Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Limits of Software by Robert N. Britcher

The Limits of Software by Robert N. Britcher

An old friend reached out to me with a strange inquiry: “Can you please read this book and let me know if you think it is literature? You may be the only person I know with a sufficiently varied background to make this determination.” Aside from being quite a flattering way to engage someone, this was someone I respect a great deal but haven’t been close with in any way in about twenty years. (And barely corresponded with at all, truth be told.) How could I resist?

Britcher was involved with running a massive software project for the FAA in the mid-eighties. This was a sprawling, ultimately failed, multi-agency effort to replace the software used for air traffic tracking. In this subtly self-aggrandizing discussion of the effort, Britcher gives an overly florid collection of descriptions of the software development process, and of the challenges associated with large scale programming efforts. Ultimately, people form The Limits of Software, because we are all flawed, creative, organic human beings with lives and peccadillos that get in the way of pure logic and engineering. His basic point- that large scale engineering efforts now represent terrific investments of human capital, emotion, passion, and creation- is a good one. Fascinating to consider that the energy put into a game like, say, Grand Theft Auto V (an enormous software development and content creation problem, on par with the effort described here) is likely greater than the work that went into building, say, the Brooklyn Bridge.

Fascinating book filled with cloudy metaphors, which often obscure the mechanics of what is going on in an effort to make it sound impressive and ethereally interesting. Yes, it’s literature, I suppose, but then there’s a lot that qualifies out there, much of it more lucid and interesting.

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