Homo Logicus

December 23, 2009 § Leave a comment

Alan Cooper hits the nail on the head when he compares programmers to “normal people” in “The Inmates Are Running the Asylum”.  We trade simplicity for control (we’re by nature control freaks), we sacrifice success for understanding (isn’t understanding a major part of success?!?!), we often put so much time and effort into what is possible that we lose sight of what is probable (we’re card-carrying pessimists), and we act like jocks (if you can’t mentally keep up, get outta the way!).

These traits in moderation make us excellent programmers.  In excess though, a pessimistic, control crazed, mental bullying, tunnel visioned code monkey creates an endless money pit with nothing usable to show for all her exhaustive efforts.

The trait of particular interest to me is the desire to understand at the expense of success.  It’s more than a desire – it HAS to happen!  If I don’t understand how something works, I am reluctant to trust it.  When I build a complex system that works beautifully, I am always astounded by the fact that users don’t want or need to know exactly what is going on to produce the final result.  It’s satisfying when they do – running through the data to find the end result is correct (pat on back).

Success may be traded for understanding especially when a good programmer embarks on using a new technology – especially those which encapsulate a lot of complex functionality.  The failure comes in when too much time is spent at the wrong time trying to understand these inner workings before using them in a project.  A better idea would be to gain a basic understanding during the technical design phase or earlier.  If a doctor is considering using a new laser-guided instrument to repair an eyeball, she will attain training using that instrument prior to the first operation.  However, if she spends too much time trying to understand how the instrument was built, what makes the laser red, etc. then her patients lose out on a proven treatment and there may be a new and better instrument by the time she comes around to fully understanding the old one.

How can women improve technology?

December 23, 2009 § Leave a comment

Being a programmer and a woman does not better enable me to design more user-friendly, intuitive technology.  My higher estrogen levels also do not make me more creative. Oh, if it were only that easy! After all, the training and experience of most programmers is probably very similar.  In Alan Cooper’s book, “The Inmates Are Running the Asylum” (highly recommend), he describes the conflicts of interest that exist when a programmer is tasked with doing real design and how our training (and sometimes inherent traits) make us good programmers and bad designers.  In a time where companies are cutting costs and people and requiring more from each employee, many programmers are tasked with doing all the design work.  Most of us enjoy it – I do.  I like the creative process.  However, given my training and background, self-referential design does not always provide the best result.  Alan Cooper is the father of a design process called “Interaction Design”.  Joel Spolsky suggests “Hallway Usability Testing” (note to self – don’t grab another programmer for this task!) and using the “Five Why’s”.  Our training makes us better designers, not our hormone levels.

So, why do people make such a big deal about women in technology and there not being enough of us?  How would the industry and the products we create benefit if there were more women involved?  It’s the same thing that gives all of us the ability to bring something unique to any creative endeavor – the collection of our experiences.  Experiences big and small set the framework for our decisions and color the lens through which we view life.  As a woman, I am more likely to have spent time doing tasks typically done by the woman of the house.  I manage the kids, the shopping, menu planning, finances etc.  As a programmer and technology enthusiast, I am always on the lookout for gadgets and websites which help me do these tasks and others more efficiently and make it more fun.  The true under-tapped benefit in getting more women into technology is in innovation.  Knowing what technology is available, having the know-how to piece it all together, and looking at a problem from a woman’s perspective can lead to more products and services that help solve problems typically experienced by women.  We can create more solutions that makes doing these tasks delightful.

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