Tag Archives: engineer

Applying the Science Process to Process Change (see Recursion)

Now that we’ve established that very few people who work in “IT” have anything to do with technology, except as a tool, and that “computer science” isn’t about computers, we’re back at the original reason I began to write a book. I was once an ‘Information Systems Engineer’ and wasn’t very sure what any of those words meant, particularly “information”.

Software development teams often see their role as solving their customer’s problems. Software package providers say they are “solution providers”. What does the ‘unspeakable profession’ actually do? We got some clues from Hal Abelson in the video I linked to in my last post, that new areas of intellectual endeavour often confuse the ‘essence’ of their subject with their tools; so do we really engineer software?

Hal said that writing software is the process (or function) of formalising our intuitions about process (function.) Our software is a speculative formal abstraction of our intuitive understanding of a process we may not entirely understand. No wonder software projects so often fail. Like the rest of science, software is built on ideas that haven’t been proved wrong yet.

Software developers are presented with, or attempt to discover, experts’ (declarative) knowledge of the business process in the ‘domain’ we are about to change. This is ‘the abstract requirements’. Some of this may have to be implied from imperative knowledge embedded in existing software. It may be presented as imperative solutions. It may be incomplete.

We then follow our own process (function) for: ‘the way we do software’, in order to design a new process, some of which is also likely to be have to be embedded in software. Applying functions to change functions? That’s what functional programming does, isn’t it?

I believe that the ‘stuff’ of ‘computer science’, is state-change of systems of process and data. Who remembers ‘Data Processing’? Functional programming points out that the processes themselves are data and dynamic state-change is unpredictable and therefore¬†dangerous.

Engineering would apply ‘project thinking’ to this unstable, poorly defined change. I may once have tried to be an information systems engineer but I saw that it didn’t work and took a 20 year break from software development.

Agile frameworks recognise such changes as risky experiments and carefully apply the scientific method, incrementally with feedback loops, to check assumptions.

We may need to return another time to see what functional programming has to say about 2 projects making concurrent changes from the same initial state. Until then, good luck with those.

Call yourself an ‘Information Systems Engineer’?

A few years ago, I was on the cusp of becoming a Chartered Information Systems Engineer. The night before my peer review interview, I sat imagining questions I might be asked. I had long been aware that there is no agreed, consistent, meaningful definition of the word “systems” but I suddenly realised I didn’t know what “engineer” meant either. Once again, the word has been so horribly misused that its value has been depleted. Luckily there remains a core meaning that an engineer applies scientific knowledge to solve practical problems. But everyone does that, surely? I preferred a definition I found that evening, “an engineer is someone who can do for ten shillings what any damned fool can do for a pound.” It has an element of quality and value. We were getting into Zen.

Many years later, I was working on a ‘Knowledge Management’ project; to capture snippets of information provided by engineers and scientists. I started to think about the difference between data, information and knowledge. I wasn’t convinced that you could build a computerised ‘information system’ that could store ‘knowledge’. At about the same time, several people around me were getting interested in blogs and wikis. With my colleague, a librarian, I attended a ‘Knowledge Management and Social Software’ event. There was an open question session so I asked the assembled experts what they understood to be the difference between information and knowledge. There was an awkward moment before someone tried to answer me, then a fairly rapid intervention by the chair, who said it was a very theoretical question and we all understood what we meant. A noticeable wave of relief radiated out as people retired to their comfort zones.

I’m still not sure if this had been discussed so many times, without reaching a satisfactory conclusion, that they were bored or if they didn’t want to think about it because it’s A Hard Question. I was forced to conclude that I didn’t even know what ‘information’ was. Awkward!

I’ve thought about the subject a lot since. I have a few ideas but I’m not there yet. I’ve decided to think of it as “Information Metaphysics”. What is information? Does it exist? What is it made from? How does it work? Some people think the universe is made of information. I think they are Wrong. I think information is related to matter, energy, order, disorder, chaos, entropy, intelligence and culture.¬† I think it is probably unwise to settle for ignorance. That is rarely a good idea. We need more information – whatever THAT is.