Quality

English: A standard measuring tape.

English: A standard measuring tape. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Your dad’s wasted his money.” came the solemn assessment from my uncle as he handed the package back to me.

His reaction puzzled me because dad was obviously very happy with his purchase. In the pack, there were a number of different tools; a hammer, a set of screwdrivers, a tape measure and various other tools. We were always struggling to find the right tool when we needed it and here we had a whole set in a purpose made carrying pouch. They were cheap too.

How could two people have such different reactions about the same item? It took a while before I understood that it was all down to quality. For a while, I thought that quality was an inherent feature of an item. Some items were of high quality, others were complete tat and everything else lay in between the two.

But quality is much more subtle than that. An item can be classed as a quality item if it conforms to the user’s requirements. So quality is not a feature of an item at all, it is much more related to the user and their requirements. Hence my uncle’s assessment differing from my dad’s.

My uncle was a tradesman. He used tools for a living, all day, every day. For him, two of his top requirements were durability and reliability. He needed his tools to last a long time and he needed them to work every single time.

Dad used tools occasionally when he was doing a bit of DIY around the house or when he had some flat packed furniture to assemble. His top requirements were value for money and comprehensiveness. If the tools let him down, it would not be the end of the world.

Understanding the requirements of the user is of vital importance in any project. If you don’t know what the user wants, how on Earth are you going to make sure you have met them? If the requirements are absent or incomplete, the temptation is to unconsciously use your own inbuilt requirements as a yardstick and they might be very different indeed.

This is hard enough in the world of the physical. When it comes to the ethereal world of computer systems, it is even more important to make sure that there is a set of comprehensive requirements describing what the user expects. After all, one man’s bug is another man’s feature.

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Southern Comfort

English: Entrance to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth ...

English: Entrance to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although it’s only a couple of hours away, I’ve never spent much time in Birmingham, the UK’s second city. Now, thanks to a recent acquisition by my company, I’ve spent more time in a place I never thought I’d visit, Birmingham Alabama. Not that it’s particularly easy to get to. Despite the nomenclature, I couldn’t find a single International flight heading into or out of Birmingham International Airport, not even to neighbouring countries like Mexico or Canada.

In the absence of direct flights, connecting flights are the order or the day which means a very long journey from the UK. I don’t know whether I’m especially unlucky, but when you have flight connections in the States, you only have a 50:50 chance of making it to where you intended when you intended. The scope for things to go wrong (weather, mechanical failure, long immigration queues, airline incompetence) seems immense. How native US citizens put up with it is beyond me.

I didn’t know much about the place before I got there and a quirk of fate gave us a free day during our business trip. As we were in the centre of town, we picked up a tourist map from the hotel and set off on foot. The closest destination picked out on the map was the Peanut Depot. We had no idea what to expect but thought if it’s on the map, it must be worth a visit. When we found a shop selling peanuts, we assumed there must be more to it. A quick scan around the place told us that the only other thing worth noting was a plaque on the wall proclaiming it a historic building at 115 years old. If that’s what defines a historic building, half the buildings in the UK wear similar plaques.

The next entry on the map was a tower. When we got there, we realised it was just an office block. A tall office block, but an office block all the same.

Clearly, we needed advice. Luckily, the next destination on the map was the tourist information office. Upon arrival, they greeted us enthusiastically and insisted we sign the guest book. Although there was no dust on the guest book, the previous entry predated ours by some margin. The friendly people directed us to the Civil Rights Institute. Inside the foyer of the Institute, we spied a display case containing something both sinister and ridiculous; a Ku Klux Klan outfit donated by an anonymous donor. Wandering through the exhibits was enlightening but also shocking. It’s hard to imagine mistreatment of a whole race on such a scale barely 20 years after World War 2 and only 50 years ago.

Birmingham city centre is a lonely place. We hardly saw a soul and we walked around for hours. There is a staggering dearth of people given that there are over 200,000 residents. As so few Alabamans seems to walk anywhere, it’s also surprising to find so many cobblers.

I have subsequently stayed outside of town where bizarrely, there is more going on. The scenery’s amazing. There are more bars, more restaurants, more shops and more people. The people in Birmingham are very friendly. They did try to poison me once with something called a peanut butter & jelly sandwich. A vile concoction of sweetness and ungodly textures contained between two slices of bread. I’ve forgiven them, for now, but I will be deeply suspicious of any strange-sounding fare from now on!

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Faceless

Faceless World

Faceless World (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am a great lover of new technology, but only when it makes people’s lives easier or more enjoyable. In a connected world, you can find just about any form of goods or services with a google search and a few clicks. That side of life is superb, especially if you are looking for something niche or esoteric. Where I hate technology is when it is used for the sake of it or to keep people at bay.

