Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Identifying the Rotten Core

Stilgherrian's analysis on ZDNet of the major security flaw that afflicted both iOS and OS X provided a readable, and therefore valuable, summary of the why and how of what happened. The same can be said of his diagnosis of either rot or poison beneath Apple's shiny surface. I just wished he had taken his diagnosis one or two steps further, even if that meant venturing beyond his personal expertise in security.

That broader scope was actually suggested when Stilgherrian cited the pioneering work of Edsger Dijkstra in a discipline that would come to be known as "software engineering." It recalled those early days when coding was a seat-of-the-pants effort performed by individuals involving, at most, a moderate scope. Dijkstra was one of many to realize that this rather amateur approach would not sustain the development of large systems, such as operating system. He was a pioneer in preaching that the act of coding should follow disciplined standards, particularly so that one programmer could easily understand what another was doing.

Software engineers has matured considerably since then. It has also expanded beyond coding to include areas such as interface design, architecture, and testing. However, I would modestly suggest that, while the practice has become impressively disciplined, the practitioners have not kept up with the pace. Instead, they now rely on any number of "labor-saving" tools, which may allow them to be more productive but also distance them from what is really going on at all levels of the engineering process.

It used to be that the best IT companies could be recognized for recruiting the best talent. Apple used to be a star, but that star got eclipsed by Google. These days I am not sure that there are any stars with noting out there. Institutions that once inspired students to distinguish themselves a skilled practitioners now, instead, dangle the prospect of being a successful entrepreneur, thus neglecting the inevitable truth that, somewhere along the line, someone has to be responsible for getting the real work done.

Anyone who has experienced the decline in Apple software quality does not need to be told by Stilgherrian that the Apple now has a rotten core. However, Apple is hardly the only major corporation to confront this problem; and perhaps it does not need to be shouldered with the full blame for it. The real rot may come from the pernicious shift in values that now dominates our whole system of higher education, creating a brave new world of Eloi who may not longer have the benefit of Morlocks keeping them supplied with their necessities.

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