June 23, 2004

Something almost like people skills

I recently re-read Ken Macleod's SF novel Cosmonaut Keep, which is partly set on earth in 2048, after "the Fall of the Wall, the Millenium Slump, the Century Boom, the Unix rollover, the War, the Revolution." It's clever of Macleod to slip the Unix rollover in there -- it's due at 03:14:07 Tuesday, January 19, 2038 (UTC).

Old-fashioned computer operating systems are relevant to Macleod's story in several ways, starting (and ending) with Matt Cairns, a Scottish hacker who makes a living on the fringes of the mid-21st-century computer industry. Cairns introduces himself in chapter 2 like this:

Software project management has always been like herding cats. So I've been told, anyway, by old managers, between snorts of coke in the trendy snow-bars where they blow their well-hedged pension funds. In their day, though, the cats were human, or at least the kind of guys who are now code-geeks. These days, the programmers are programs, as are the systems analysts. My job as a project manager is to assemble a convincing suite of AIs -- not untried, but not too far behind the curve, either -- then let loose marketing strategy webcrawlers to parade their skills before the endless bored beauty-contest of the agencies' business 'bots, take the contracts and ride herd on the whole squabbling mob when a deal comes in.

You need something almost like people skills to do it, but you need to be practically borderline Asperger's syndrome to develop these skills with AI. And when you need code-geeks for the bottom-level stuff, you need to be something of a sociable animal after all. It's a sufficiently rare combination to be worth more than the average wage. I'm an artist, not a technician. It pays the bills.

I think that Macleod has put his finger on something about software project management in all eras. The fact is, the technical side has always had an aspect that is like dealing with really strange and difficult people: legacy systems, software and hardware combinations that don't quite work the way the interface definitions say they should, and so on. And then you do need to deal with other programmers, as well as system architects and perhaps even travelers from the far lands of marketing and ergonomics. There aren't very many people who are good at all this, and few of them can also hack.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 23, 2004 11:26 AM