Sometimes, your enquiry has a bit more nuance than just searching for the right item in the right size and clicking the add to basket button. Sometimes you want to talk through the options with something or someone who has passed the Turing test. The last thing many companies want is for you to speak to a real life human being. Human beings are comparatively expensive, even on minimum wage or on the other side of the world in a sweatshop.

They would rather hide their phone numbers and when you look for more assistance, direct you to a glorified FAQ page with the things that people commonly ask. They are missing the point. The whole reason you want to speak to someone is because you have a question that’s not that common. If it were, whatever it was you sought would be in plain sight.

Sometimes they use a chat mechanism. Despite the message on the website saying there are umpteen agents available, you click to link to open up a session, only to be told that the site is waiting for the next available operator. If there are so many agents available, why do I have to wait? Then, eventually, a window opens and the agent introduces themselves.

“Hello, my name is Derek. How can I help you?”

I feel like typing in “Your name’s not Derek at all. Can you get a real human being to phone me on this number”.

Of course I don’t. I play the game and type in my enquiry. I then wait… and wait. Because “Derek” or whoever it is has loads of different chat windows open talking to many people at once. First you get radio silence. Then you get “Derek is typing a response”. Either Derek only has one finger or he’s a rubbish typist because it takes him ages to type his terse reply in the form of an open-ended question. I appreciate the need for businesses to keep costs down, but I can’t imagine a more detached sales channel.

Surely it’s worth lavishing a little more attention on a potential prospect?

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It’s all for Charity

Money cash

Money cash (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

A local charity had never received a donation from the town’s banker, so the director made a phone call.

“Our records show you make $500,000 a year, yet you haven’t given a penny to charity,” the director began. “Wouldn’t you like to help the community?”

The banker replied, “Did your research show that my mother is ill, with extremely expensive medical bills?”

“Um, no,” mumbled the director.

“Or that my brother is blind and unemployed? Or that my sister’s husband died, leaving her broke with four kids?”

“I … I … I had no idea.”

“So,” said the banker, “if I don’t give them any money, why would I give any to you?”

Unlike our banking friend, most of us try to give some money to charity as and when we can. We probably do this for a number of reasons. Maybe it’s to ease our conscience or it could be to make a difference to something we feed strongly about. For some it’s about helping others or a form of giving back to the community. Whatever the reason, there are a huge number to choose from. In the UK alone, there are 180,000 registered charities, which is roughly one for every 350 people.

I find that number staggering. It’s certainly good that there’s a lot of choice of where to donate your hard-earned money. I’m sure the vast majority do a fantastic job for their chosen cause. But isn’t it rather too many? Private enterprises merge because they know that the value of the whole is likely to be greater than the sum of the two parts.  Much of the overhead of running the organisation is vastly reduced. You don’t need two lots of HR, Finance and Marketing. You also don’t need two CEOs which can only be a good thing when you consider some of the salaries for charity appointments in the broadsheets.

The granularity is great if you want your money to go somewhere very specific and that could be very important to someone who’s been helped by charity. If you’ve been rescued by the Lesser Piddling-on-the-Marsh air ambulance and that made the difference between life and death, you probably want your money to go in that particular direction. But I’m less convinced about the large generalist charities. Do we really need teabags in need, save the teabags and national society for the prevention of gross insensitivity to teabags?

 

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Danger danger!

Dangerous Risk Adrenaline Suicide by Fear of F...

Dangerous Risk Adrenaline Suicide by Fear of Falling (Photo credit: epSos.de)

There once was a monastery in perched high on a cliff several hundred feet in the air. The only way to reach the monastery was to be suspended in a basket which was pulled to the top by several monks who pulled and tugged with all their strength. Obviously the ride up the steep cliff in that basket was terrifying. One tourist got exceedingly nervous about half-way up as he noticed that the rope by which he was suspended was old and frayed.

With a trembling voice he asked the monk who was riding with him in the basket how often they changed the rope. The monk thought for a moment and answered brusquely, “Whenever it breaks.”

Being scared of heights, I’m not sure I would get in that basket, even if the rope was brand new and 6 inches thick. No-one in their right mind would get into that basket if there was visible wear and tear on the rope. It would be a good idea to inspect the rope regularly and replace it at the first sign of damage. For the really paranoid, you might even replace it every so often with a new rope just in case.

