Last minute featurettes

Did I say that we’re heading for a release? This is always an exciting time in the office. (Especially when one crucial member of staff was off for two days after an after-show party. I have my suspicions about whether said tin man was in bed with a hangover or something else, but I hope he had a lovely time either way.)

It’s especially challenging at the moment as David came in looking somewhat stressed and very excited.He has made a massive sale (he hopes) to a whole group of GP practices, but (there’s always a “but” isn’t there) they have an extra set of financial issues. They have been using some other package, and want to be able to export all the current data from package X and put it into our package (hitherto not given a name but let us call it “VAT’s up Doc”). And their database and our database have some differences of opinion.

Now Ian, lovely Ian, treasures databases as if they were his third child (and more than his five-a-side football team). He is happy when thinking of such things as efficient sorting tables and effective queries. I don’t talk to him much about it, but occasionally I hear snippets as I go by. Apparently incorporating this other system means a total restructuring of the data tables (whatever that implies). I, of course, want to get my filthy, little hands on the interface and see how their work method compares to our work method. But I won’t get a chance. They are pulling Ian out of the development push to the release date so he can restructure his tables. Worse than that, if he restructures the data tables every other transaction that we use on the data will have to be checked, tested, and possibly rewritten. So there are some heartfelt meetings going on as to how they’re going to organise the development effort and what features are going to be cut so they can squeeze in the restructure and whether the sale is absolutely guaranteed with a signed contract with plenty of exciting trailing zeroes.

And I know that they will cut it and hack it and do whatever it takes and it will require some front end re-design to make it work and no-one will have the time or effort available to ensure that the re-design is going to be user-friendly because what matters is that the transfer is going to work first time.

Oh well. At least I know it’s doomed and I understand why. And at least there’s something fairly stable there for them to hack about with. And looking on the really bright side of life, this does mean that David won’t put any other featurettes in.

What is maths for?

Some of you will have been following the controversy about Michael Gove’s (the education secretary) ideas about the curriculum for primary and secondary education. Some of this has to do with how maths is taught and what it’s for.

There appear to be two views about education: one that it is designed to equip people to operate in the world. So you teach people how to hew wood and draw water, so they will be efficient and effective wood-hewers and water-drawers and increase the country’s GNP and so on; the other that it teaches people to think, so they suggest maybe we could have an aqueduct.

And maths can be seen as a set of tools in your toolbox, to tell you how much wood to hew and water to draw, or even how to set up the aqueduct at the correct angle and flow rate. Or it can be seen as a philosophy, a way of thinking about the world. Or even an art form, an occupation that is a human pleasure and delight and not necessarily for anything.

One of the thing that concerns me about interface design is that sometimes, it is a series of incremental improvements to make things easier, rather than a question as to whether the thing that is being done is worth doing at all. Yes, I know, that it is seen as a luxury. firstly, there are the bills to pay and the food to cook (and the wood to hew and the water to draw). But occasionally, if you have the time, ask yourself if there is something of delight in what you are doing. If so, it is probably worth it.

Organisational culture

I promised everyone an organisational analysis of the GandD’s company. You’ve probably already worked out that I’m a bit of a fan of soft systems methodology (Peter Checkland). NO, you probably haven’t, after all, I don’t think I’ve mentioned it before. Well, I am, because it tries to deal with complex problems.

OK. Back to organisational models. You can think of an organisation as made up (like Gaul) of three interdependent parts. These are:

  1. Systems: the functions that are carried out
  2. Structure: the layers in the hierarchy
  3. Culture: the norms and values of the environment in which you operate

Systems and structures are pretty straightforward. Most people can say what they do and where they stand in a hierarchy. Culture is a bit more complicated.
This is because the culture of an organisation arises from its history and previous purposes, as well as its current ones. It can also change according to the people who are in post.

The notes |I have refer to four types of culture:

  1. Power
  2. Role
  3. Task
  4. Person

You’ll have probably worked out  (oh, I was wrong last time when I said that)… Maybe you’ve worked out that GandD operate a power culture. They have it, and they want to keep it. One of the weaknesses of a power culture is that it is static. Information flows to and from the hub, but it doesn’t tend to move much between departments horizontally. Also, the owners of power don’t tend to want to train up successors.

GandD have each other, and they’ve pretty much split the company between them. You can think of them as the left and right hemispheres of the brain. There’s a lot of communication running between them, but they have one to one communication with each part of the body. They see their company very much like that. They can’t see why Ian would need to chat to Jeanette or Jeanette would want to chat to me, because you don’t get hands talking to ankles, or ears chatting to livers: except of course, you do. There isn’t just a nervous system running through the body, there are other ways messages are carried, most obviously in the blood. You can think of gossip as all those molecules being transported about, from lungs to heart to liver to pancreas to skin…

I’m quite enjoying this analogy. And then you can have new people coming in like blood transfusions, and how your muscles behave differently when they’re tired, and how the placebo effect works and, well, anyway, I think I’d better stop there before I go too far.

Oh, did I mention it’s Nick’s show this weekend? I don’t know who sneaked onto his computer when he’d gone out to get some coffee and changed all the system sounds to snatches off music from The Wizard of Oz, but they did a very thorough job. Even now, you’re never quite sure if “Ding, dong, the witch is dead” is suddenly going to come pouring from his speakers when he’s compiling a library.

The value of installation guides

I was updating the installation guide today. This is not one of my favourite tasks. Obviously, I have to install the software as often as possible, on as many different operating systems as possible, locally and on a network and so on and so on. (Did you say that sounds like testing? You’d be right.)

I wonder how many people ever look at an installation guide these days? Download the program and there it is. Perhaps you might have a CD or DVD drive with a disk that needs installing, but mostly it is an unnecessary item.

Except for all the other messages it carries. What to do when things go wrong. What your license number is. Whether the company is solid, reliable, reassuring. Some of this is to do with human emotions. Although we may be suspicious of marketing, we still succumb to it, the weight and glossiness of an object. The sense that somehow it has value. The booklet is the only tangible evidence that we have that we have bought something. It must represent the value that we have paid.

I haven’t mentioned much about the developers lately. This is because they all have the “heads down, arses up” aspect of extreme concentration before the release date approaches. The steady ones are getting more frazzled: Ian, normally calm in all situations, is drinking more coffee than usual. Nick is going straight from work to rehearsals. Loadsoftime Jack seems to have realised that there isn’t loads of time, and is frantically flip-flopping between all the different bugs that he is fixing and introducing. And GandD are both very happy. There is a very very big contract in the offing. Yes, the re-organisation of the NHS, so disturbing to so many, has been a wonderful gift to them.