We have lost control of the apparatus
I am writing to you as a fellow programmer and software developer. I write in friendship and brotherhood. My heart is heavy, and the news I impart is not good: We have lost control of the apparatus.
I know, the IT department soldiers on grimly. They lost a great battle to the PCs more than twenty years ago, and it took years of struggle with NT Domain Controllers and web proxies before control could be wrestled back from the users. In some places I hear battles are still being waged over USB ports and Bluetooth. IT was lucky to find a new ally against the users in MSFT
just when their ancient supporter IBM’s star was fading.
We’ve taken care of everything
The words you hear the songs you sing
The pictures that give pleasure to your eyes
It’s one for all and all for one
We work together common sons
Never need to wonder how or why
But we programmers have lost and we must be realistic about things. The fact of the matter is this: people own their own computers, and our applications are no longer the primary way they learn how computers ought to work.
I know, I know, they stare at our work for eight, ten, or twelve hours a day. So you would think that we would set the standard for how computers ought to be. But the Good Old Days when most of users had never seen a computer before work have gone. Some of our users, fresh out of school, have already been using computers for ten years!
As if that wasn’t enough, the really bad news is, when our users go home they have this thing called the Internet. I know, IT locked that down in the office. But we can’t stop them from getting on it at home, on their mobiles, and now even on those insidious Apple iPods
! And when people use the Internet, they are actually using other people’s applications
I’m not kidding. Our users are being exposed to applications we don’t control
. And it messes things up. You see, the users get exposed to other ways of doing things, ways that are more convenient for users
, ways that make them more productive
, and they incorrectly think we ought to do things that way for them.computers
This business of users buying their own computers is really troublesome. For one thing, they can buy a computer in the store for a few hundred dollars that is twice as good as the warmed-up left-over IT put on their desk. Until recently, we could shrug our shoulders. We weren’t the ones that had to explain that to get an up-to-date model, they needed to fill out a twenty-seven-b-stroke-six
. Which needed approval. Against budget. And then IT would order it from DELL
. Who don’t have the CPUs in stock
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And meanwhile, the very same users could walk across the street and buy themselves a much better PC for less money than we pay and take it home the same day. And until now, we didn’t worry about it. We’re the programmers.
But now it’s a problem. Here’s the thing: those PCs they buy at home? The ones that are two, three, or even five times better than the ones on their desk? With huge drives, and lots of memory? The thing is, they run much richer applications
than the warmed-over TTY stuff we’ve been feeding them under the guise of “being hip to the Internet revolution.”
For example, my Mother uses Skype to talk to her friends. She thinks it’s normal to see all of your voice mail messages in a list on the screen. If I tried to give her a CRM application for managing contacts, the very first question she would ask would be, “Why can’t I listen to all of the voice mails from that contact in the application?”
Do you think she would have patience for my explanation that the company’s phone systems are complex and proprietary and that we can’t install Asterix
just for her? She would grab me by the ear and drag me to my desk to get cracking on it!
You laugh, but users are used to a lot more functionality than a web page with a form on it these days, and if we don’t give it to them, the noise from all the whining is going to drive us insane.
I tried telling them that databases were not designed for multi-megabyte Word files and PowerPoint presentations, and they just goggle at me like I’m a circus freak and ask me why I’m using a database if it doesn’t do what they want for them?
Here’s another thing. How many monitors do your users have? One, right? There’s no point in giving them more, because we build our applications with session management that basically goes insane if they try to open two windows at once, right? Well guess what? Users have multiple monitors at home for games, and they want them at work.
And when they have them at work and you explain that no, they can’t be in the middle of doing something for XYZCorp in one window, and open a new window when a call comes in from ABCLimited, because that screws up the session, they are going to bitch and moan, because they can do two things at once in their mail application and their social network and their game. Sucks to be us.
And don’t get me started about had drives. Would you believe that users now expect—as if anyone gave them permission to have expectations—what was I saying? Oh yes, users now expect that we should store everything and anything. That’s right, they think we should be able to handle arbitrarily large text fields, with styling, and pictures, and even sound or video, all stashed away where they can find it again. They want to be able to store everything to do with an account or a customer or a project or whatever right in our applications.
I tried telling them that databases were not designed for multi-megabyte Word files and PowerPoint presentations, and they just goggle at me like I’m a circus freak and ask me why I’m using a database if it doesn’t do what they want for them? I try to tell them that we don’t have a budget for buying bigger drives, and the poor, deluded fools pull out their credit cards and offer to buy a terabyte drive over the Internet for less money than our vendors charge us per phone call.
I tell you, users refuse to sit and be trained like puppies. And the bottom line is this: we can’t keep putting HTML lipstick on a 1960s pig forever. We have to get out of the office and look at what a modern PC looks like—drive, speed, RAM, monitors, everything—and write applications that can take advantage of it.fields
You know how all of our applications have a
? This has worked for decades, you would think people would understand the value of standards
, of consistency
. But out there in the Internet, where there is no Adult Supervision, some of those applications have just one field for a name. You put spaces in it to separate first and last, just like writing a letter, I guess.