But when it comes to the world of software, it’s a little bit different. People are very risk averse. Even if the software they are running has a known serious defect, they sometimes perceive the risk of taking a fix to be higher than living with the status quo. So let me get this straight, in software terms, you are dangling in a basket hundreds of feet up suspended by a dangerously frayed rope. I’m offering to fit you a new rope, but you don’t want to take it in case there’s a manufacturing defect. Or maybe it might cause a problem with the basket. Why did you even report the problem if you don’t want to take a fix?

It’s not a fair analogy because software is much more complex than a simple basket suspended by a rope. There are many interdependencies. But even so, the risk of doing something always needs to be compared with the risk of doing nothing.  Yes, something might go wrong, but you are in a situation where something is absolutely definitely wrong right now and causing you lots of pain.

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2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 9,400 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

Bad news should travel FAST

ablaze

ablaze (Photo credit: zachstern)

One of the biggest man-made disasters I can remember is Chernobyl. I once read a book called “Ablaze” which told the story of the meltdown. The thing that shocked me to my core was how eager the protagonists were to cover things up. You’d think that when an alarm sounds at one of your biggest nuclear power stations, the temptation would be to err on the side of caution.

Instead, they called out the local fire brigade. They were equipped as you might imagine a 1980s Soviet fire crew would be. They had little or nothing in the way of protective clothing and the equivalent of a large tank of water on wheels. When they arrived, they did what they could. They pulled out their hoses and sprayed water on the exposed radioactive core. It was only when the brave firemen started keeling over that the men in charge thought to escalate things.

They called in helicopters to drop water and sand on the exposed core. Again, only when they started dropping like flies did the men in charge raise the alert level. I fully believe that they would have covered the whole thing up. It was only when a Scandinavian monitoring station picked up the elevated levels of radioactivity in the atmosphere did the Soviet authorities reluctantly come clean.

The temptation with any bad news is to suppress it. The fact is that bad news needs to be handled very carefully. You need to act F.A.S.T.

Firstly, get the (F)acts straight. What has gone wrong? Why did it go wrong? How will it be fixed? How long will it take? How can we be sure it won’t happen again?

Secondly, think about the (A)udience. Who are you going to tell about the situation? If you fart in church, you apologise to the man next door. You don’t stand up and announce it to the entire congregation. Nor do you take out an advert in the local paper.

The first person I would include in the audience is  your boss. Many would instinctively shy away from this, but the chances are, he’s either going to smell the shit on the fan or someone is going to point it out to him. The news is better coming from you. The other people I would include in the audience are any stakeholders who are about to be affected by the bad news.

Thirdly, (S)it down and take a deep breath. Things are going to get ugly. There will be a lot of emotion flying around. The best thing to do is make sure you keep coming back to the facts.

Lastly, (T)ell people what’s going on. Tell them early and tell them often. No communication is much, much worse than a short note to say we realise how serious things are and we are still working hard on the problem. They want to know you are treating it seriously and that they are in safe hands. Keep encouraging your team. They will be facing the pressure too. As much as possible, shield them from it. They will be the ones that get you through it.

And when it’s all over, take a moment to relax. You’ve earned it.

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Siblings

Cherub

Cherub (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We were born in exactly the same place by exactly the same parents almost exactly three years apart and yet you’d never know by observation that we are brothers. We don’t share the same temperament, the same mannerisms or the same taste in clothes or music. He considers himself Irish whereas I consider myself English. We have completely different vocations. Most people’s reaction when they find out we are siblings is surprise.

You’d never guess my nieces were siblings either. Sophie is Maisie’s younger sister. Whereas Sophie has blonde hair and fair skin, Maisie has a Mediterranean look to her with olive skin and dark hair. Maisie is the eldest so it’s no surprise that her vocal skills came to her earlier in life, but as much as Maisie found her voice early, Sophie struggles to find her words. Because she struggles to make herself understood, she gets frustrated. Maisie had her moments but was in general well-behaved. Sophie’s frustration boils over into naughtiness.

She has her moments of cuteness. She will give you this cherubic smile usually a split second before you realise that her finger is reaching for an electrical socket or just as she has your car keys dangled over the toilet bowl. She is good at getting her own way and when she does, she shoots off this look of utter smugness that would make a saint swear.

They say that little girls are made of sugar and spice and all things nice. I’m not sure they followed the recipe to the letter with Sophie. She’s more a dash of rock and roll with one part toad to two parts imp. I get the impression that she’s going to lead an exciting life. In the very rare moments when she’s not terrorising the cat or deleting the entire contents of my iTunes library, I contemplate examining her scalp for demonic markings.

She still has the power to melt my heart. When she arrives and comes running towards me arms outstretched shouting “Mart Mart”, all is forgiven.

