Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Special Questions

Note: The following tale is adapted from my book, Rethinking Systems Analysis and Design. What's the moral of this tale? After you make your own suggestions, take a look at the original tale and see what the book has to say.

Harlan Mills predicted that some day programmers will make so few errors that they'll remember every one they ever made in their entire career. I've had a long career and I've made rather more than the one error per year that Harlan predicted. One a day might be more like it. But some errors were so gross or so costly that they stand out among the thousands.

Over forty years ago, I was analyst/programmer for a service bureau studying a job that involved processing a million cards through the IBM 650 computer. Because of limitations on the 650's ability to read cards, the only punches allowed in the cards were alphabetics and numerics. Special characters could not be read at all.

When questioning the client in our very first meeting,I asked, "Are there any spetial characters in the cards?"

"No," he replied, "none whatsoever."

"Good," I said, "but I have to be sure. Are you certain that there are no special characters at all?"

"I'm quite certain. I know the data very well, and there are no special characters."

On that assurance, we went ahead with designing and programming the application, only to discover on our first production run that the system was hanging up on cards like this:
About sixty-five percent of the cards contained special characters, but when I confronted the client with this figure, he appeared genuinely puzzled, "But there are no special characters," he pleaded.

"Oh, no," I said triumphantly, "then what about this dash, slash, quote, and number .sign?"

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Nothing New Ever Works

The best "review" of one of my books is a testimonial about how the book has been useful. Here's a letter from Jon Jagger about how a law from The Secrets of Consulting helped him help his son, Patrick, who was ill.

Hi Jerry,
I just had a moment of enlightenment about the New Law I wanted to share with you...

I was giving Patrick, my son, some calpol (liquid paracetamol - he's ill off school today).
The bottle had a new plastic widget in the top.
With the bottle there was a new small syringe with a new plunger.
This was a new design - instead of simply pouring the calpol onto a teaspoon you clearly had to fill up the syringe.
Try as I might I could not get the syringe through the hole in the plastic widget in the neck of the bottle. 

So was it The New Law - Nothing new ever works? 

My beautiful wife Natalie came to my rescue.
It did work and she showed me how.

I just re-read The New Law from your book.
I noticed that all the examples, the coffee maker, the pills, the car-battery, the car, the hospital procedure were examples where the new thing was genuinely not working. But in my case the new thing WAS working.  It was ME that was not working!

From this I have realized that

1) It's easy to think the emphasis in "Nothing New Ever Works" is on the word "new" but it's equally on the work "works"!

2) Something being new is a relationship

3) Something working is a relationship

4) When I say "it's not working" what I always mean is "I can't get it working"

Also, it might give some insight into the question you pose at the end of the New Law...

"Everyone knows that new things never work."
"Then why is everyone obsessed with changing everything for something new?"
"If you answer that, you'll have something worth writing about"

Well, when things go wrong we can look for the cause outside of ourselves, or we can look for the cause inside of ourselves. 
But, looking for the cause inside of ourselves would mean WE had failed. Which is unthinkable.
Therefore the cause must be outside of ourselves. 
Viz, if it's a choice between changing the world around us, or changing the world inside us, outside wins. 
And that's one reason why we create new things!