Date: 24 June 16
By: Frank Gue, B.Sc. MBA, P.Eng, Professional Engineer
Burlington, ON, Canada L7R 2B5
For: Editors, The Economist, London U (I hope) K
Re: “Risks and rewards”, June 18, page 29
Once in the dear dead days beyond recall, system developers demonstrated a sense of responsibility to their users by providing manuals explaining how to use their systems. In one of the best of these manuals, on System Design. on Page 1, Chapter 1, the first instruction was, “Turn off the computer”.
This wise instruction highlighted the existence of two vastly different processes, the first of which is ignored routinely by most, if not all, IT writings since then, including your article, viz: system design and programming.
Your article repeatedly refers to “programming” and “coders”. The ancient manual I refer to dealt first with the design of the system, an essential preliminary usually mistaken for, confused with, and left half-undone in the process of, coding and programming. In its purest form, system design needs boolean logic etc. but needs no coding knowledge whatever.
As a result users are left having to cope with systems which, clearly, were not thought out nor tested to see whether they actually did what they were supposed to do. A classic example was a certain month-end statement that demonstrated that:
* the programmer hadn’t the vaguest idea of double entry bookkeeping, e.g. it showed a sum at the bottom of a column containing no entries;
* it required the user to do a hand-computation, using what he hoped and assumed were the correct numbers from the statement, to get the answer he needed (it didn’t);
* the user could not learn nor compute from the computer-produced figures what his cumulative pre-authorized payments were;
* the programmed logic was incorrect, and the company involved owed him $742 in accumulated prepaid fees, not shown on the statement. He was able to learn this by calling the customer service number and having a human being do the required computation while the computer sat idle.
This, though it was a particularly glaring error, is not unusual. Blundering misuse of coding without proper system design is quite common. Arguably it is one component of our puzzlingly slow recovery from 2008 and one or two other disasters; because it cost the user several no-value-added hours away from productive work. The world is simply plugged with rotten software of this kind that has resulted from plunging into coding without having done proper system design involving logical menus and logical processes. Yes, with paper and pencil!
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