Software defects…a fact of life.

The Badger recently used a bank’s online processes to establish formalised ‘power of attorney’ control over someone else’s accounts. Formalising the ‘power of attorney’ and setting up the associated internet banking facilities was pleasingly easy. Everything went smoothly. This week, however, the Badger encountered a problem. Not a major one, more an inconvenience. The Badger, as ‘power of attorney’, set up a new payee in order to pay a small invoice the same day. However, a ‘technical failure’ error message appeared every time the Badger tried to send the payment. Grr! The Badger called the bank, who were very helpful. It was a known problem – a software defect. If you are a ‘power of attorney’ and click the ‘send payment immediately’ box, the software won’t let you send a payment! The solution? Click the ‘send at a future date’ box – i.e. tomorrow – instead. The solution worked perfectly.

The Badger wondered why this ‘software defect’ hadn’t been picked up in pre-release testing. The experience was also a reminder of how reliant we are on software and on it working correctly. It was also a reminder that software will always contain defects even when the best design, development and testing practices have been used. While the Badger cogitated on this, he saw last week’s reports from the US about the software for Boeing’s reusable spaceship, Starliner. The reports, here for example, highlight a review following the unsuccessful Starliner test flight to the International Space Station(ISS) in December 2019, which has exposed ‘process’ failings in the software design, development, testing and assurance oversight of the ~1 million lines of code. Oh dear. There are obviously many more defects in the software than the ones that impacted the mission in the first place. The Badger raised his eyebrows in surprise. After all, well-established engineering disciplines and processes for producing quality software have been around for a long time and are there for a reason.

Software runs the modern world. It’s everywhere. Its scale and complexity have risen dramatically in recent decades, and when software goes wrong it can have wide ranging, unwelcome, and sometimes disastrous impacts. You can get a sense of the scale of some codebases here and you’ll find some of the software failures that have wreaked havoc and disruption in recent years here. Without software, modern civilization would grind to a halt.

Years ago, the Badger was told ‘Never expect software to be perfect’. Wise words still relevant in today. AI, autonomous vehicles, robots – and so on – are not immune to having software defects, so when you go about your daily life just remember that a software defect is always lurking somewhere, and that it will manifest itself at the most inconvenient time. That’s just a fact of life in today’s world!

Anything ‘Smart’ or New Technology always has a downside…

A one-liner that’s obviously true. All things ‘smart’ and new technology have pros and cons for both individuals and for society. History shows, however, that we only really pay attention to the cons when they bite us. When they do, attitudes change and what was a norm can quickly become a pariah. Plastic illustrates the point. Although first invented around 1860, mass adoption took off in the 1950s and today plastic is everywhere in our life. Recently, however, we’ve realised the danger from the ~8.3bn tonnes is in landfill or polluting the world’s oceans and so the world is now quickly moving away from this non-degradable material. Big UK supermarkets, for example, are now significantly reducing its use in packaging.

So, what triggered the Badger to focus on this one-liner truism? The trigger was a ‘permanently connected’ teenager’s tantrum which happened when the Badger was reading about the cons of ‘Smart Motorways’ (see here and here, for example). The tantrum arose from the perfect storm of their smartphone battery expiring just as a power cut knocked out internet access at home. Much teenage wailing about the end of the world ensued. The Badger unsympathetically pointed out that the teenager hadn’t actually died has a result of becoming ‘disconnected’. Thereafter a sensible conversation took place about how the world has changed since the Badger was a youngster, and the importance of thinking about the cons of using today’s online technology.

Badger described how he was raised on eggs, bread, butter, bacon, cabbage, sprouts and spuds, and how he played outside in the dirt, climbed trees, gathered tadpoles from ponds in jam jars, and watched a TV with only two channels and no remote control. There was no phone, no electronic calculator, no tablet or laptop, and music came from a radio or vinyl records. The Badger did a paper round, walked to school, did jobs at the weekend, and played football with mates on a local green whenever he could. Fish and Chips was the only takeaway food, shops closed for a half-day mid-week and all day on  Sunday. The Police were respected and so was independence and privacy. None of this stopped the Badger having a rewarding career in IT, or being a balanced, law abiding citizen!

The Badger told the teenager he was pro ‘smart’ and new technology when it respects an individual’s privacy and fulfils a true need in a person’s life, and he suggested the teenager think about a) the tech they use, why, and its cons, b) their privacy, and c) how they would live without a smartphone, tablet or laptop because they would indeed continue to live without them!

