ‘Greatest Developer Ev-ar'”.

By accepting ridiculous schedules and working ridiculous hours, such “heroes” not only put their pesonal well-being at risk, they also put their companies future at risk, at least for two reasons: first, if management is told that something which is highly improbable is doable, they might not look for alternatives, they might not set up a life-saving plan B; second, by leaving rushed, brittle, unmaintainable quick-hack code behind that nobody understands or dares to change.

But I’ve also met developers who gold-plate their code, write overly complicated code, or fervently and constantly use the most obscure language features — C++ template meta-programming immediately comes to mind — just to show everyone how clever they are. Again, the only thing such “heroes” usually achieve is that coworkers don’t dare touching their abominations — there is no praise at all, just head-shaking. This behavior is quite the opposite of what modern software development practices demand: software minimalism; that is, the simplest code that works, code that is easy to read, refactor, and extend by everyone — the basis for one of the most important software values: evolvability.

To me, people who behave in such a manner are no heroes at all, in fact they are quite the opposite of a hero. What they do is not a selfless act in order to help others but rather an act of selfishness that almost always hurts others. A wise manager would advise these folks to consult a specialist to get over their inferiority complex; if that doesn’t help, to seek their luck elsewhere, in the game industry, for instance.

By contrast, true heroes are invisible, they shun the limelight. They do things because they know that the overall benefit of their action is by far larger and more important than their own personal benefit. They are heroes because they do things that are right and not things that just shine bright.

There are firefighters out there who save lives every day, and some of them can rightly be called heroes. But the even bigger heroes are the people who probably nobody knows, people who work out fire protection standards — they must have saved hundreds of thousands of lives over the last century. Benjamin Franklin’s saying “An ounce prevention is worth a pound of cure” is what they live by. Such heroes, modest people who strive to prevent, are the true role models of every software professional.

Growing a Solid Software Company — Update

Yesterday, on October 21, all Lufhansa pilots went on strike in Germany. Nevertheless, Lufhansa managed to conduct half of their flights. They achieved this miracle by using a two-fold strategy: subcontractors and — lo and behold — their own managers, who, according to Lufthansa, work in most cases as part-time pilots, anyway.

Pilots that manage, managers that fly. Exactly my words, friends, exactly my words…

Let’s sing a song together, shall we?

I see trees of green, red roses, too,
I see them bloom, for me and you
And I think to myself
What a wonderful world.

Growing a Solid Software Company

Isn’t it a shame that so many software development managers don’t code anymore?

Since I am in a malicious mood today, I claim that they didn’t even write much code when they were still developers. But does it always have to be like this?

After years of deep contemplation I’ve come up with this rule:

Managers, regardless of their position in a hierarchy, should spend at least one-third of their time doing the work of their immediate subordinates.

Not only would this mean that every manager is productive and actively contributes to a project; it would also mean that managers stay current from a technological point of view. Especially the latter would ensure that their strategic decisions are based on much firmer ground.

Wouldn’t performance appraisals (and promotions) suddenly become more objective and fair? Wouldn’t it be much easier for managers to hire new people since they would know — from first-hand experience — what exactly to look for?

If this recursive rule were applied, even the software manager’s boss would write small parts of the software himself. His boss, in turn, would probably not code that much but maybe do some code-reviews or check the nightly build for compiler warnings.

Wouldn’t the code quality be much higher if developers knew that someone way up the corporate ladder scrutinizes their work and gave feedback? Wouldn’t everyone feel much better because they knew that their bosses really cared for what they do?

This is a rule for building up a hierarchy of software craftsmen, a rule that yields what I call a “Solid Software Company”: A company were everyone is a developer (at least to some extent), where everyone understands software’s true nature and developer’s needs.

Imagine you could travel back in time, to the early days of a once hip, now bureaucratic, politics-laden, inefficient, dreadful-to-work-for monster of a software company. You will arrive at a point at which they suddenly start to promote or hire people to be “just managers”.

So, viewed from a different, more negative angle, my rule can be rephrased like this:

The long and slow demise of a young, aspiring software company begins when its software development managers cease to write code.

Growing a Solid Software Company — Update