Shipping Bugs

Eric Sink for The Guardian, Why we all sell code with bugs:

The world’s six billion people can be divided into two groups: group one, who know why every good software company ships products with known bugs; and group two, who don’t. Sometimes we encounter a person in group two, a new hire on the team or a customer, who is shocked that any software company would ship a product before every last bug is fixed.

As much as I hate attempts to split the world into “two kinds of people*,” this rings true. You can tell a lot about a person’s level of tech comfort by watching them react to software problems. Less-experienced users often react to bugs as if they were some kind of personal affront. “Just make it simple, just make it work. Why does this have to be so hard? I don’t know about you computer geniuses.” And then the car analogies begin. “I wouldn’t tolerate this from my mechanic… Can you imagine if Honda sold cars with known problems? They’d never get away with it,” and so on. The worst of them go on extended rants about how much simpler everything used to be (they’re not wrong on that point, but it’s impossible to convey the gestalt of the entire modern world, so we generally don’t try). Thus,

Every time Microsoft releases a version of Windows, stories are written about how the open bug count is a five-digit number.

More experienced users tend to shrug off bugs and problems, stay calm, look for workarounds. The inexperienced user looks at a computer and sees its candy-coated exterior – a lovely picture window. “How complicated can it be? What do you mean there are 11,000 bug fixes in 10.4?” The more experienced user sees the same machine as an infinity device – a miasma of unbounded complexity. Millions of impossibly small transistors, millions of lines of complex interdependencies. The experienced user accepts computer problems more gracefully because s/he is an awe that the damned thing is even capable of booting, let alone running software.

* There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world, and everyone else.

Music: Caravan :: A Day in the Life of Maurice Haylett

14 Replies to “Shipping Bugs”

  1. The funny thing is, the people most likely to complain about software problems are also the people most likely to resist change.

    These people create bugs for themselves by insisting that new OSes continue to support a bunch of legacy crap; ensuring that because their ISA sound card from 5672BC (computer time) still works in Microsoft Windows 2016 Desktop Media Corporate Light DRM Edition that they will encounter problems along the way with said OS.

    But hey. They’re Windows users. I don’t care, as long as their machines aren’t being used as bot garages and spam relays …

    … oh dear.

  2. There needs to be a third kind of user / person for this equation to work: the experienced user who has not yet closed her eyes to bugs or problems. She’s the only one who will be able to fix them while group 1 is busy complaining and group 2 is complacent with the status quo and too worried about looking like a beginner to do anything about the problems.

    No one likes to work with a complainer – but group 2 is hard to work with, too!

  3. Boris, I’m not sure I agree that experienced users have their eyes closed to bugs, only that they accept them as a fact of life, not the end of the world. As far as developers go, the article is about guidelines for properly categorizing bugs so they work on the *right* ones at the right times, not about how developers ignore them.

    But I do agree that there is great value in the user who is experienced but not over-the-edge geek – they’re often really helpful at identifying issues. They also make great documentation writers.

  4. I find it odd that the fiduciary element of this has been overlooked. I expect any free ($) software to be poorly QA’d, that’s why it’s such a nice suprise when it’s well thought-out. If I’ve personally paid for the software, especially handsomely, I’m much more inclined to pull out my copy of Liber Legis and curse the developer.

  5. Les is right: There are 10 kinds of people: Those who understand binary, and those who don’t. Mneptok, I’m not sure where Type 1000 comes into it!

  6. Nate, it’s true. A bug in Photoshop or Word makes you feel like you’ve been ripped off. A bug in The Gimp or OpenOffice makes you shrug and think “Ah well, you get what you pay for.”

    Bugs in software like Apache or PHP are another story because they’re so dangerous. But ironically, you stand a better chance of getting a quick fix with software from large free projects than you do from large commercial projects.

  7. Scot, your phrase “infinity device” is exactly correct. Complexity in software is boundless (some call it “progress”).

    My last gig forced me to work with a Group Two person. Unfortunately, his role was QA (with technical writing and customer support thrown in). He considered virtually every bug intolerable, especially when something got through onto the production servers.

  8. Death of Zeus… reminds me of portion of Sam Harris’ talk on atheism, where he wonders what the public reaction if the mayor of New Orleans had stood up and said, “I know exactly what happened. We didn’t pay Poseidon his due. God of the seas and all.” At what point in history did Poseidon get discredited and Jesus take over? And yet Poseidon was once just as real and true as Jesus to the people.

    Why would it seem normal for someone to talk about God and Katrina and abnormal for them to talk about Poseidon and Katrina?

  9. Why would it seem normal for someone to talk about God and Katrina and abnormal for them to talk about Poseidon and Katrina?

    For the same reason it seems normal for someone to talk about, “the eight planets of the solar system” this week and the, “nine planets of the solar system” in June.

    Things change, dude. What was once considered “fact” changes, even in science.

  10. mneptok – Re: truth changing in science, see my most recent comment on the atheism thread. Of course truth changes.

    My (perhaps convoluted) point in this thread is not that what is considered truth shouldn’t change – it’s about the normative value of religion — how it would seem very strange and probably unacceptable for a politician today to invoke Zeus but completely normal for them to invoke God.

    In religion, these giant shifts in thinking are based on sociological changes but are essentially arbitrary; In science, paradigm shifts result from reason and investigation.

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