The conversation ended as soon as power returned restoring connectivity. The teenager then took a call from a friend. The friend was told that the teen wouldn’t be downloading a new app that ‘everyone else is using’ because they didn’t need it and they wanted to think about privacy and its cons. Result! The teenager had been listening after all…

Hone your Delivery Leadership skills by taking a central, company-wide role…

Blog_28-Jan-2020

The Badger was asked by a group of young IT project managers (PMs) to describe something in his IT delivery career that spawned significant learning. There have been many learning experiences – all important in their own way – but one quickly came to the fore. It was the learning that came from a ‘career transition event’ which required the swift development of new personal skills as well as the rapid assimilation of broader business knowledge in order to deal with new challenges. The event itself was a move from being a successful software, systems integration and service project leader in the company’s engine room, into a central, company-wide, delivery leadership role within the company’s overall business leadership team.

The Badger learned from the move that he had aptitudes that others could see but were unknown to himself! The move to a central company role meant learning new soft and hard skills, and new ways of thinking and behaving that built on the deeply embedded disciplines and learning of a delivery background. After progressing from programmer, through team leading into the delivery leadership of fixed price IT contracts of ever larger scale, complexity and commercial risk, the transition to a central company leadership role was still difficult! Perspective on how the company worked, its priorities, and the context in which decisions were made, all changed.

In explaining this to the young PMs the Badger summarised three things. First that good IT delivery leaders are natural problem solvers and managers of risk. They are organised, commercially aware, good decision makers, and people that get things done. These are valuable traits in a central role because others who operate centrally often have little real experience of doing the real work that brings in profit. The second was that a central company-wide role really does change the perception you have of your company. You see how it really functions, its priorities, and why decisions can sometimes be different to what you expect. The third was that if you as a PM get a chance to work in a central company-wide role then take it! You may find you don’t enjoy the experience, but you will learn lots and it will make you a better and savvier delivery leader. It will definitely change your perspectives and make you think hard about what you enjoy and what you don’t.

One of the PMs subsequently asked the following:

‘So, we should extend ourselves, be thirsty for new knowledge, always build on what we are good at and enjoy doing, and get some central company-wide experience to broaden our minds, our knowledge and our capabilities?

The Badger replied with one word. Correct!

Robots in Nursing Homes…

The Badger’s immediate priority in 2020 so far has been dealing with the health and care of a frail, 91-year old, father in moving to a nursing home after a lengthy stay in hospital. This transition went better than anticipated and the Badger’s respect for all the health and care professionals involved has reached new heights. They have been magnificent. A transition to a nursing home becoming ‘home’ is, of course, difficult for any person, especially when they have medical, mobility and dementia issues but still desire full independence, but the staff have been great and have eased the process for everyone.

If you have dealt with a similar scenario then you’ll know that it makes you aware of little things that can improve the patient’s quality of life and the bigger things that would help carer’s in their work. Useful items of simple technology are available that can help with the former – see here and here, for example – and robotic pets might ultimately help some people in the future! Regarding help for carer’s, however, the Badger’s observation is that technology that helps to safely move the human body during the daily routines of life will provide the biggest help. There has been robotics research in this area for some time, and robot advances in nursing home settings is moving apace in Japan, gaining more momentum across the developed world, and receiving investment from the UK government. If the Badger becomes resident in a nursing home in a few decades time, then a robot will inevitably play a role in getting him out of bed!

A young digital native in the Badger’s family made the following comment after the Badger’s father had been in his new home for a week:

‘There’s no point in me having a laptop, tablet, smartphone, Alexa or online games when I get old because I’ll forget what they are and how to use them. Talking to someone will be more important’.

The Badger wouldn’t put it quite that way, but the comment was very insightful!

The right robots will undoubtedly help in a residential care environment, but in the Badger’s opinion they will never replace the humanity shown by the special people who really care for their vulnerable and high-dependent residents. The Badger ’s father readily responds to people who engage him with encouraging words, a touch of a hand, a smile, a wiggle of the nose or a wrinkle of the face, and a joke or some banter. Robots  that help care staff should get more profile and investment, but it’s people and the humanity of their interactions that really makes a difference in our twilight years. So, bring on the robots, but not as a replacement for the special people who look after us when we can’t look after ourselves…

Youngsters, gaming, ‘STEM’ and a 3D printer…

P1030448 (2)

The Badger’s long believed that a solid education in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) arms you well for whatever you want to do in life, which, after all, often takes you in directions you never envisage. With a solid foundation in STEM subjects, you will be armed well for anything that unfold. Having a good STEM grounding doesn’t limit your horizons, it expands them! Brian May , guitarist in Queen, and Rowan Atkinson, ‘Mr Bean’, illustrate the point perfectly. The former studied Physics and Mathematics and has a PhD in Astrophysics, and the latter studied Electrical Engineering. A good STEM grounding never stops you from being an artist, a musician, an entrepreneur or businessperson, or a creative type!

