Are you talking about software kitchens?

This is a cop-out because it’s a rehash of my previous post, but as an added bonus, here’s a video of me delivering it as a speech at my Toastmasters club.

Toastmasters is a club for improving your public speaking skills. You give speeches and take on speaking roles, and get feedback about what you did well and areas for improvement at the end of the session. The club I go to is full of amazing people and certainly one of the reasons we’re still here in Stockholm! Of course, as you might expect, there’s an evaluation to go along with the video.

And my actual speech draft. When you’re up on stage, some things just don’t go the way you plan, and even from the beginning things started out slightly different 🙂

I work in IT as a software developer, but it’s hard for me to explain what that means to anyone else. A few years ago, to work in IT meant you were “good at fixing computers” or “installing antivirus”. Nowadays it means you’re “making the next facebook” or “about to become a billionaire”. There’s just so many facets to being a software developer that it’s sometimes easier to just grin and nod sagely rather than to explain exactly what I do.

One analogy I’ve recently found useful is a kitchen in a restaurant. No one knows how a software company works (unless you work in one), but everyone has some idea of how a restaurant works, even if they haven’t worked at one. You have waiters, you have the cooks and of course you have the customers. In such a setting, I’m one of the guys in the kitchen.

But this is where it gets interesting. Every kitchen is different. I work in a small kitchen where I have to share my tools, ingredients and space with other cooks. Everyone chips in for a dish, someone does the chopping, someone does the tasting and someone does the frying. Mostly. Some kitchens cook without tasting. Some kitchens have only one cook. Some kitchens have the best tools. Some kitchens have the best cooks. Sometimes the cooks are overwhelmed and overworked. Sometimes the cooks aren’t even from the restaurant, but from the pizzeria across the road. cough outsourcing

Many of the struggles I face are more easily explained as soon as I talk about a restaurant. When I tell people about how users of our software have unrealistic expectations of how it should work, or what can be changed, rather than empathy sometimes I get “but it’s just software, can’t you just change it?”

But when I tell people about unreasonable customers at a restaurant they go, “yeah, I understand”
Imagine a restaurant where customers walk in, and they tell the waiter what they’d like to eat. “Can I have this but vegetarian?” “Can I have truffles on the side?” “Can I have the pecan pie, but no nuts?” “Can I have fried rice, but without the rice?”

We’re more familiar with the idea of an unreasonable customer at a restaurant than an unreasonable user of some software application. In both cases, the customer has no idea how hard their request actually is. They think they have an idea of how hard it is, but without actually having worked in a kitchen, they haven’t got a clue. Of course they might have been chefs before, or formed their estimate based on visits to other restaurants, but that’s kind of irrelevant because there’s someone between the customer and the cooks.

It’s the waiter.

Most of the time the waiter says “sure we can do that”, sometimes he says “that is impossible Madam”, but it’s really up to how well he understands what’s being asked. Often he has other agendas. Maybe he would like to please a really important customer, sometimes he is wildly optimistic about what his kitchen can produce. Whatever the case, he converts a customer request, into a slip for the kitchen.

And this is where I come into the picture.

The slip arrives at the kitchen and everyone scrambles. We look at the slip and go “What the? How could we possibly make this in time?” There’s a deadline to meet, sometimes you’re still dealing with the fallout from the last dish and what sometimes ends up being put on the plate is something thrown together in a rather haphazard manner. Along with prayers that all of the stuff went in. No one likes a meat pre without the meat. Unless they asked for it of course….After all no one likes a meat pie without the meat…unless they asked for it of course. Sometimes it’s so bad the waiter simply rejects it outright.

Assuming that it’s decent enough to be served, and the waiter has written the slip correctly (certainly not taken for granted in many places! sometimes what you asked for is not what you get…), you eventually receive your dish. Sometimes when you see it on the plate it looks delicious, but you bite into it and you find an eggshell or bits of plastic (remember the haphazard assembly?). Sometimes it tastes fantastic but when you arrive home, you spend the next week camped out in front of the toilet.

You might think there are food inspectors that go around restaurants, making sure something like this doesn’t happen, or that offenders get punished and blacklisted…. but there are areas where the analogy becomes a little more absurd. All that for the next speech.

In the meantime I hope I’ve helped provide better context into how a software developer fits in to a software company, and the kinds of challenges we face. How about you? Do you work in a hypothetical restaurant? Are you a cook? A waiter? Or perhaps the person standing outside the restaurant, touting customers and trying to get them in. I’m looking forward to hearing about your restaurant stories.

This isn’t the restaurant you’re looking for…

This is part 2. Part 1 is here.

