Historically, it seems that I do my best writing in the hours between midnight and dawn (I generally don't need a lot of sleep). However, there are many times in my life when it becomes difficult to push back the constant noise of phone calls, email, instant messages, and snail mail, such that I find it best to run away to a region with fewer transistors than normal in order to write. That's what I've been doing the last couple of days, and so - while coming up for air for a few minutes - am blogging from the mountains of Colorado. Yes, wireless high speed Internet connections are even available at 14,000 feet above sea level. Ain't technology wonderful?
Speaking of technology, over the past few months I've had a handful of software professionals lament to me about the state of the industry and how they would never encourage their children to enter the field. There is no doubt that the global economic malaise continues in our space, manifest by ongoing consolidation, fewer small companies in the mix bringing out-of-the-box ideas to the market, and underperforming companies in the middle struggling for survival. Couple that with very real angst that individual developers experience over layoffs and the global relocation of jobs and it is indeed grim from some angles. On top of that news, a number of reports acknowledge a global decline in the number of students graduating from universites with some sort of degree in software.
When I talk to non-software audiences, I'm still stunned by how many such folks simply don't have a clue what software is about. All too often when non-technical people ask me what I do I'll say that I'm in computers and they'll reply by saying, "oh, my son/daughter/cousin/nephew is in computers too!" but when I probe, I realize that most of the time they mean that their son/daughter/cousin/nephew knows how to install the latest Windows patches and/or can plug in various USB peripherials and make them work most of the time. I'll usually smile and reply with a polite "how interesting," but then when I try to explain what I do in software, their eyes generally glaze over. For most of the world, what we do in our world is sill very intangible and mysterious.
I can't speak for my colleagues, but personally I am still very much excited by the potential of software and the opportunities that exist for innovation by individuals in the field (the US Department of Labor has similar optimistic views). For this reason I continue to encourage the children and young adults in my life to pursue work in software. Some of that generation will likely enter our field directly, but I expect that most of the next generation who dabble in software will do so not as a software professional but rather as a domain expert in some specific field that requires extreme skill in using and writing software for that domain.[Read More]
Software architecture, software engineering, and Renaissance Jazz
From archive: July 2004 X
I posted my last blog on Tuesday, June 29th. The very next day while I was in Venice, I received a call from my only sister who reported that her only son died in his sleep of an aneurysm at the tender age of 20. Thomas was an amazing individual: he was in his final year at Vanderbilt University, was a few days away from traveling to Cambridge for the summer, and had just been accepted to the Yale School of Medicine. He was a young man of faith and passion beyond his years, an accomplished pianist, and in all respects a gentle and caring soul. He will be missed. My wife and I have no children, so this loss is doublely felt as this also represents the terminus of the Booch genes.
Because I was still in Europe, it was physically impossible for me to make it back to the United States in time for his funeral although I did spend time with the family immediately upon my return (and I just now returned from keynoting the IBM Rational Software Development User Conference which I'll talk about in a later post). Needless to say, keeping up with my blog was low on my list of priorities at the time.
I've known for many years that this was in my DNA. My father died of an aneurysm as did his brother, although both did so in their late 70s, a much more common time for men. I'd recently had a complete physical and just a couple of years ago tested for aneurysms. Needless to say, this recent episode has caused me to be much more aggressive in diagnosis (I've got an appointment with the doctor this Friday to baseline my aorta). The symptoms of an impending aneurysm are often silent, but one can get indicators via x-ray and CAT scan.
CAT scans, by their very definition, are software-intense devices. Siemens, Toshiba, General Electric, and Philips are among the leading manufacturers. I titled this blog as Saving Myself because I actually have engaged with some of the teams in these companies and are aware of a few of their projects and practices. The theme of the Rational conference was software runs the world, and this is brought to a clear and present reality for me, as whatever I can to to raise the tide of quality and professionalism in the field of software engineering may indeed contibute to saving myself in a very literal sense.[Read More]
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I'ts been fascinating to watch Microsoft try to follow the very path that Rational forged a lifetime ago, namely, the creation of a suite of tools that support the software development lifecycle, not just the activities of coding. The latest brick in this well-worn path that Microsoft is walking is their vigorous pursuit of patents, something which will require a bit of catchup since IBM has led the world in patents for the past 11 years (and shows no signs of letting up).
