Government And The Installed Base: "It's Complicated"
Print Friendly and PDF

Here's Chinese idiom for you, I'm having a fire sale: 三句話不離本行. Translation: "By the time he's spoken three sentences, you know what line of work he's in." Well, before I became a world-famous author and commentator, my line of work for thirty years was computer programming; or, as we're supposed to say now, "software development." That's kind of like garbage men becoming "sanitation engineers." I understand the psycholinguistics of the change, I just prefer the older form.

I've quipped before about the installed base, so I'll just quote myself here. Quote:

Designing computer systems from scratch is a breeze. I can do it in my sleep. You don't have an inventory system or an Accounts Payable system? No prob.: I'll cook one up for you before breakfast tomorrow.

Alas, I hardly ever got to design a system from scratch. Usually when you're hired in to build a system, the company already has one. They want a better and more efficient one. The one they currently have is all there, though, snarling and baring its fangs at you like the Creature from the Black Bog, with all its twenty-year-old work-arounds and kluges, all its records in some no-longer-supported database format, all its managers and clerks and operators who are used to the way it works and would rather be left in peace with what they know. That's the installed base.

Ancient programmers' joke:

Q — How was God able to create the world in only six days?
A — No installed base.

That came to mind again when I was reading the Z-man's blog the other day. Z, as I've noted before, is one of the smartest, most prolific, most insightful bloggers around—up there with Steve Sailer in my book.

In his Wednesday blog, Z—that's not a pronoun, that's how he identifies himself—Z started where I just left off, talking about programming … Oh, all right: "software development." He knows a lot about it from the inside. The installed base? He knows all about that. Sample quotes, edited:

Over time … the software was changed to evolve with the company. There were upgrades and modifications. If the software is old enough, there were modifications to modifications and many hands doing the work, many of whom are long gone. More important, many of the processes were created for reasons no one remembers

All complex business software started as simple software. Over decades, it evolved into highly complex systems that even the creators don't fully understand.

That's exactly right. That's why programmers break into a cold sweat, tremble, and moan when faced with the installed base. In an email exchange with Z he observed that Intelligent Design is a really hard sell to experienced programmers. We know all too well where complexity comes from.

And so it is with those huge complex government bureaucracies. Asking, "What does the Assistant to the Under Secretary for Administrative Affairs actually do?" sounds to an old code jockey's ears like: "What does this bit of code actually do?" Who knows? It was written back in 1993 to deal with some rule or regulation that has since been changed, or no longer applies.

What would happen if we just erase it? Ninety-nine percent of the time, nothing. The other one percent of the time, the company's key processing system comes to a juddering halt …

Back to the Z-man, quote:

That's what a revolution is, when you think about it. It's a lot like the decision to buy a new software system for the company. It's not that what comes next will be better. It's that the status quo is so complicated and unpleasant, anything has to be better. Of course, just as new software never turns out as expected, revolutions always turn out to be a lot more unpleasant than anyone imagined …

Even so, it is something to think about as the West struggles to reform itself. The web of pirates, grifters, reformers and patriots within the ruling classes of the West has reached a point where no one understands what's happening. That's why official Washington remains in a state of emergency over Trump.

As a footnote to all that, I'll just add comment about a related twitter thread from Foone, F-O-O-N-E, who tweets about this kind of thing. Quote from Foone:

So, programmers, you know those systems that have been maintained for TOO LONG? that are just too expensive … to replace, that are just hacks on hacks on hacks at this point, are a never ending maintenance nightmare that can't be killed?

Oh yeah, I know those systems. Heck, at this point, I wrote some of those systems back in the Reagan administration.

Well, Foone develops an argument that life itself—all living things — developed the same way. Quote:

Life was a moderately scoped novel idea for a single-celled lifeform that consumed chemicals spewing out of deep sea vents. Simple, easy, ship by Christmas, we'll be done and can move onto other projects.

And here we are, says Foone, 4.5 billion years later, reading about it.

This old programmer thinks he may be right. Yep, it's hacks all the way down.

Print Friendly and PDF