So this is where the software development as a restaurant analogy starts getting a little weird. To be fair, these examples are more quirks of the industry more than the profession itself.

A customer at a restaurant

Customer: “There’s a fly in my soup”
Waiter: “Oops, that must mean there’s a fly in everyone else’s soup”
Customer: “What are you going to do about it?”
Waiter: “Well, if it’s a big enough fly, tomorrow’s soups will not have it. Otherwise everyone will have to live with it for a few months.”
Customer: “Eh?”
Waiter: “Well, even after a few months, it’s a Maybe. Depends on if there are also roaches in the soup”

If you’ve ever watched a restaurant service challenge on Masterchef (try the Australian one, it’s much better :P), producing dishes for a bunch of people is back-breaking work. Even if it is the same dish over and over again. If we think of software as food, producing a copy of the software requires little-to-no effort. One consequence of this is if there’s an eggshell in one dish, all versions of that dish probably have the eggshell too. The exact same one.

Not all eggshells are created equal though, a single dish has a unique combination of flies and eggshells. Some are known, and some are yet to be discovered. There’s an ongoing struggle in the kitchen between removing the undesirables, and adding more flavour to the dish. Or some other dish variation…

A customer arrives at a restaurant.

Waiter: “Welcome Madam, we have the clam chowder, Florentine steak and vegetarian lasagne available today”.
Customer: “That sounds interesting. I’d like a clam chowder, but I’m actually lactose intolerant. Can you do something for me?”
Waiter: “Certainly Madam, but you will have to come back later. Maybe we will have it on the menu by then”
Customer: “How much later?”
Waiter: “Maybe a few months. Maybe a year. It depends. In the meantime, maybe you can try removing the cream yourself.”

If you’re in a restaurant, you’re expecting some flexibility. Small variations are taken for granted. In a software restaurant, since you’re getting copies of stuff, you’re not getting changes until the “master” copy is updated. When does the “master” copy get updated? Remember that we’ve already got flies to squash and eggshells to remove, in addition to flavours to add. And that’s not the only problem.

In the kitchen

Waiter: “We have 100 more orders of the clam chowder coming through.”
Cook: “The clam chowder from last month is the one you want. Just make a 100 copies of it. You know where the food cloning machine is.”
Waiter: “Guys, there’s lots of flies in that one…”
Cook: “We’re trying to fix the recipe. We only have the old one to work with. It’s a hundred pages long, full of corrections and hard to know what’s needed for what taste anymore.”
Waiter: “Do we have something for lactose intolerance?”
Cook: “Erm… maybe in a few months. Could they take out the cream themselves?”
Waiter: “Seriously?”

Software developers aren’t really cooks. They “cook” the “master” copy of the dish, but really, they spend most of their time refining recipes. Software developers are more like recipe authors than cooks. Except the recipes are hundreds of pages long, often passed down from generation to generation without much explanation; and steps interact with each other in strange and wonderful ways, where it can magically give rise to eggshells and roaches along the way.

Just think about what kind of process someone refining recipes has to go through to “test” their recipes! Say you’re trying to refine a recipe. Maybe make it more spicy, for your friends from Indonesia. How would you go about doing it?

If you’ve tried to put a dish together, and had to improvise, you know how hard it can be to work your way back to what went into that one amazing dish. When you’re trying out different things, sometimes it can be hard to keep track of what taste was the result of what magic ingredient you added. And you can never create that one amazing dish. Ever again.

In the kitchen

Waiter: “Someone’s found a roach in the lasagna”
Cook: “Did it come from the bechamel sauce?”
Waiter: “Maybe. How would they know?”
Cook: “If it did we may have a bigger problem. That bechamel sauce is used in the fish pie and croquettes as well.”
Waiter: “So they’ve all got the roach?”
Cook: “Yessiree. Actually if they don’t have it, it means it’s a problem only with the lasanga recipe, not the bechamel”
Waiter: “Seriously?”

In any normal kitchen, if a batch of sauce is bad, you just make a new one. In a software kitchen, if a sauce is bad, everything it’s gone into is bad. Every single dish with it. And there’s nothing to be done till the sauce recipe is fixed.

It also highlights a problem common to both kitchens. It’s sometimes pretty hard to figure out what caused a problem! (Think masterchef taste test… what went into a dish to cause a particular taste?)

Surely this can’t be the way software is made! There’s got to be food inspectors coming in occasionally right? Well… tune in next time to find out why, despite what seems like a pretty crummy state of things, more established software kitchens have their own secret sauce recipes … for making secret sauces