So, what’s this got to do with 3D printing? Well, the Badger recently asked a group of youngsters between the ages of 11 and 16 what they did with their spare time. Unsurprisingly, playing games on their phones or games consoles dominated the response. It made the Badger wonder if introducing them to some alternative tech could reduce the dominance of gaming and yet be as much fun while having a stealthy ‘STEM’ educational element. The Badger’s not anti-gaming, just pro broadening the education of digital-native youngsters whenever possible, but feels that youngsters would benefit from something else in their digital mix. That something is a 3D printer!

The Badger has recently embraced 3D printing in the home environment. Indeed, the picture above is of a bespoke, 10cm tall, model produced on the Badger’s own 3D printer. The printer cost less than £250. There’s a wide range of available printers suitable for youngsters, as well as software (much of it cheap or free), and the Thingiverse provides a great source of customizable 3-D models to start with. It’s a great feeling to design your own thing, build a 3-D model of it, and watch it being manufactured in front of your eyes. It’s creative, fun, and inherently engages you with STEM by stealth in the home environment.

The impact of 3D printing on major industries and the potential of the technology as a teaching resource have long been recognised. The Badger thinks that youngsters can learn lots from having this fun technology at home to use in their spare time. For less than the price of the leading games consoles you should think about getting a 3D printer that will be covertly ‘STEM educational’ and yet provide hours of fun as a creative alternative to gaming. What’s not to like! A youngster could create ‘the next best thing’ using a 3D printer in their bedroom. It could diversify their entertainment and make them the next super-successful ‘tech’ business mogul. Hmm. Let’s not get too carried away for the moment, but you never know…

Being educated and aware of ‘Fake News’ leads to intellectual stimulation and entertainment…

Lots of things the Badger reads online and in social media feeds appear to be true but often aren’t. That’s not really a great surprise because misinformation, propaganda, hoaxes, and stories created deliberately to deceive or manipulate have been around since ancient times. In modern day parlance, ‘Fake News’ has reached epidemic proportions because modern technology and social media have made it so easy to create and disseminate without the controls that normally apply to traditional print and broadcast media. Today, neither traditional print or broadcast media or ‘always on’ online social media is free from claims of ‘Fake News’. Historically we have tended to believe information provided by organisations or people we trusted, but when reading items on his smartphone the other day the Badger found himself wondering if you can actually trust anything anymore!

The Badger ended up asking himself two questions, namely ‘Do you really know what Fake News is?’, and ‘What’s the best way of dealing with Fake News?’. The answer to the first question was an emphatic Yes. There’s many explanations of ‘Fake News’, but one the Badger likes for its laudable simplicity is ‘What is Fake News’ from WEBWISE. Answering the second question was more difficult. Governments have explored the subject and a UK Parliamentary Select Committee report on ‘Disinformation and fake news’ published in February 2019, for example, provides a fascinating read. The Summary – page 5 and 6 of the report – and especially the last two paragraphs, signals that more regulation and regulatory oversight of the digital world is inevitable with the big tech companies very much in the cross-wires. Change will happen but the wheels of governments turn very slowly! However, the question the Badger really asked was what’s the best way for himself to deal with ‘Fake News’ today? Well, the Badger thought for a moment and decided the answer’s very simple. There isn’t a best way!

One of the sentences in the Summary of the report noted above struck a particular chord:

‘In a democracy, we need to experience a plurality of voices and, critically, to have the skills, experience and knowledge to gauge the veracity of those voices.’

The Badger thinks being educated and aware is the most powerful weapon to counter the foibles of today’s digital world. We should all learn to be suspicious of anything we see, hear or read on our connected devices. So how does the Badger deal with ‘Fake News’ today? Easy. By having that education and awareness, by thinking, not taking things at face value, and by being objective and not following the crowd. So, strive to be more educated and aware of ‘Fake News’. You will quickly realise that it provides more intellectual stimulation and entertainment than most of the comedy shows and soap operas available on your digital TV!

A New Decade Beckons(2)…Bumble Bees and Satellite Constellations!