A few days ago, Maisie and Sophie were joined by another sibling. Eva Louisa was born shortly after Christmas and although she is supposedly the largest at birth of the three, it’s hard to believe. She’s doll-like in size. On first inspection, she seems to be a carbon copy of Maisie. So it seems that the larder has been successfully restocked with sugar and spice and all things nice. Time will tell…

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Well? What’s it to be, punk!

English: Santa Claus with a little girl Espera...

English: Santa Claus with a little girl Esperanto: Patro Kristnasko kaj malgranda knabino Suomi: Joulupukki ja pieni tyttö (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As is traditional at this time of year, we took our nieces to see Santa Claus. The eldest enjoyed it and the youngest is just about over the trauma now. The elf at the front gate confessed to us that more children hated Santa than liked him. Thank Goodness we didn’t go to a Winter Wonderland attraction that recently had to shut down. The attraction sounded great in the promotional material. Reindeer, sleigh rides with real huskies and Santa’s grotto. What could possibly go wrong?

It’s as if the organisers had a checklist. Working to a tight immovable deadline (i.e. Christmas), they just about managed to tick everything off. But because they were running out of time, they had to cut corners. They only had two Reindeer and they managed to look suspiciously like cows with stuck on antlers. The sleigh rides had some real huskies (well 2 to be precise). For some reason, the Santas weren’t available until late in the day. Even when they did turn up, they were thin not fat and their outfits were the cheap see-through plastic kind you get from pound land. The ice rink had no ice. The magic tunnel of ice was a few fairy lights dangled among the trees.

A funny thing happens when you are running out of time and still try to squeeze everything in. Because there isn’t enough time, corners get cut and quality slowly starts its inexorable slide downhill. In this example, the collateral damage was mainly financial, but there will be many children out there for whom the magic of Christmas has been tainted somewhat. But when the same thing happens with software, it can be catastrophic.

When a software project starts to overrun, you have a number of choices. You can slip the deadline (i.e. just accept that delivery will take longer than originally thought). You can slip the budget by putting more people on the project but there is a point where this just makes things worse (read the mythical man month by Fred Brooks). You can slip function (by accepting that you won’t deliver as much). For those who think they can deliver despite the overrun by questioning every estimate and applying pressure, then you end up in Winter Wonderland with only one reindeer and an anorexic Santa.

The default option if you try not to slip anything is quality. And poor quality in software means bugs, glitches & crashes. It also means unhappy clients and unlike Winter Wonderland, most software is around for a very long time.

So what’s it to be?

Roleplaying. It’s kind of like sex. Sort of. Except it isn’t…

La bildo estas kopiita de wikipedia:es. La ori...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s no way anyone could get a good idea of what sex is like from reading a written description. I’m sure they could understand the mechanics of insert tab A into slot B, but I doubt they could understand the all consuming compulsion or the nuances of the experience.

I’ve never found a truly satisfying written description of roleplaying games either. The experience is very difficult to capture. It’s a bit like the childhood game “let’s pretend” with rules. Maybe it’s more like an interactive movie. But it’s not like a movie at all – because no-one knows beforehand what’s going to happen. It’s almost impossible to define.

Whatever it is – I like it.

The most satisfying way to play is in an extended campaign in which the story unfolds during many sessions over a long period. Everyone at the table contributes, but one more than the rest. Someone needs to have an idea of the general scheme of things. Preparing for such a campaign is almost all-consuming.

First you need to understand the game system you plan to use. They all have their own rules and milieu Then you need to think about the story. The best way to prepare is to immerse yourself into everything you can think of from the genre of the game you want to run; music, books, films etc.

I’ve run some really satisfying campaigns that lasted for a long time. I ran a fantasy game where all the gods were based on the periodic table (with heavy metals as the bad guys and precious metals as the good guys). Another involved the players as spirits in the afterlife investigating hauntings and releasing ghosts from the ties that bind so that they can move on.

We’ve played in World War II, the Wild West with Zombies, the nautical world of Patrick O’ Brien, the post apocalyptic world of Mad Max, the time travelling pulp world of caddish archeologists and many others.

Right now, I’m preparing a game of hard science fiction. The players will crew a starship around a far future cluster of systems, trying to make a few credits without getting blasted out of the cosmos. I’ve hungrily devoured as many science fiction novels as I can. My choice in films has driven my wife mad. I’ve filled my iPhone with Holst‘s Planets as well as a number of  favourite movie themes.

I do all this because the more you put in, the more enjoyable the campaign will be. The build up is like foreplay.