That Should Work

To get your degree in <insert commerce / political school name here>, there is a last exam in which you need to talk with a jury of teachers. The rule is simple, if the student is stumped or hesitates, the student has failed. If the student manages to last the whole time, or manages to stump the jury or makes it hesitate, the student passes.
This particular student was having a conversation about geography, and a juror thought to stump the candidate by asking "what is the depth of <insert major river here>?" to which the student, not missing a beat answered "under which bridge?", stumping the juror.

Old student joke/legend

Programming is part of the larger tree of knowledge we call computer science. Everything we do has its roots in maths and electronics. Can you get by with shoddy reasoning and approximate "that should work" logic? Sure. But in the same way you can "get by" playing the piano using only the index finger of your hands. Being able to play chopsticks makes you as much of a pianist as being able to copy/paste stackoverflow answers makes you a programmer/developer.

The problem is that in my field, the end-user (or client, or "juror", or "decision maker") is incapable of distinguishing between chopsticks and Brahms, not because of a lack of interest, but because we, as a field, have become experts at stumping them. As a result, we have various policies along the lines of "everyone should learn to code" being implemented worldwide, and I cynically think it's mostly because the goal is to stop getting milked by so-called experts that can charge you thousands of monies for the chopsticks equivalent of a website.

To me, the problem doesn't really lie with the coding part. Any science, any technical field, requires a long formation to become good at. Language proficiency, musical instruments, sports, dancing, driving, sailing, carpentry, mechanical engineering, etc... It's all rather well accepted that these fields require dedication and training. But somehow, programming should be "easy", or "intuitive".

That's not to say I think it should be reserved to an elite. These other fields aren't. I have friends who got extremely good at guitars by themselves, and sports are a well known way out of the social bog. But developers seem to be making something out of nothing. They "just" sit down and press keys on a board and presto, something appears and they get paid. It somehow seems unfair, right?

There are two aspects to this situation: the lack of nuanced understanding on the person who buys the program, and the overly complicated/flaky way we programmers handle all this. I've already painted with a very broad brush what we developers feel about this whole "being an industry" thing.

So what's the issue on the other side? If you ask most customers (and students), they respond "obfuscation" or a variant of it. In short, we use jargon, technobabble, which they understand nothing of, and are feeling taken advantage of when we ask for money. This covers the whole gamut from "oh cool, they seem to know what they are talking about, so I will give them all my money" to "I've been burned by smart sounding people before, I don't trust them anymore", to "I bet I can do it myself in under two weeks", to "the niece of the mother of my friend is learning to code and she's like 12, so I'll ask her instead".

So, besides reading all of Plato's work on dialectic and how to get at the truth through questions, how does one differentiate between a $500 website and a $20000 one? Especially if they look the same?

Well, in my opinion as a teacher, for which I'm paid to sprinkle knowledge about computer programming onto people, there are two important things to understand about making software to evaluate the quality of a product:

  • Programming is exclusively about logic. The difficulty (and the price) scales in regards to the logic needed to solve whatever problem we are hired to solve
  • We very often reuse logic from other places and combine those lines of code with ours to refine the solution

Warning triggers that make me think the person is trying to sell me magic pixie dust include:

  • The usual bullshit-bingo: if they try to include as many buzzwords (AI, machine learning, cloud, big data, blockchain,...) as possible in their presentation, you have to ask very pointed question about your problem, and how these things will help you solve it
  • If they tell you they have the perfect solution for you even though they asked no question, they are probably trying to recycle something they have which may or may not work for your issues

A word of warning though: prices in absolute aren't a factor at all. In the same way that you'd probably pay quite naturally a whole lot more money for a bespoke dinner table that is exactly what you envision in your dreams than the one you can get in any furniture store, your solution cannot be cheaper than off-the-shelf. Expertise and tailoring cannot be free. Balking at the price when you have someone who genuinely is an expert in front of you, and after they announced their price is somewhat insulting. How often do you go to the bakery and ask the question "OK, so your cake is really good, and all my friends recommend it, and I know it's made with care, but, like, $30 is way too expensive... how about $15?"

I have also left aside the question of visual design. it's not my field, I suck at it, and I think that it is an expert field too, albeit more on the "do I like it?" side of the equation than the "does it work?" one, when it comes to estimating its value. It's like when you buy a house: there are the foundations, and the walls, and the roof, and their job is to answer the question "will I still be protected from the outside weather in 10 years?", whereas the layout, the colors of the walls, and the furniture are the answer to the question "will I still feel good in this place in 10 years?". Thing is, with software development as well, you can change the visuals to a certain extent (up to the point when you need to change the position of the walls, to continue with the metaphor), but it's hard to change the foundations.