Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Uncle Who Won't Shut Up

Following is a rebroadcast of my comment on Hanselman's blog.

Looking forward to hearing Uncle Bob again. I find him very insightful on coding issues, less so on community issues like how software developers should carry themselves, envision the job, etc. Then there's his politics, which I only mention because it is a large fraction of his tweets (i.e., he mentions it first and puts it in the public sphere). The farther he gets away from technical questions and the closer to sociological theories, he gets less empirical and more loopy. Worse, he also gets more strident, or at least no less so.

I guess he's not the first geek to go a little crackpot when outside his tech strengths. Noam Chomsky, anyone?

Anyway, here's a few questions I'd like someone to ask him. Maybe in part 4?

1. He's pretty big on craftsmanship lately. For the most part, the lesson of history has been, when craftspersons compete with engineering (i.e., industrial processes and capitalist management), the craftspersons get crushed. ("Outcompeted.") The industrial products are more reliable, they scale better, they don't have single-source dependency risks, etc.--and having scaled, their unit cost is cheaper. The "craftsmen" he mythologizes never got around to looking at their products that way; instead, they sat around, pretty happy with themselves, their traditions, and their traditional notions of "quality" and "reliability" until engineers came along and ate their lunch. The engineers innovated, while the "craftsmen" celebrated the past. Given the lessons of history, therefore, why on earth would we want to emulate craftsmen? Or does the "craftsmanship" vision only work for boutique shops, authors, and consultants?

2. He seems pretty ignorant of history with his "professionalism" speeches, too. Strictly speaking, a profession is something that is licensed by the state: doctor, lawyer, even plumber, and (notably) every sort of engineer except software engineer. A profession usually has generations of lore and experience behind it, and a core association (the AMA, the state bars, etc) that maintains "professional standards" and a code of ethics. Thus, in general, an industry has to be a couple generations old AND coalesced around a consensus set of practices before it can even THINK about becoming a profession. (Indeed, that's why the phrase "world's oldest profession" is actually quite a bit funnier, in a dry way, than most people realize today, now that the modern usage of "professional" has stretched to mean "white collar" and/or "not qualifying for amateur status".) I'm pretty sure that if Uncle Bob thought about it, he wouldn't want the government or anybody else telling him who's qualified to write software, or what his ethics should be. Ergo, either he hasn't thought about it, or he doesn't understand the connotations of the words he uses. Either way, he sounds unconvincing.

3. From what I can gather in his tweets and blogs, he's emphatically against not only health care reform, but regulation of the health sector in most any form. I'd love for you, Scott, to ask him how an unregulated insurance market would serve insulin-dependent diabetics, or anyone else who's acutely or chronically dependent on medical treatment. I'd love for you to look him in the eye and ask him what carrier would cover you, and whether you'd ever be able to work for a company smaller than Microsoft and still have coverage. (Of course, maybe you'd rather not entangle your blog and podcasts with that much off-topic drama. It would be quite professional of you, so to speak, to avoid it. But I have several close relatives with diabetes and other health issues, so I'm pretty tired of Uncle Bob's free ride. If he wants to evangelize ideas that would have awful human consequences, I think people should stand up. Your decision is yours, of course.)

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