Crash in Iraq; Grove’s “shift left”

Sometimes when I tell people I’ve written a book about how difficult it is to make software well, I get a blank stare, as if to say, “What could be further from mattering to me?” And I repeat my now well-rehearsed remarks about the way our lives increasingly move through a vast web of programming products — way beyond what we encounter when we’re online. Sometimes the stares even resolve into interest.

So when I read items like this in the news I’m reminded of why these questions still matter. This is from a longer New York Times piece on how the U.S. seems to have lost track of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of materiel in Iraq:

Mr. Bowen found that the American military was not able to say how many Iraqi logistics personnel it had trained — in this case because, the military told the inspector general, a computer network crash erased records. Those problems have occurred even though the United States has spent $133 million on the weapons program and $666 million on Iraqi logistics capabilities.

What — no backup? No paper records? How about, you know, asking the people whose job it was to train those Iraqi logistics personnel? Now it could be that this is a “dog ate my homework” sort of excuse, and that in fact the fruits of $666 million did not disappear in a network crash but rather into various people’s pockets, on the U.S. or the Iraqi side. But even at face value, that’s a pretty expensive crash.

(Peter Neumann’s Risks Digest tracks endless amounts of stuff like this on a regular basis.)

It’s hard to analyze this particular disaster without more detail. But military software tends to be big, complex, sometimes bloated. I thought of that, reading today’s fascinating Journal column by Lee Gomes about Intel’s Andy Grove and his latest cause — improving the health care system and its record-keeping. Grove is advocating a simple approach — plain text.

To explain “Shift left,” Mr. Grove describes the bottom axis of a scale in which products and services grow more full-featured, complicated and expensive as you move to the right. To “Shift left” on this scale is to, in effect, “Keep it simple, stupid.”

…Rather than designing an elaborate and technically sophisticated medical-database system, something practically every tech company is now trying to do, Mr. Grove suggests the exact opposite. Shift left; keep the record of a patient’s visit in, for example, a generic but Web-accessible word-processing file.

Just like the early personal computer, it will be far from ideal, but it will be a start, and it can get better over time. The alternative, he says, is to wait endlessly for a perfect technology.

That last sentence should be etched onto the monitors of CTOs and development managers around the globe.

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