On Christmas Day the Badger and his wife, supping mid-morning coffee while chatting about the mild weather, saw a Bumble Bee fly past the kitchen window and land on a daisy flower in the garden. We had never seen a big fat Bumble Bee in the garden on Christmas Day before! Previous Christmases have had bleaker weather, often colder with heavy frosts and occasionally snow. Indeed, a decade ago the weather was truly bleak at Christmas and since then we have noticed that the festive season’s weather getting noticeably milder. We decided that this year’s Bumble Bee sighting must be (unscientific) evidence of climate change.

As we finished our coffees, we were joined by another family member who seemed thoughtful as they watched the lone Bumble Bee fly off into the next garden. We all speculated what we would see if the scene was replayed in Christmas 2029, and the family member made an unexpected prediction, namely that in 2029 there would be lots more native flowers in bloom at Christmas but no sign of any Bumble Bees! They also predicted that there would be more OneWeb and Starlink satellites orbiting the Earth at Christmas 2029 than Bumble Bee sightings in our garden for the whole year! Hmm. The Badger asked for some rationale.

A discussion ensued, and – put simply – the underpinning rationale seemed to be the following. Firstly, a view that technology, the internet, and instant information is the utility of modern life, that it has destroyed privacy, and that the OneWeb and Starlink satellite constellations merely provide a ‘Phase 2’ reinforcement of these same points! Secondly, a belief that over the last decade our global leaders have pandered to vested interests and failed to act on any of the big issues that affect life on our planet. Thirdly, that this will not change in the next decade. And finally, a belief that political, commercial and vested interests always win out over what really matters to the lives of the vast majority of people…and Bumble Bees! Essentially, the family member predicts that we’ll be able to watch endless YouTube videos and movies anywhere on Earth in 2029, but we’ll be no further forward in addressing the big sustainability issues affecting life for all species on the planet.

Time will tell if this is a fair point of view, but the Badger’s more optimistic. We are where we are. None of us can change history, but we all have a voice and can influence the future. So please think about what’s right for species like Bumble Bees in your New Year resolutions. They need your support to survive, and we all need them more than we realise for our own sustainability on this planet. ‘We need Bumble Bees more than we need huge constellations of satellites’. Hopefully our leaders will listen, or Christmas 2029 will be grim…

A new decade…’Sustainability’ will be its key word…

It’s Christmas and time to celebrate in a way that’s appropriate to your beliefs, budget, and personal priorities. Christmas often brings to the fore anxiety associated with spending, presents, and the people dear to us, especially those with health or other vulnerabilities, but it’s also a time to look to the future with optimism and hope. That’s what the Badger household’s doing, especially as a new decade beckons. In fact, Badger’s household (who’ve all grown up with technology, entertainment and information at their fingertips) has already been speculating on what life will be like in 2029!

The Badger household has already agreed that our approach to Christmas has significantly changed over the last decade. There’s been a significant shift away from materialism and a much stronger emphasis on doing the right thing for those vulnerable people around us who, for whatever reason, need support. The household all agree that while giving and receiving gifts is good, it’s also silly and a waste of money if they quickly end up in the back of our cupboards! Interestingly, everyone no longer takes much notice of the marketing and advertising machinery that encourages us to spend on ‘gadgets’, and none of us believes this will change when new ‘must haves’ arrive over the next decade.

So, what will life be like at the end of the next decade? How will tech shape the future? What will really impact our lives? Predictions abound, as you’ll see here, here, here, here, and here. However, forecasting the future is a fool’s game, especially when 10 years after the 2008/9 global financial crisis it’s not really clear if lessons have been learned. So, has the Badger household converged on a view on life at the end of the next decade? No. However, it has agreed that ‘unexpected events’ will determine whether any current predictions are delivered!

The Badger household has also agreed that the word ‘sustainability’ will dominate our lives through the next decade. Why? Because demographic changes in the world’s population means the global population is getting older. Older people tend to focus on their ‘needs’ rather than ‘wants’, and they know these are best met by a sustainable balance between wealth creation and the finite nature of the planet’s resources. ‘Sustainability’ will thus be a theme driven by aging ordinary people, and woe betide any politician that doesn’t listen!

So what’s your key word for the next decade? Why not debate this over the aftermath of a Christmas meal? It will at least remind you that old-fashioned sustainable communication has not been killed off by technology! Have a great Christmas, a prosperous 2020, and a fulfilling and sustainable next decade…

‘Swagger’ – A qualitative indicator of an organisation’s future.

Last week the Badger was caught on the hop by a final year undergraduate who asked the following. What made you join the company you worked for? Was it what they did, their values,  their website or their glossy brochures? Was it a promise of fast career progression? Was it to get a respected name on your CV? Was it the money? Was it desperation and anywhere would do? Or was it because you were impressed by the ‘swagger’ of the people you encountered in the recruitment process?

