Mass Production Is Not Mass Design

communist-party.pngEric Newcomer has an entry up asking Have We Got it all Backwards with Software Assembly? Basically, Eric comes to the conclusion that

The easy part should be developing the reusable services. The hard part should be their composition and assembly.

Myself, having lived through several waves of “the software component market is going to really take off this time” (Yourdon’s Decline and Fall of the American Programmer comes quickly to mind), I have a rather similar view of this whole debate.
I think it’s a big mistake to think that the analogy to mass production is the reusable software component. Quite frankly, the analogy to mass production is the disk copy – and with the internet, it’s the download. From my point of view, there simply is no issue with mass production in the software business. We can create far more copies of anything than anyone could possibly make use of.
Production isn’t the issue. Design is.


Ford’s assembly line innovation was a production system which made it possible to produce high volumes of something at a constant quality – note that Ford didn’t improve the quality. He just made the quality predictable.
Leaving aside the rather interesting rise of boutique manufacturing which focusses not on mass production but on small runs for small markets, if one looks at how automobile’s are actually created, you find that there’s a (relatively) small team of highly paid, incredibly smart people who spend an awful lot of time designing the automobile in question. It’s only after the automobile has been designed that the mass production aspect we’re so jealous of in the software industry kicks in (and then, only after another small group of highly intelligent engineers figure out how to mass produce the design).
What the software industry seems to be missing here is that the design (and/or architecture) part of the process is pretty much the same as it is in the software industry. The people who can come up with the innovative designs that solve real world problems are always going to be few in number and it’s something that no industry – and I do mean no industry – has ever managed to “mass produce”.
For another viewpoint, let’s look at the electronic hardware world where the idea of “components” is pretty close to the wet dreams of the software component proponent’s idea of a “software IC”. Again, even though there is a proliferation of standardized building blocks, standardized signaling busses…. standardized everything… you still don’t see a lot of “mass design”.
A good example of this is the iPhone. While there’s a number of new innovations in the phone itself – novel touch screen technology, though mostly packaging – the phone is put together with pretty much standard parts – i.e. Apple didn’t reinvent electronic components to produce the iPhone.
One thing that has become more and more clear to me over the years is that the real problem with software isn’t that we don’t have enough standardized tools and components. Eric does have a good point about POJOs, but from my POV, we’re still well in the dark ages from a design tool perspective that will really “unleash” the programmer in all of us.
No, the sad thing is – from the POV of those who are trying to commoditize the software industry – is that we have already pretty much hit zero cost in the production of software. Adding more cheap people to the mix who are just smart enough to push the big red button isn’t going to help things (and if people would ever remember their Mythical Man Month, they would stop thinking about this silliness altogether – but that’s simply never going to happen).
Rather, I think the capitalists who control the means of production are going to start figuring out that designing software is only going to get harder and require smaller teams of even more intelligent people. Find anyone who’s been in the software industry for a decade or longer and ask them if they want more people to work on their software project or smarter people.
And yet, we still have this bizarre notion in the software industry that – unlike every industry we’ve ever seen – somehow throwing armies of people who are literally an order of magnitude (and likely several more) worse at designing software will somehow compensate for paying top dollar for the small number of people who actually know what they’re doing. You can look at the state of the software industry and the general quality of what we produce to see how well this strategy is working out.
Maybe in the near future we’re going to figure out some magical set of components which will make all our lives orders of magnitude easier and provide the industrialists with their ultimate dream of high quality software manufactured with drones of low wage programmers, but I think it highly unlikely.
Software is hard to do and it’s never going to get much easier in my lifetime. Sure, we’ll solve some cool stuff that will become standardized components and these will allow the smart people to do even more. But the simple fact is that software development is getting harder to do as it moves more into the distributed realm, not easier.
I mean, the sad fact is that most programmers out there can’t even get a single threaded program to work, much less make it solve some hard problems. Add multi-threaded concurrency into the mix and I would guess that probably 60 to 70 percent of programmers out the wild will splat against the wall and slide down it like a wet sponge. Throw multiple cores into the mix – just keep it on the same machine – which introduces true concurrency into the mix and probably another 25% will join their fellows by sliding down the wall they just smashed into.
Throw fully distributed computing into the mix and I think you’ve winnowed down the current field into 1/100 of what you think you have out there (and I’m probably being optimistic).
It is very odd, to my way of looking at things, to think that there is some imperative to make “programming easier” – like it’s a natural “law” that programming must be possible for people who don’t have the inclination. It seems like it’s pretty hard for the people who make most of the money off this stuff we do to come to grips with the idea that this stuff may well be intrinsically hard to do and that while we will be successful at producing better and more efficient ways of enabling smart people to be even more productive than they already are, we most likely won’t be successful at making it possible for the masses to produce the ever more sophisticated kind of software that the marketplace is demanding.

3 thoughts on “Mass Production Is Not Mass Design

  1. Nice article.
    The crux of this whole issue is a social problem, I believe. The people who make most of the money in the Software industry don’t like the idea that they don’t make all of the money, and have to share a fair portion of the loot with the really smart people who actually produce the product they’re selling. According to raw, unadulterated capitalism, the way you make money is by cutting costs, and the only real cost in software is the programmers.
    The damn thing is, most really smart programmers are lousy businessmen. The dotcom debacle is a big loud testament to that conceit, that if you’re smart at one thing (code) you’re smart at everything, including personal finance, running a business, understanding economics, the stock market, how to deal with venture capitalists aka ‘loan sharks’, etc. A whole lot of programmers I meet have a lot of contempt for the business of the industry – those guys can’t do what they can do writing code, so that means ‘the suits’ are stupid, right? – which puts them at a severe disadvantage, because if you don’t understand business, but think you do, you probably never figured out that working long hours and short pay for a lotto ticket in the form of stock options and part ownership in a company selling green beans and bicycle pumps online was probably not going to make you rich.
    The companies I see that are successful recognize the value of both skillsets.
    Sorry, the rant has little to do with SOA and assembly line software reuse :-)

  2. No problem. Good rant ;)
    When I started my own business way back in the day, I partnered with a guy who *was* very good at business. We weren’t Google successful, but we did pretty good and it was precisely this partnership of skill sets which made it all possible. I have tremendous respect for business people, managers, marketers, salespersons, etc., etc. Business is a fairly narrow scope of skill sets in the global picture of things, but it’s still amazingly diverse from an individual’s perspective. There’s a reason why there’s 6.5 Billion people on the planet and not just me, after all – I’m only good at so many things, despite my renaissance nature, and even if I was great at everything, there’s only one of me.
    I do find it absolutely stunning that Software still operates with 85%-95% margins, though. It’s literally a license to print money – still. I thought all of this would have died out long ago, but it still keeps on going. Really, the only serious overhead are the bonuses that the sales force makes – if you have direct sales. If you have channels, then you literally are printing your own money.
    Most of which doesn’t end up in the programmer’s pocket, of course…

  3. More on the Software Assembly Question- Do Patterns Help?

    Since I posted the initial entry questioning the validity of the Henry Ford analogy for improving software productivity through interface standardization, there’s been some good posts by Hal and Richard, and some good feedback to the Sys Con site that…

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