What strikes me the most about this latest move from Redmond is that it represents a subtle yet significant recognition of the critical importance of improving the activity of software development by teams - not just individuals - and the protection of essential software intellecual property as a means of driving innovation and economization. I'd recently been interviewed by Jack Vaughn of Application Development Trends and he rightly observed that the futures pitch I gave at the Rational Software Development User Conference was optimistic (and he suggested that was a welcome sign given the current state of our industry). I'd observed in my keynote that what sent chills down my spine in looking at the future not of our industry but of our world was that every advance required software that had not yet been written.
In short, there's still a lot of exciting stuff we'll get to do in the coming years.[Read More]
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I'm back from the radiologist office. We baselined my aorta and happily all my internal plumbing was deamed intact, a most welcome report given the news in my earlier post regarding the death of my nephew, Thomas.
As I usually do when surrounded by technology, I engaged the nurse with questions about the equipement she was using. This particular ultrasound machine was from General Electric and cost around $300,000. I learned that ultrasound hit the mainstream in the 70's and at that time permitted only static images. As computing power increased, real time ultrasound was possible, permitting the analyst to explore interesting images using visual feedback. All of the images they took today were digital (I observed with no little trepidation that their image servers ran an older operating system from a certain company in Redmond...oh how I hope they are fastidious in downloading the latest of the continuous flood of patches). The user interface with the system seemed clumsy, with the nurse having to take her hands off the probe to type from time to time. I'm told that the next generation machines permit voice input, thus freeing the operator's hands and streamlining the process (the nurse has to mark certain interesting features so that things like aorta diameter and wall size can be determined). I was also told that this next generation was just a software upgrade away; they'd be able to preserve their investment in the hardware.
Indeed, software is everywhere. In the past x-rays would use traditonal film, but in my test today, the machine took digital imaages directly.[Read More]
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Yesterday morning, I had the pleasure of dining with Scott Ross, president of Digital Domain, the company responsible for the special effects in Titanic, What Dreams May Come, Apollo 13, True Lies, I Robot, and many others. Special effects are a computationally expensive endeavor that moreover require significant and innovative artistry. Scott observed that the past few years have witnessed a number of algorithmic breakthroughs on the path to complete photorealism: in this general order, the proper rendering and animation of clothing, hair, and now facial features. Scott went on to note that the windows are the eyes of the soul, and this particular facial feature is really the one remaining problem to tackle. Digital Domain probably models fluids better than anyone in the business (see, for example, The Day After Tomorrow), but as far as photorealistic rendering of humans are concerned, the industry is already there, according to Scott. Actors who inconveniently die in the middle of production may be brought back to life, stunts that would be far too dangerous for any human to undertake are carried out digitally, and individuals, crowds (both human and otherwise), and sets are regularly added to films to supplement or replace artifacts in the real world. This is not to say that virtual actors are the future and that the artistic lifetime of human actors is numbered. From my perspective outside Hollywood, the situation seems very much the same as with the growth of electronic synthesizers. When these devices really hit the mainstream in the 70s and 80s, everyone was afraid that musicians would be a dying breed. Well, synthesizers are still mainstream and they have permitted marginal artists to produce dreadful music much more rapidly than they could in the past, but they have also unleashed new forms of expression. Ultimately, good art and talented artists survive the introduction of new technology and are actually empowered by it.
Back on the software side of the special effects business, it's interesting to note that a handful of products dominate the industry (for example, Pixar's Renderman and Maya) although each effects house gets its particular competitive advantage from proprietary software. In addition to raw rendering and animation, the production problem is ultimately one of complex workflow, involving a pipeline that starts with the director, artists, and actors and ends with final scenes. Keeping that pipeline filled, especially during post production, is what distinguishes an efficent process from a dysfunctional one (the latter of which gets you reported in Variety and ultimately results in missing box office opening dates).
One parting observation on the connection of software to Hollywood: Steve Jobs founded Pixar and Paul Allen is a major investor in Dreamworks.[Read More]