Short Takes on Software Development and Life

A Selection of Our Take Columns.

The Our Take column in's StickyLetter presents parallels between the world of software production and the world at large. Here are some previous musings by past editor Pamela Young.

That's the Way the Cookie Crumbles
I have heard people talk about "baking quality" into the software, as opposed to finding and siphoning out the defects at the end. That certainly makes sense, but this whole baked-in thing became clearer to me after a recent experience making some bad cookies. How can cookies be bad, you ask? Well, if someone puts too much salt into a single batch--say, a tablespoon rather than a teaspoon--cookies can, in fact, be pretty bad. The visual difference between "TBSP" and "tsp" is not nearly as drastic as the palatable difference in a small batch of cookies.

In this particular recipe, that difference had a distinct negative effect on the product. Yet by the time the cookies were sampled and this was discovered, what were we to do? You can't very well vacuum out the salt at that point. You basically have to throw out the whole batch and start over, using new materials and additional time.

Sound familiar?

If only we had double-checked the recipe more closely as we added the ingredients. If only we had sampled the batter along the way. Or what if we had worked together, calling out what we were doing and giving the other a chance to say, "Wait. The recipe says teaspoon, not tablespoon" or even "A tablespoon sounds like too much salt." Maybe we could have avoided the disaster.

Of course, there were temptations to get by without actually having to make a new batch, because by this time we were low on flour. For instance, we thought about covering the not-so-sweet cookies with a bunch of frosting and hoping that the lavish, sweet topping would camouflage our mistake. We also talked about calling them tea biscuits or something that might imply that the flat, salty taste was meant to be sophisticated. "Ah, yes. The salty aftertaste is perfectly matched with a cup of piping hot Earl Grey, don't you think?"

I'm sure some of you can think of software equivalents to these ill-fated shortcuts.

But in the end we had to bake a new batch of cookies, using the right ingredients in the right amounts. So I will never again hear about baked-in quality without a slight craving for dessert.

For cookies that is, not "tea biscuits."

What Does Your Garden Grow?
I like gardening. I grew up with a big yard and lots of flowerbeds that my Mother tended with care. Now I putter in my own yard and make frequent trips to the nursery. It's common for me to scout out a nice spot and create a whole new bed in a weekend. So you can imagine my excitement when I moved into a house with twice the yard as my previous home. I was anxious to dive into the overgrown beds and chop out new spaces for planting.

But then a funny thing happened. Spring arrived, and I noticed some sprouts breaking through the weeds. I soon discovered I had a river of daffodils that spilled across the side of the yard. I started looking around and found a strand of irises next to one of the trees. A month later, a twelve-foot row of gorgeous peonies emerged and kept my house in cut flowers for weeks! Each season brought a new surprise, and I was so glad I hadn't started tilling. In fact, other than pulling weeds and trimming hedges, I simply let the year unfold and took stock of what my yard had to give me.

What does this have to do with software? We operate in a fast-paced world with

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