Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Successful Software

The fancy programming language, feature-filled IDE and fastest hardware are not what makes a large software project succeed. Its success also does not depend on the perfect build process, in-depth design and accurate cost estimation. All of these are tools to improve the process of software development, but ultimately success depends not on the tools, but instead upon the individuals involved. A change in company policy that causes employee moral to plummet can be far more devastating than a bad design decision. Likewise, a motivated team of brilliant software engineers can consistently solve problems that arise in the development process far better than any tool or process.

A successful project begins with having the right people. What makes a person “right”? There is no perfect formula, but telling attributes include being teachable, friendly, positive, intelligent and willing to work. It is essential to find the right people, because one “wrong” person can greatly diminish the benefits of having several “right” people by draining the time, energy and emotional investment of a team. The wrong person, or even the right person on the wrong team, is a key ingredient in the recipe for disaster.

Once the right people have been found, a foundation of trust must be established between them. Developers need to trust that their managers will treat them fairly and establish reasonable requirements, goals and deadlines. Development managers need to trust that their developers will be honest about their progress, if they are to ever have any idea how well a project is coming along. They must trust that the decisions of upper management have been made after careful consideration and research. Upper management needs to trust the development managers enough to keep from micromanaging so that the work the work can move forward. When trust fails at any of these levels the system as a whole begins to operate at a rate that is less than optimal. An environment of trust is one where the entire focus and force can be place on helping the software project at hand succeed.

Heavy, extended overtime is one of the easiest ways to ruin trust and de-motivate employees. The majority of people are only able to work a certain amount before their productivity begins to slide. Thus the key is not to have employees work more unproductive hours, but rather to help employees be more productive in the hours that they do work. If management can effectively motivate development then more can be accomplished and the costly side effects of employee turnover avoided. This requires a manager who has a positive attitude which helps bring out the best in the team he manages. A team will be much more likely to work hard for a manager who is optimistic and listens to their input than one who only sees the negative and thinks he knows everything. To quote the Bible, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).

Perhaps because software development revolves around computers, it may be easy to point the finger at the machine rather than the man when things go badly. But all too often it is the man, not the machine, that is to blame for a failed software project. More can often be done to build a working environment where the right people, built on a foundation of trust, working together can accomplish great things.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Highest Priority

Tonight I attended the wedding reception of one of a good friend from high school. I love the excitement that accompanies wedding receptions as a new family begins. It puts life into perspective. When it comes down to it what in this life has the greatest potential for bringing happiness or misery to our lives? I believe its our families. In a world that downplays family relationships and encourages individuals to seek happiness in self-centered ways, it is important to protect and defend these family relationships. From my point of view, a family is the most fulfilling thing this life has to offer. It deserves the highest priority in our lives.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Tolerance in America

Yesterday, there was a story in the news about two Mormon missionaries who had vanished while hiking. My mom called and let me know that one of the two missionaries was a friend of mine that I had grown up with. I was extremely worried yesterday, but filled with gratitude this morning when my mom woke me up to let me know that they had been found and were just fine. Yesterday, as I read the news articles about the missing missionaries, it was very disturbing to me how mean and cruel people could be in their comments regarding the news articles. They took it as an opportunity to insult the Mormon faith, instead of expressing concern as any decent person would do. It was extra hurtful to me, because I knew what a good person my friend is. We need greater religious tolerance here in America. I appreciated Mitt Romney's speech this morning, I believe that there is a great need to accept others because of have in common as members of the human family, instead of focusing on differences in our beliefs and customs. Why can't we all just treat each other with respect?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Facebook Beacon: How far is too far?

Last week, online privacy concerns were raised to a new level as the tainted underpinnings of Facebook's Beacon advertising system were exposed. Now as Facebook tries to save face, the important question that everyone online needs to ask is how far is too far? The public is now beginning to see that when you are online, it is quite possible that the whole world might be able to see what you are doing at a given moment. Publishing your latest movie rental or recipe might not seem like a huge deal, but given enough data points and you can turn a lot of harmless information into something quite harmful. For instance, knowing that an anonymous online user speaks Japanese does nothing to help you identify that specific person. But combine that with the information that the user's hometown is some small, mostly Caucasian town in the middle of America and you can probably figure out who that supposedly "anonymous" user is. I'm pretty sure that Facebook did not have bad intentions, but other people will. Facebook is not a small company, how many other people on the web are following your every move? Do you care? In general, we are willing to sacrifice a little privacy for better service in our behalf. But it begs the question, for you how far is too far?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

"Mitt the Mormon" for President

Check out the front page of Slate.com today and the first thing you'll see is a picture of presidential candidate Mitt Romney, accompanied by the words "Boxers, briefs or Mormon underwear." The author of the article, Christopher Hitchens, insists that Romney should feel obligated to discuss his Mormon faith. Hitchens spends the majority of the article accusing Mitt Romney of being a racist, a fraud and a leader of the "mad cult" of Mormonism. The article is blatantly bigoted, packed with half-truths and empty accusations. Hitchens wears his feelings on his sleeve and expects that Romney should as well. Essentially he is asking Romney to center his political campaign upon a religion which Hitchens obviously abhors. In his eyes it's not Mitt Romney but "Mitt the Mormon" running for President. I personally believe, and Mitt Romney does as well, that the President of the United States should be elected based on what they would do for the country, not based on the church they attend. Martin Luther King Jr. hoped that one day his children would "not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." The same type of argument should apply to all people of faith, be they Methodist, Mormon or Muslim.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Oceans Away?

