People ask me what my book (Dreaming in Code) is about, and I usually answer, “It’s about software…” And, if their eyes don’t glaze over immediately, I’ll add, “…and why software is still so hard. Why it’s always late and it’s always breaking. Why we’re 50 years into the computer age and we still don’t know how to make it reliably.”
By this point, one of two things will have happened: either listeners will have nodded and smiled and said, “I know exactly what you mean!” Or their eyes will have eventually glazed over, after all, and they’ll look at me a little quizzically, as if to say, oh really? And why does this matter? What do I care?
I thought about those people as I passed through the BART turnstiles this morning, a little glazed-eyed myself. There, neatly by the attendant’s booth, lay piles of orange flyers under a “BART BULLETIN” letterhead. I grabbed one and read it on the escalator-ride down.
It was an apology for the screwed-up state of BART yesterday morning — which had seen half-hour delays and incorrect train-destination signs. How considerate! A mass transit system that apologizes to you! In my many youthful years of New York City straphanging, I can’t say I ever had that experience.
But this is the paragraph that caught my eye:
|BART technicians believe the delays were caused by new computer software that was installed over the weekend. The new software has been removed and the software that was previously in use has been re-installed. Although the new software was repeatedly tested before installation, it failed in the demanding real-world environment of a weekday morning commute.|
BART had botched a software upgrade. It had plenty of company in that experience, of course.
As C++ creator Bjarne Stroustrup puts it: “Our civilization runs on software.” BART does, too. And understanding why software remains so balky — a topic I happen to find fascinating in the abstract — also has some everyday, pragmatic interest.
UPDATE: And how. I just tried to get on BART for my ride home this evening but could tell from the milling crowds outside the Embarcadero station something was radically wrong. Walked down the stairs to catch a garbled announcement on the PA: “We have closed the gates… no trains are moving… computer problems…”
I’m grateful for the consideration in illustrating my point, but I’d really rather just be on my way home!