development programming ux

In the beginning… was the conversation

The history of computing has been an evolution of conversation between us and machines. Single-purpose machines were built to be talked about, not communicated with. Even a hoax like the mechanical Turk.

But then the punched cards of the loom and Ada Lovelace’s ideas of a general-purpose computer started to become real, and we needed a language. At first, it was a language based on mathematics, the language of log tables, the language of angles, and then the language of letter frequencies. But soon we got more advanced, we got to the language of logic. Decision making, and computers, were open to working on anything.

And that’s where software engineers, programmers and developers enter the story. The medium of communication between the world of humans and the world of logic (because there has been no greater fallacy in human endeavour than to assume there is a complete overlap between the two, despite how many Nobel prize winners in economics have tried to prove otherwise).

The story of computers since then has been the story of building layers upon layers on top of machine logic to bring machines closer to humans. The command line, high-level languages (when C was considered a high-level language), graphical user interfaces, and the emerging field of voice and text conversation epitomised by Alexa and but Google and Facebook bots, but also the first line at the call centre, the first responder on live chat.

There has always been a conversation, and there’s always been a mismatch between our words and our intent.

As developers, our job is to derive intent from those words and the actions. Traditionally, offline in workshops and focus groups, but increasingly in real-time, teaching the machines to understand users and adapting conversions, websites, and apps, as we detect errors and confusion, as our data tells us users are unable to complete their goals.

There has always been a conversation. But this new conversation is with the users, and the machines, and the stakeholders, in real-time. With incomplete and biased data.

Be forgiving in your conversations. No one knows what this global conversation is like. But we know from social media and the news that not everyone in the conservation is pursuing truth and simplicity. But that is the only logical route, and behind all the facades is whatever truth you’ve built into the system. Are they the truths you can stand behind? Are those the truths that help and empower people?

Communicate your truths clearly and without favour, because this conversation is never pure or simple, and we have unearned power to control and shape that conversation. I don’t know if anyone would have chosen to give power to the developers and make us responsible for the truth, but in an information economy, that’s where we are. All these conversations are our conversations.

Tech is not neutral.

Speak your truth and recognise your responsibility.

Further reading

Neal Stephenson – in the beginning… was the command line

Conversation is the command line of tomorrow

development programming

Don’t be a speed shaver

CW: description of blood.

There’s a deadline looming, and your estimates show the project coming in late. Very late.

You need to claw it back. Drop the ballast and become a lean mean coding machine.

You have a plane to catch. You look at your watch and you’re going to be late. Very late.

You need to cut corners. Shave as you shower. No time for shaving foam in the mirror.

The first cut is annoying. Your cheek stings in the heat, but you keep going.

A second cut, right on the chin. That one hurt. And it’s dripping rather than seeping.

But you need to finish. You don’t have time for this. Keep going.

Missed a bit, back under the chin.

4 cuts. 3 seeping and one dripping.

And the heat keeps them open.

So you patch it over with tissue once you’re out of the shower, try and clean it up to see what you’ve missed. And then you have to go back in and finish the job with cold skin, so more nicks, and more time is taken.

Aftershave to help seal and clean. That’s sore. That’ll sting until you get on the plane.

More tissues, and then plasters. Trying to get dressed without getting any blood stains, so that’s slower too.

Every shortcut you take has consequences. Technical debt pays interest, and sometimes it’s eye-watering. The debt exceeds the functionality and the project takes longer, and even longer than that. And so you have to make more cuts and ensure more pain. And still, your clients can see it’s held together with plasters that are already starting to peel.

Don’t be a speed shaver. You don’t have enough time to do it quickly.