Last Friday an estimated 200 million people tuned in to watch a regular season basketball game between the Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks. That's twice the number of people that watched the Superbowl this year. Who were all these viewers? The game took place in Houston but most of the viewers were found on the other side of the world in China. Friday night was the first meeting of Yao and Yi. When you think of China, the first thing that comes to mind isn't basketball. But Yao Ming and Yi Jianlin are breaking the mold and bringing basketball to the attention of mainland China. It is one example of how connecting the world together has changed the way we live.

In the past oceans and mountains, languages and customs made the world seem enormous. But fiber optic cables and satellites have brought us to the realization that "it's a small world after all." The internet is an amazing thing, my site statistics shows recent visitors to this blog from India, Canada, Chile, England, France, Italy, Vietnam, Russia, the Netherlands, Australia, Romania, Germany, Israel and Greece. It's never been so easy for ideas to be dispersed throughout the earth. Some people, citing examples like last Friday's basketball game, think that this means "Americanizing the whole world. They say that before we know it everyone will be chomping down Big Macs and singing along with Garth Brooks. I don't think so. Although the cultures of the world will continue to intertwine, they will continue to have their own distinct flavor.

Even here in America we appreciate and assimilate the good of other cultures into our own. Drive down University Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota and there are probably four Vietnamese restaurants selling "pho" (beef noodle soup) on every street corner. For years, destitute Hmong refugees in Thailand have hand stitched "pa ndau" (Hmong flower cloth) to send to their relatives in America, where the intricate handiwork is then sold to admiring American collectors. Due largely to the internet, we have unprecedented opportunities to be exposed to unique new forms of art, music and food. Countries all over the world will be able to embrace light and truth, regardless of where it comes from.

The internet has also provided a way for cultures to retain their distinct flavor. Wikipedia has articles in over two hundred languages, evidence that the internet is no longer just an American thing. It is providing a new forum for individuals to communicate in their own language and share information vital to their cultural identity. It is also helping to change the way the world does business. As more and more countries begin to establish their place in the global economy, individuals are able to be successful while remaining in their own countries. These changes suggest that although Beijing and Boston may be only an email away, they can still be an ocean apart culturally.

Why be afraid of the direction the world is moving? We shouldn't feel that our cultural identity is in danger. I am just excited to see what the world has to offer.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Music in the 21st Century

Pretending that things are the same as they've always been can be dangerous. When I think music in the 21st century I think digital. But the music industry is so busy remembering how they made money in the past that they are dragging their feet to join the rest of us in the future. I'm sure that when Henry Ford started pumping out Model T's the people who sold horses and buggies weren't too happy about what it meant for their business. But ignoring new problems does not make them disappear. The music industry has two choices, either adapt and find new ways to make a profit or sit back and watch their share of the market disappear. They are on the losing end of the legal war over digital media and the key is to jump ship while they still can.

The rise of digital music can not be ignored. Napster, Audiogalaxy and Kazaa were some of the first to come pounding on the doors of record companies. They each faced legal problems, but each lawsuit brought the issue of digital rights and the potential of digital music more into the public eye. Along came iPod and iTunes, which helped mp3 players and digital music become part of the mainstream. It was legal and backed by Apple, but there was still the problem of digital rights. Customers asked the question "I purchased it, why am I restricted in how I use it?" Now with Amazon opening up a DRM-free music store, and others including iTunes following suit, the customer can use their music for any of their personal needs without the previous restrictions. All of this spells trouble for the "conventional" music industry.

The move to mp3 can still be profitable for the music industry. It requires a shift in business strategies. All of the music I own is legal. Nearly all of it was purchased because I discovered the band, album or song on the web. If used properly the web can be just another way to promote music. For example, I use the web service Ruckus, which gives college students access to free and legal mp3 downloads. There are a few restrictions, it is only free for college students, the music can't be burned to a CD or put on an mp3 player, and the license for a song must be renewed each month. But none of that bothers me too much. Whenever I find something that I really like on Ruckus, I buy it so I can throw it on my mp3 player and burn it to CD. Friends have always shared tapes and CDs with each other, the music industry counts on that to increase their sales. Why not try and find some way to promote the same type of sharing on the web? When someone purchases an mp3 let them "lend" it out to a limited number of friends for a specified amount of time. Take advantage of the connections people are making online. Web 2.0 is all about social networking. It is about staying connected with others and sharing ideas. The record companies could exploit those channels for their own gain if they put some real thought and effort into it instead of wasting time suing their potential customers. The tear filled eyes of a working single mom are never good for PR. It is time for the music industry to clean up their act and catch up with the rest of the world.