The Badger, very sensibly, paused to think before answering. The Badger considered a simplistic answer, something like ‘there were many reasons why the Badger accepted the formal job offer when it arrived’. But, in truth, what made the Badger to join the company he worked for was very straightforward. Every person encountered in the recruitment process was extraordinarily passionate about the work they did. Their energy, ‘can do’ and ‘always up for a challenge’ attitude was palpable and infectious. They had ‘swagger’. Not the arrogant ’Jack-the-lad, I’m important’ type, but the type that quietly radiates confidence, optimism, professionalism, trust and an ‘action speaks louder than words’ attitude to challenges. So, the Badger responded accordingly.

The follow-up question was ‘In the same circumstances, would you make the same decision today as you did then’? The answer was ‘Yes’. The small IT company the Badger joined had a growing, second-to-none, reputation for building and delivering challenging and complex software and systems. It persevered when faced with problems and delivered when most competitors would throw in the towel and engage the lawyers. The company didn’t have high profile in the media. It’s unique selling point (USP) was essentially the ‘swagger’ of its loyal, highly capable people who did what they said they would do. Clients liked that commitment, and the ‘swagger’ of the company’s people underpinned the company’s ‘does difficult things and always delivers’ reputation.

The company eventually grew into a multi-national corporate, and the ‘swagger’ of its people inevitably changed. Bureaucracy started to constrain behaviour and attitude, and ‘swagger’ became diluted as a trickle of people leaving for pastures new became a perpetual operational dynamic. People became less delivery focused,  more political, and their willingness to make excuses rather than deliver results became more noticeable. The company’s mojo and USP suffered as a result! So, if you’re interested in early warning signs that the organisation you work for is slowly losing its mojo, then don’t look at your executive leaders, look at how the ‘swagger’ of the people around you is changing. The ‘swagger’ of people is the qualitative barometer of your organisation’s future prospects. Oh, and if feel your own ‘swagger’ is on the wane, then just remember there’s a big wide world out there full of opportunity to drive it back up to new peaks…

‘Stench’ – a virtual fragrance for the festive season?

If you work for an organisation that takes the development of its people seriously then you’ll have attended courses with elements that sensitise you to the importance of body language when engaging with others. The Badger was first sensitised to this when attending two short courses in quick succession many years ago. The first course covered interviewing and recruiting new graduates, and the second covered leading software and system development teams. Both featured personal interaction sessions that were videoed and critiqued by the trainers and other attendees – a very effective way of learning about the powerful signals our body language conveys. Since then, and with many other courses under the belt, the Badger has been in many situations where controlling one’s body language and watching that of others has helped to convert difficult circumstances into acceptable outcomes.

People have been communicating with each other for millennia. We are conditioned by our heritage to know that the best communication happens when we are physically face to face so that we can hear what’s said and simultaneously see the physical nuances of those in the same room. Modern technology, however, encourages instant communication that is devoid of a contextual body language component. Email’s a good example. How many times have you sent an email that’s been misinterpreted when read by recipients? More times than we all care to admit. The body language component is missing from the words.

Another example is the recent Elon Musk v Vernon Unsworth court case relating to comments made on Twitter. A jury found in favour of Mr Musk. His offending Tweets were judged to be essentially ‘playground insults’ rather than real defamatory insults. The Badger has no opinion on the right or wrong of this finding, that’s a matter for the courts, but isn’t it somewhat sad that the finding seems to legitimise trading hurtful insults using modern social media platforms like Twitter? Surely this isn’t good for society? ‘Playground insults’ normally take place in a real playground where words are said with body language visible. Surely if it’s okay to trade ‘playground insults’ using Twitter, then that’s clear evidence that civilisation is crumbling into an anarchistic morass?

After the Musk ruling, one of the Badger’s friends commented – admittedly after more mulled wine than prudent – that Twitter should invent a virtual fragrance called ‘Stench’ for anyone who wants to make playground insults using its platform over the forthcoming festive season. The Badger laughed, because the amusing and playful intent was clear in their words and body language. We laughed again when we decided that ‘playground insults’ should stay in a real playground and not be traded in the virtual world. Why? Because ‘playground fisticuffs’ are a much cheaper and more effective way of resolving playground disputes than resorting to lawyers. Oh, and finally, in case you’re wondering, for the avoidance of doubt and all that, none of this is intended to insult anyone or any organisation!