When I told one of our users, a business analyst, that using just one field for the name meant a huge amount of work for programmers, she actually asked me what our job was, if not to do the work that makes users productive.
Please, stop laughing. I had the same reaction. How could that possibly work? But the rogues who build that kind of heresy put in a lot of clever little rules and things so that the single field can handle case like
Geroge Smithers, Esq.
When I told one of our users, a business analyst, that using just one field for the name meant a huge amount of work for programmers, she actually asked me what our job was, if not to do the work that makes users productive. I’m very much afraid that things are out of hand. I tried to explain how our database schema works, and so on, but she impatiently insisted that it was our job to make things work.
She then started lecturing me—lecturing ME!—about copy and paste, of all things. She said that it should be convenient to copy and paste between our application and other applications like Word, Excel, and even Outlook. With separate fields, you need to do multiple steps to copy a name between our applications and a letter.
I felt betrayed by Microsoft. Whatever happened to the days when people used just one application, and if they needed another we would give them an export routine? Now she wants to be able to copy a name out of an email and paste it into our application without carefully selecting the last name, first name, and honorific separately.
When I left her office, she was mumbling something about SaaS
or some such. I don’t remember what she meant, but “sass” just about sums up her attitude.
If she was just one lone uppity user, I could handle it. But they’re popping up like toadstools. Just the other day another user was asking why he couldn’t paste an address as one field, including zip code. I told him I didn’t have time to explain how database columns worked, but again he muttered something disrespectful and later I saw him hefting his swingline rather menacingly while looking at our application on his screen.
Brothers and sisters, I know this is hard to take, but we’re losing this war. Our DBA cousins have brainwashed Corporate into believing that they are the custodians of the data, and of the sacred Stored Procedure that Controlleth Access. We have very little choice about how things work.
But still, the users expect us
to make applications every bit as useful for them as the applications they use on the Internet, and I fear that they will rise up and revolt very soon if we don’t find a way to make the database invisible and make user applications conform to these horribly user-centric heresies.
I know, I see the pitchforks in your hands, and your desire to maul, hang, and burn the messenger is understandable. But that won’t fix things, so please put them down, ok?stories
And don’t give me that “User Stories” flim-flam, please. I practically invented
bamboozling users into doing what we want by pretending to put them in charge of an Agile Process. Agile Process indeed, anybody ought to know that if it’s a Process, it sure as heck can’t be Agile.
So you think you can do what we’ve always done, hunh? When they complain about copy and paste, write it up as a story, put it in the backlog, and then—look at that—there’s always a higher priority story to do. There’s always some new functionality that offers a greater ROI than polishing an old feature.
Well, sister, where that goes wrong is that this isn’t polish: it’s what our users expect as basic functionality. You might think it is new and improved and doesn’t add value, but what our users think is that our applications are old and broken and waste their time.
So while on paper a new feature is more important than making paste work, in practice it looks like we build software that slows the organization down.
So save your breath and stop using Agile as an excuse for slapping the crudest crap together and putting fast in front of finished.search
You would things couldn’t get any worse. But they are worse, much worse. I’ll just say one word. Google. Those bastards are practically the home page of the Internet. Which means, to a close approximation, they are the most popular application in the world.
And what have they taught our users? Full-text search wins
. Please, don’t lecture me, we had this discussion way back when we talked about fields. Users know how to use Google. If you give them a search page with a field for searching the account number and a field for searching the SSN and a field for searching the zip code and a field for searching the phone number, they want to know why they can’t just type
4165558734 and find Reg by phone number?
(And right after we make that work for them, those greedy and ungrateful sods’ll want to type
and have it work too. Bastards.)
I have tried explaining that there’s an ambiguity if an account number is also
. But those damn users just give me that “Boy, you are stupid” look that made Samuel Jackson famous. They think we should just show them what we find and let them sort it out. They’re idiots, obviously, but they’re our
idiots and I’m pretty sure that if we fire them all we’ll have to clean our own desks out the following day.
They don’t even get that search results should always show stuff from the same table. Would you believe, if they type a phone number, they want us to search
. They have no respect for our careful husbanding of hardware resources. The profligate spendthrifts think that just because they have a two gigahertz PC at home that can search their entire hard drive for a phone number as fast as they can type it—thanks again, Google
—we should make search as fast and as easy to use in our applications.
We can use tools like Nutch
and what-not for full-text search. But users want to search everything, everywhere, just like Google. And try as we might to get them to use Sharepoint
, they just deride it as a heap of junk. We are going to wind up ceding control of our data to Google sooner or later. I hate to be the one to tell you this, but you might as well hear it from a friend:
You need to start coding your applications so that an external search engine
can search them. That’s right, you need to work with
a desktop search tool and a network search tool so that people can type
and see everything, mail, word docs, and records in your database, in one place.
It’s the future. A miserable, groveling future where our applications work for the users instead of the users working for our applications, but it’s our future.
Suck it up and roll with it.
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