James O'Neill's Blog

April 22, 2012

Don’t Swallow the cat. Doing the right thing with software development and other engineering projects.

Filed under: Uncategorized — jamesone111 @ 8:30 pm

In my time at Microsoft I became aware of the saying “communication occurs only between equals.” usually couched in the terms “People would rather lie than deliver bad news to Steve Ballmer”. Replacing unwelcome truths with agreeable dishonesty wasn’t confined to the CEOs direct reports, and certainly isn’t a disease confined to Microsoft. I came across ‘The Hierarchy of Power Semantics’ more than 30 years ago when I didn’t understand what was meant by the title; it was written in the 1960s and if you don’t recognise “In the "beginning was the plan and the specification, and the plan was without form and the specification was void and there was darkness on the face of the implementation team”  see here – language warning for the easily offended.
Wikipedia says the original form of “communication occurs only between equals”  is Accurate communication is possible only in a non-punishing situation. There are those who (consciously or not) use the impossibly of saying “No” to extract more from staff and suppliers; it can produce extraordinary results, but sooner or later it goes horribly wrong. For example the Challenger disaster was caused by the failure of an ‘O’ ring in solid rocket booster made by Morton Thiokol. The engineers responsible for the booster were quite clear that in cold weather the ‘O’ rings were likely to fail with catastrophic results.  NASA asked if a launch was OK after a freezing night and fearing the consequences of saying “No” managers at Morton Thiokol over-ruled the engineers and allowed the disastrous launch to go ahead.  Most people can think of some case where someone made an impossible promise to a customer, because they were afraid to say no.

Several times recently I have heard people say something to the effect that ‘We’re so committed to doing this the wrong way that we can’t change to the right way.”  Once the person saying it was me, which was the genesis of this post. Sometimes, in a software project because saying to someone – even to ourselves – “We’re doing this wrong” is difficult, so we create work rounds. The the odd title of this post comes from a song which was played on the radio a lot when I was a kid.

There was an old lady, who swallowed a fly, I don’t know why she swallowed a fly. I guess she’ll die.
There was an old lady, who swallowed a spider that wriggled and jiggled and ticked inside her. She Swallowed the spider to catch the fly  … I guess she’ll die
There was an old lady, who swallowed a bird. How absurd to swallow a bird. She swallowed the bird to catch the spider … I guess she’ll die
There was an old lady, who swallowed a cat. Fancy that to swallow a cat. She swallowed the cat to catch the bird …  I guess she’ll die
There was an old lady, who swallowed a dog. What a hog to swallow a dog. She swallowed the dog to catch the cat … I guess she’ll die
There was an old lady, who swallowed a horse. She’s dead, of course

In other words each cure needs a further, more extreme cure.  In my case the “fly” was a simple problem I’d inherited. It would take a couple of pages to explain the context, so for simplicity it concerns database tables and the “spider” was to store data de-normalized. If you don’t spend your days working with databases, imagine you have a list of suppliers, and a list of invoices from those suppliers. Normally you would store an ID for the supplier in the invoice table, and look up the name from the supplier table using the ID. For what I was doing it was better to put the supplier name in the invoices table, and ignore the ID. All the invoices for the supplier can be looked up by querying for the name. The same technique applied to products supplied by that supplier: store the supplier name in the product table, look up products by supplier name. This is not because I didn’t know any better, I had database normal forms drummed into me two decades ago. To stick with the metaphor: I know that, under normal circumstances, swallowing spiders is bad, but faced with this specific fly it was demonstrably the best course of action.
At this point someone who could have saved me from my folly pointed out that supplier names had to be editable. I protested that the names don’t change, but Amalgamated Widgets did, in fact, become Universal Widgets. This is an issue because Amalgamated not Universal raised the invoices in the filing cabinet so matching them to invoices in the system requires preserving the name as it was when the invoice was generated. “See, I was right name should be stored” – actually this exception doesn’t show I was right at all, but on I went. On the other hand all of  Amalgamated’s products belong to Universal now. Changing names means doing a cascaded update (update any product with the old company name to the new name when a name changes) the real case has more than just products. If you’re filling in the metaphor you’ve guessed I’d reached the point of figuring out how to swallow a bird. Worse, I could see another problem looming (anyone for Cat ?): changes to products had to be exported to another system, and the list of changes had their own table requiring cascaded updates from the cascaded updates.

One of the great quotes in Macbeth says “I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” he knows what he’s doing is wrong, but it is as hard to go back (and do right) as it is to go on.  Except it isn’t: the solution is not to swallow another couple more spiders and a fly, the solution is to swallow a bird, then a cat and so on.  The dilemma is that the effort for an additional work-round is smaller than the effort to go back fix the initial problem and unpick all the work-rounds to date – either needs to be done now, and the easy solution is to choose the one which needs the least effort now. The sum of effort required for future work-rounds is greater but we can discount that effort because it isn’t needed now. Only in a non-punishing situation can we tell people that progress must be halted for a time to fix a problem which has been mitigated up to now. Persuading people that such a problem needs to fixed at all isn’t trivial, I heard this quote in a Radio programme a while back

“Each uneventful day that passes reinforces a steadily growing false sense of confidence that everything is alright:
that I, we, my group must be OK because the way we did things today resulted in no adverse consequences.”

In my case the problem is being fixed at the moment, but in how many organisations is it what career limiting move to tell people that something which has had now adverse consequences to date must be fixed? 

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