Why software sucks

Oh yes it does, believe you me. And if you don’t believe me, believe Jack Baruth:

Once upon a time, software was written by people who knew what they were doing, like Mel and his descendants. They were generally solitary, socially awkward fellows with strong awareness of TSR gaming. They were hugely effective at doing things like getting an Atari 2600 to run Pac-Man or writing operating system kernels that never crashed, but they weren’t terribly manageable and they could be real pricks when you got in their way. I once worked with a fellow who had been at the company in question for twenty-three years and had personally written a nontrivial percentage of the nine million lines of code that, when compiled, became our primary product. He was un-fire-able and everybody knew it. There were things that only he knew.

I am not a developer, but this is what I aspire to. (In fact, apart from not being a developer, this is about where I am.)

This kind of situation might work out well for designing bridges or building guitars (not that Paul Reed Smith appears to miss Joe Knaggs all that much, to use an inside-baseball example) but it’s hell on your average dipshit thirty-five-year-old middle manager, who has effectively zero leverage on the wizard in the basement. Therefore, a movement started in the software business about fifteen years ago to ensure that no more wizards were ever created. It works like this: Instead of hiring five guys who really know their job at seventy bucks an hour each, you hire a team of fifty drooling morons at seven bucks an hour each. You make them program in pairs, with one typing and the other once watching him type (yes! This is a real thing! It’s called “extreme programming”!) or you use a piece of software to give them each a tiny bit of the big project.

Actually, I think the going rate for drooling morons is now $7.25.

This is what you get from a management perspective: fifty reports who are all pathetically grateful for the work instead of five arrogant wizards, the ability to fire anybody you like at any time without consequence, the ability to demand outrageous work hours and/or conditions (I was just told that a major American corporation is introducing “bench seating” for its programmers, to save space), and a product that nominally fulfills the spec. This is what you get from a user perspective: the kind of crapware that requires updates twice a week to fix bugs introduced with the previous updates. Remember the days when you could buy software that simply worked, on a floppy disk or cartridge, with no updates required? Those were the wizards at work. Today, you get diverse teams of interchangeable, agile, open-office, skill-compatible resources that produce steaming piles of garbage.

What can I say? “Arrogant wizard” is surely somewhere in my DNA. The kids have it, for sure.


  1. Francis W. Porretto »

    17 February 2014 · 4:29 am

    The “problem” of the unmanageable wizard, despite management’s frenzied efforts to displace him, remains today. The dynamic that creates him, maintains him, and insulates him against control from “above” has changed, but the “problem” he poses has not. I can speak with some authority about this, as I am one such. I’ll be posting about this later this morning.

  2. Tatyana »

    18 February 2014 · 6:22 pm

    Francis, don’t be so sure in your untouchability.
    One day some young turk managers will make a brilliant presentation to Powers At The Wheel, with diagrams and statistical models, claiming the company will make much more profits if it forgets current product and goes after some latest fad, outsourcing most expensive production someplace else – and said Powers buy it for whatever reason and since your Old Untouchable Man knows zilch of this new fad, he’s told to pack his staff and be escorted off the premises.
    What happens to that company afterwards is a different question and not Old Fossil’s problem – his problem is to find something, anything to occupy himself in the empty days ahead…

  3. Joseph Hertzlinger »

    21 February 2014 · 12:15 am

    “Remember the days when you could buy software that simply worked, on a floppy disk or cartridge, with no updates required?”

    No. Software always had bugs.

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