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The danger of separating tool builders from tool users

A post titled If You're Not Gonna Use It, Why Are You Building It? contains some sage advice:

If you find yourself creating something, and you don't understand how it will be used, and you don't plan on using it yourself, then it's time to take a few steps back and reevaluate what you're doing.
"Because someone told me to" is rarely a good reason to be building something. Along the same lines, if someone can accurately describe what someone else wants to have built without being able to articulate why they want it, alarm bells should be ringing.

This problem arises when deciding whether to consolidate expertise around tooling and dedicate explicit "builders" from "users". Clearly there are scenarios where one extreme makes sense (imagine the chaos if the sys admin role was pushed out to everyone in a low tech-expertise environment) but with complex, bespoke tools, the answer is rarely as obvious.

Specialize and consolidate expertise on the tool, platform or system, but risk having the builders lose touch with how and why people are using it?

Or, align tooling ownership with people using it? In many ways this is equivalent to 'everyone owns it'. Changes and feature additions are well understood but aren't necessarily built in the context of a broader 'vision' and therefore might not work with other aspects.

There are benefits and drawbacks to both approaches.

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Weekly link roundup

Random interesting links from the week:

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Mixed incentives at Heathrow: pollution or noise?

It's been a while since I've taken a red-eye into Heathrow but the last time I did so from Seattle there were favorable winds over the Atlantic leading to our early arrival in the vicinity of London. Instead of proceeding to land, we spent 30 minutes circling on the outskirts of the city until it was 6am and the take-off/landing restrictions designed to reduce noise pollution had opened up.

On their own noise abatement steps seem reasonable for those located in a flight path or near an airport. I suspect those same affected individuals likely also have an opinion on wasted jet fuel and unnecessary CO2 emissions too, perhaps, these days feeling even more strongly about the latter. But is that trade-off ever explicitly considered?

Solving for one problem in a vacuum can have unexpected side effects.

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Should we celebrate auto safety improvements?

Some data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) maintained NHTSA:

Even over the last 15 years, following the mandate requiring seat belts (1989) and airbags (1998), safety while traveling by road continues to improve. The causes are likely many -- vehicle improvements (ABS, computer controlled braking, collision avoidance), public education (drunk driving, texting, etc), improved signage and road construction -- and the payoffs are clear.

Meanwhile, safety features have moved up the list of priorities for new car purchases and manufacturers have taken the opportunity to celebrate the safety improvements in their vehicles. However, I don't ever recall seeing anyone celebrating the 35% reduction in traffic fatalities over this time period. Perhaps such awareness would lead to complacency in drivers and ultimately lead to more accidents and deaths on the highway.

You don't always need to broadcast accomplishments for the purpose of public recognition. Know that they're making an important difference and don't risk it!

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Cost cutting in a tightly coupled ecosystem

Never underestimate how interconnected complex systems can be.

The Federal government continues to rely on a lot of forms and paperwork for day to day business. Many of these forms, particularly for exchanges with individual citizens, are transferred by the regular mail service. Is this indirectly subsidizing the US Postal Service? Efforts to reduce the amount of paperwork may in fact reduce the amount of traffic the USPS moves and therefore lead to reduction in pickup frequencies and delivery routes.

In the winter of 2009, RiteAid profits were down as a result of a public awareness campaign on the importance of personal hygiene, washing hands, and staying home when sick. The reduced incidence of colds and flu led to a drop in demand for Kleenex, cold medicine and other over the counter remedies.

What unexpected consequences have your actions had today?

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Honesty, with incentives, in Japan

There are a few interesting incentive-related tidbits in this Slate article titled Stop, Thief! Thank You. on the absence of looting in Japan post tsunami:

For example, if you find an umbrella and turn it in to the cops, you get a finder's fee of 5 to 20 percent of its value if the owner picks it up. If they don't pick it up within six months, the finder gets to keep the umbrella. Japanese learn about this system from a young age, and a child's first trip to the nearest police station after finding a small coin, say, is a rite of passage that both children and police officers take seriously. At the same time, police enforce small crimes like petty theft, which contributes to an overall sense of security and order, along the lines of the "broken windows" policy implemented in New York City in the 1990s. Failure to return a found wallet can result in hours of interrogation at best, and up to 10 years in prison at worst.
It's also remarkable to see organized crime 'pitching in' with humanitarian support and enforcement. While this is self-described as compassionate behavior, peace, stability and order are actually the necessary conditions for Yakuza-style organized crime, so there doesn't seem to be any incentive to do anything but try to promote a return to normality.
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Benjamin Franklin's daily schedule

This was doing the rounds last week and is inspirational in its simplicity. From Benjamin Franklin's autobiography:

Simple yet effective. What good shall I do this day? What good have I done today?

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MySpace and the role of management

Scoble recently published some interesting insights on the health of MySpace and the primary causes behind its decline. Top of that list: betting on the Microsoft stack and being based in LA. I won't comment much on the Microsoft side of things other than to say that there are plenty of high volume, high complexity sites -- Bing, MSN, Hotmail, Windows Live, and Xbox Live -- which are all doing just fine. Even with little knowledge of the specific situation to make any meaningful assessment, I suspect there is more to it.

Meanwhile, Todd Hoff, over at the excellent High Scalability blog, had an good summary of the subsequent discussion. There were a few themes that jumped out to me:

  • Don't outsource are (or should be!) your core competencies. You're left with nothing.
  • Access to talent (geography and willingness to work for you) is critical. People are what make things happen in this industry.
  • Technical debt will kill you. Developers respond to incentives so if hygiene isn't a priority it'll never get addressed. And it gets harder and harder the longer it goes untreated.
  • Technical management is vital. If leadership doesn't understand the downside and technical implications of their decisions, big problems lie ahead.
Interestingly, few of these mistakes can be attributed to poor coding, platform or architecture decisions, they're much further upstream than that.