Big Tech and Their Software: The Tent Pole Problem

May 1, 2024

green-dino_thumb_thumb_thumbThis essay is the work of a dumb dinobaby. No smart software required.

I remember a Boy Scout camping trip. I was a Wolf Scout at the time, and my “pack” had the task of setting up our tent for the night. The scout master was Mr. Johnson, and he left it us. The weather did not cooperate; the tent pegs pulled out in the wind. The center tent pole broke. We stood in the rain. We knew the badge for camping was gone, just like a dry place to sleep. Failure. Whom could we blame? I suggested, “McKinsey & Co.” I had learned that third-parties were usually fall guys. No one knew what I was talking about.

4 27 tent collapse

Okay, ChatGPT, good enough.

I thought about the tent pole failure, the miserable camping experience, and the need to blame McKinsey or at least an entity other than ourselves. The memory surfaced as I read “Laws of Software Evolution.” The write up sets forth some ideas which may not be firm guidelines like those articulated by the World Court, but they are about as enforceable.

Let’s look at the laws explicated in the essay.

The first law is that software is to support a real-world task. As result (a corollary maybe?) is that the software has to evolve. That is the old chestnut ““No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” The problem is change, which consumes money and time. As a result, original software is wrapped, peppered with calls to snappy new modules designed to fix up or extend the original software.

The second law is that when changes are made, the software construct becomes more complex. Complexity is what humans do. A true master makes certain processes simple. Software has artists, poets, and engineers with vision. Simple may not be a key component of the world the programmer wants to create. Thus, increasing complexity creates surprises like unknown dependencies, sluggish performance, and a giant black hole of costs.

The third law is not explicitly called out like Laws One and Two. Here’s my interpretation of the “lurking law,” as I have termed it:

Code can be shaped and built upon.

My reaction to this essay is positive, but the link to evolution eludes me. The one issue I want to raise is that once software is built, deployed, and fiddled with it is like a river pier built by Roman engineers.  Moving the pier or fixing it so it will persist is a very, very difficult task. At some point, even the Roman concrete will weather away. The bridge or structure will fall down. Gravity wins. I am okay with software devolution.

The future, therefore, will be stuffed with software breakdowns. The essay makes a logical statement:

… we should embrace the malleability of code and avoid redesign processes at all costs!

Sorry. Won’t happen. Woulda, shoulda, and coulda cannot do the job.

Stephen E Arnold, May 1, 2024


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