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By James Bach
Quality is dead in computing. Been dead a while, but like some tech’d up version of Weekend at Bernie’s, software purveyors are dressing up its corpse to make us believe computers can bring us joy and salvation.
You know it’s dead, too, don’t you? You long ago stopped expecting anything to just work on your desktop, right? Same here. But the rot has really set in. I feel as if my computer is crawling with maggots. And now it feels that way even when I buy a fresh new computer.
My impression is that up to about ten years ago most companies were still trying, in good faith, to put out a good product. But now many of them, especially the biggest ones, have completely given up. One sign of this is the outsourcing trend. Offshore companies, almost universally, are unwilling and unable to provide solid evidence of their expertise. But that doesn’t matter, because the managers offering them the work care for nothing but the hourly rate of the testers. The ability of the testers to test means nothing. In fact, bright inquisitive testers seem to be frowned upon as troublemakers.
This is my Quality is Dead hypothesis: a pleasing level of quality for end users has become too hard to achieve while demand for it has simultaneously evaporated and penalties for not achieving it are weak. The entropy caused by mindboggling change and innovation in computing has reached a point where it is extremely expensive to use traditional development and testing methods to create reasonably good products and get a reasonable return on investment. Meanwhile, user expectations of quality have been beaten out of them. When I say quality is dead, I don’t mean that it’s dying, or that it’s under threat. What I mean is that we have collectively– and rationally– ceased to expect that software normally works well, even under normal conditions. Furthermore, there is very little any one user can do about it.
(This explains how it is possible for Microsoft to release Vista with a straight face.)
I know of a major U.S. company, that recently laid off a group of more than a dozen trained, talented, and committed testers, instead outsourcing that work to a company in India that obviously does not know how to test (judging from documents shown to me). The management of this well-known American company never talked to their testers or test managers about this (according to the test manager involved and the director above him, both of whom spoke with me). Top management can’t know what they are giving up or what they are getting. They simply want to spend less on testing. When testing becomes just a symbolic ritual, any method of testing will work, as long as it looks impressive to ignorant people and doesn’t cost too much. (Exception: sometimes charging a lot for a fake service is a way to make it seem impressive.)
Please don’t get me wrong. Saving money is not a bad thing. But there are ways to spend less on testing without eviscerating the quality of our work. There are smart ways to outsource, too. What I’m talking about is that this management team obviously didn’t care. They think they can get away with it. And they can: because quality is dead.
I’m also not saying that quality is dead because people in charge are bad people. Instead what we have are systemic incentives that led us to this sorry state, much as did the incentives that resulted in favorable conditions for cholera and plague to sweep across Europe, in centuries past, or the conditions that resulted in the Great Fire of London. It took great disasters to make them improve things.
Witness today how easily the financial managers of the world are evading their responsibility for bringing down the world economy. It’s a similar deal with computing. Weak laws pertaining to quality, coupled with mass fatalism that computers are always going to be buggy, and mass acceptance of ritualistic development and testing practices make the world an unsafe place for users.
If we use computers, or deal with people who do, we are required to adapt to failure and frustration. Our tools of “productivity” suck away our time and confidence. We huddle in little groups on the technological terrain, subject to the whims and mercies of the technically elite. This is true even for members of the technically elite– because being good in one technology does not mean you have much facility with the 5,000 other technologies out there. Each of us is a helpless user, in some respect.
Want an illustration? Just look at my desktop:

Software installation is mysterious and fragile. Can I look at any given product on my system and determine if it is properly installed and configured? No.
Old data and old bits of applications choke my system. I no longer know for sure what can be thrown away, or where it is. I seem to have three temp folders on my system. What is in them? Why is it there?
My task manager is littered with mysterious processes. Going through, googling each one, and cleaning them up is a whole project in and of itself.
I once used the Autoruns tool to police my startup. Under Vista, this has become a nightmare. Looking at the Autoruns output is a little like walking into that famous warehouse in Indiana Jones. Which of the buzillion processes are really needed at startup?
Mysterious pauses, flickers, and glitches are numerous and ephemeral. Investigating them saps too much time and energy.
I see a dozen or two “Is it okay to run this process?” dialog boxes each day, but I never really know if it’s okay. How could I know? I click YES and hope for the best.
I click “I Agree” to EULAs that I rarely read. What rights am I giving away? I have no idea. I’m not qualified to understand most of what’s in those contracts, except they generally disclaim responsibility for quality.
Peripherals with proprietary drivers and formats don’t play well with each other.
Upgrading to a new computer is now a task comparable with uprooting and moving to a new city.
I’m sick of becoming a power user of each new software package. I want to use my time in other ways, so I remain in a state of ongoing confusion.
I am at the mercy of confused computers and their servant who work for credit agencies, utility companies and the government.
I have to accept that my personal data will probably be stolen from one of the many companies I do business with online.
Proliferating online activity now results in far flung and sometimes forgotten pockets of data about me, clinging like Spanish Moss on the limbs of the Web.

Continuous, low grade confusion and irritation, occasionally spiking to impotent rage, is the daily experience of the technically savvy knowledge worker. I shudder to think what it must be like for computerphobes.
Let me give you one of many examples of what I’m talking about.
I love my Tivo. I was a Tivo customer for three years. So why am I using the Dish Network and not Tivo? The Dish Network DVR sucks. I hate you Dish Network DVR developers! I HATE YOU! HAVEN’T YOU EVER SEEN A TIVO??? DO YOU NOT CARE ABOUT USABILITY AND RELIABILITY, OR ARE YOU TOTAL INCOMPETENT IDIOTS???
I want to use a Tivo, but I can’t use it with the Dish Network. I have to use their proprietary system. I don’t want to use the Dish Network either, but DirectTV was so difficult to deal with for customer service that I refuse to be their customer any more. The guy who installed my Dish Network DVR told me that its “much better than Tivo.” The next time I see him, I want to take him by the scruff of his neck and rub his nose on the screen of my Dish Network DVR as it fails once again to record what I told it to record. You know nothing of Tivos you satellite installer guy! Do not ever criticize Tivo again!
Of all the technology I have knowingly used in the last ten years, I would say I’m most happy with the iPod, the Tivo, and the Neatworks receipt scanning system. My Blackberry has been pretty good, too. Most other things suck.
Quality is dead. What do we do about that? I have some ideas. More to come…


Category: Buggy Products, Critique, Important!

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