Being a software god is tough

“Can this value be negative?” asked my colleague.

We were in a meeting with a product manager to get project requirements. The software application was to calculate settlement revenue between our company and our company’s partners, who were content providers. We charge the public customers for the content, then we share the revenue with the content providers.

The ideal situation was that all the numbers are nice and neat, people pay on time, everyone plays nice and so on and so forth. But reality isn’t this simple.

The value in question was that the product manager wanted to have a mechanism for him to introduce adjustments. You know, in case something happens and we should bill the content provider more, meaning we share less revenue with them.

But you know, you can’t just give the content provider a net number. They’d want to know why they’re receiving less money. So the adjustment had to be a line item on the settlement report.

Since I wasn’t the senior developer there, I decided to voice the concern to my colleague later on. But my colleague anticipated it. “Can this value be negative?” asked my colleague.

The product manager thought about it, and said yes, it could be negative. It means our company had to pay the content provider more money. Say we calculated last month’s settlement wrongly and we’re correcting that this month *cough*.

Let me tell you, finance people are getting blase with the number of zeroes in financial figures, but put one hyphen in front of a number and the whole financial sector goes into collective apoplexy. Sheesh…

My point is that unthinkable input values are always possible. Like negative values. Sometimes, I think developers forget the entire infinity of numbers on the other side of the real line…

I’m continuing sort of a discussion of the book “Geekonomics” by David Rice. Rice wrote that writing software was akin to creating an entire world in which the developer was, well, the supreme being.

Every single rule is determined by the developer. Every limit. Every calculation. Every display.

Well, everything that the developer is aware of anyway.

If the developer didn’t remember to put in the laws of gravity, that cannonball would’ve fired straight into space instead of landing nicely on the enemy tanks in that simulation war game.

Mother Nature takes care of anomalies in her stride. Entire species of dinosaurs dying out? No problem. Hey this mammalian species looks interesting. Let me give them a chance.

Software anomalies (read: bugs) aren’t so easily absorbed… With the world increasingly overrun by software, where medical devices, stock markets, airline ticket prices (supposedly tuned by software to remain competitive by comparing prices of other airlines), traffic lights, cars (Google cars are driven by software), online commerce and possibly even your toaster (if it isn’t already wired to the Internet), software anomalies can have a huge impact.

Software is written by developers. A developer is human. A human is flawed. Hence software is by design, flawed.

The Architect in The Matrix designed all the software in the world of Matrix (ok, maybe there’s delegation…). Right down to leaves falling and wind blowing in your face and steak tasting like steak (and not chicken) and pigeons flying like they’re supposed to.

But the Architect is also the creation of a human being. The Architect simulated the “real” world flawlessly, but only so far as human knowledge goes. What if Newtonian physics didn’t exist? If the imperial system or the metric system wasn’t invented, would the Architect invent some other measurement system?

In the end, the entire Matrix was bugged by an anomaly. Agent Smith.

And before that, the Matrix was bugged by another systemic anomaly. Which was sort of solved by creating the notion of The One. Hence Neo. (Ironically, the anomaly Agent Smith was the creation of the then current The One, the solution to solving the original systemic anomaly).

Get this. The Architect had to solve the systemic anomaly by flushing the entire Matrix, killing everyone except The One and the people chosen by The One to repopulate the Matrix.

Software is precise and elegant. Until it meets humans. Then everything hits the fan.

The Architect couldn’t solve his own software bugs (unless you call purging the entire Matrix as “solving”). Being a software god is tough.

Would you say the computer software entity known as The Architect is proficient in writing code? Because coming up soon, I’m going to write about another topic, that of software developer licensing, something that Rice also touched on. I’m talking “pass the bar or you don’t get to practice law” kind of accreditation.