usable in any place a human can be used


saying nothing

[caption id="attachment_838" align="alignright" width="326" caption="Thank you, very helpful"]Dialog saying "Error: An Error has Occurred"[/caption]

As a software developer I have the great joy of making things that piss people off. Nothing makes someone angrier than after an hour of meticulously entering financial data, you hit the submit button and get back the error pictured to the right. In actuality, good software developers go to great pains to make their systems as resilient as possible. A large amount of the code written for any complex piece of software will be dealing with error conditions, recovering from the recoverable, and gracefully reporting fatal errors in a way that indicates exactly what happened and why and what to do about it.

One of the best features an error message can have is Google-ability. If the error has a prominent and distinct feature, then a Google (insert your favorite search engine here) Search will be able to deliver relevant results with a much higher degree of accuracy.

Good Error Message Example:

Error ERS1708A - Invalid Character
The field "Zip Code" should only contain numbers, "47CD101" is invalid.
Examples of valid input: 44130, 90210, 43220

Bad Error Message Example:

Form Invalid!!

The first error might be a little overkill, but the first part meets are Google-ability test. Typing ERS1708A into Google will pull up solutions for this problem. The error goes on to report exactly what went wrong in a user friendly way, it even goes so far as to give some samples of what correct input looks like. The second example gives you a vague idea that something bad has happened, something dealing with a form, and if that form happens to have 100 fields on it, well good luck figuring it out (maybe it's even one of those awesome programs that will clear your entire form on error). The problem is that you are equally likely to get either of these error messages from the same input depending on how much effort the programmer put into error recovery and reporting.

We all know that we should strive to help out the end-user and give them good error messages (even better if we can have robust recovery so we don't have to report errors). The problem is that programmers often have to be toolmakers as well. Sometimes when making a tool for other programmers to use we let our error reporting skills slip, these aren't mouth breathing users, these are 1337h4x0rz and will find your undocumented command line tool completely natural. I ran into this mentality today while troubleshooting a Windows Service installation problem. The Service works great on my development machine, works fine on other peoples laptops, but on the security locked down Mobile Data Terminals that the Service actually has to run on, no dice. The error that was being reported during installation was...

The system cannot execute the specified program

This fails in every way imaginable. Completely un-Google-able, go ahead and try it, you will find everything from people installing things on WinPE, to game development, web controls, Server installation.... a deluge of crap. The error message is amazingly useless, the system can't do something, what can't it do, I don't know, it doesn't even tell me. Can it not execute the install.bat file, maybe the executable called by the install.bat, maybe the executable that executable invokes, who knows?!

Well being a clever programmer and systematic debugger I was able to isolate each piece working towards the fact that what the message actually should have said was, "Although I have all the permissions necessary to access and execute all the programs you want me too, one of the programs requires that the system have the Microsoft Visual C++ 2008 SP1 Redistributable Package (x86) installed on the machine before you try to execute it. If you install that, then I can find the dependencies I'm missing and everything will be cool, kthxbye!"

Error messages are one of the few times that we as programmers get to actually directly communicate to the user. Don't waste this opportunity by effectively saying nothing to the user. The error message is a traumatic thing for most users, happily working along until it pops up, keep it short, sweet, descriptive and helpful.



[caption id="attachment_827" align="alignright" width="300" caption="In case you didn\'t read it: None of Us is as dumb as All of Us."]meetings demotivational poster[/caption]


There is a lie we like to tell ourselves that goes something like this, "I am in control of my life." You are not, it's a cultural lie though, one of those things that we've all agreed makes us feel better so we politely nod our heads and lie to each other and all get through the day a little easier. It's similar to that radical 90's style lie I grew up with during school that went something along the lines of, "Everyone is special and magical and made out of ponies." Everyone gets a trophy, even if you didn't win, because you are special just for trying. It's a lie that everyone knows is a lie, but it makes people feel better, so what's the harm.

Well over the last few months it's become apparent to me that these things are lies, that I'm no more in control of what goes on in my life then my dog is of his own. At any moment someone could walk through the door and kill us all just for laughs, or someone could hand me a million dollars. The uncertainty of it all is unsettling and exciting. The one thing that has slowly crept into my life recently is the subject of my post, and that is the hallowed institute of meetings. Somehow I went from a code ninja hacking down mountains of whatever was thrown in front of me to a table jockey. I am now scheduled to attend no fewer than 8 meetings per work week.

That works out to 1.6 meetings/day, and rest assured there is at least 1 meeting everyday. I know people that do nothing all day but meetings, it boggles the mind. I would say that I "hate" meetings, but that really doesn't convey the depth of my loathing for them. Meetings are the bane of my existence, I could stomach maybe 1 a week, a short sweet status meeting, but what I can't handle is the bread and butter corporate meeting, and I'm going to detail why.

  1. Marketspeak: I don't know what the fuck happens to people when they get in meetings but everything, everything gets some fancy new moniker. Sure I could say that I'm working on some stuff, but wouldn't it be better to say that goal-forwarding has been achieved on several Tier-1 action items. There are no people anymore, just assets and resources, dehumanized by the cruel tongue of Marketspeak. Every concept, no matter how simple, is wrapped in shiny new clothes, as though you might confuse the dog turd covered in whipped cream as a delicious fudge sundae.

  2. Teleconferencing: There is always some person (sorry, meant to say "stakeholder touchpoint") who thinks its appropriate to call into the meeting on a 1992 Nokia Celfone while in the middle of a monsoon while driving through a tunnel. Bonus points if this person has a thick accent that makes even high-fidelity communication less than understandable. The other issue is having 10 people on one side of the conference line and 10 on the other, and the fun of each side trying to figure out who is talking.

  3. Pointless Status: Managing people is difficult, so management is obsessed with the idea of status. The problem is that status is normally not quantitative but qualitative, too bad that doesn't fit into the Holy Spreadsheet. People are forced to turn things into percentages, I'm 80% done reflanging the spline, even if that doesn't make any sense. Status reports are a proxy for involvement, they are a way to feel connected to a process you don't have any part in.

  4. Workturbation: Meetings are insidious, if you have 8 hours of meetings you will go home mentally exhausted, more than likely frustrated, and with a feeling that you've really put in a hard day's work. The problem is that when you try to figure out what you've actually accomplished the list is either non-existent or incredibly paltry. Meetings feel like work but rarely accomplish anything of actual significance. Meetings also have the incredible ability of spawning meta-work just for the sake of the meeting itself. Before the meeting you have to prepare whatever pointless agenda you have for your meeting, secure a place to have the meeting, work around everyone's schedules. Afterward someone prepares the minutes and it gets emailed to the companyname-all mailing list where inevitably the tiny list of things that were actually decided are rehashed again and again. Personal bikesheds are floated around, and more than likely all the chatter on the email list will require ANOTHER FUCKING MEETING to sort out.

  5. Punting: Punting is the amazing technique where something interferes with the meeting so it is moved down the road to another meeting. Punting is sometimes necessary when someone wants to discuss in detail some trivial point, but the best and most frequent kind of punting is the following. Design meeting is convened, difficult non-trivial thing is brought up that requires actual thinking and problem solving, meeting participants get frightened by the idea of actually having to dust off the critical thinking part of their brain instead of blithely parroting made up statuses of underlings, issue is tabled to be dealt with in the future, a piece of me dies inside. Keeping the meeting moving becomes MORE important than getting anything decided or accomplished.

The list is in no way exhaustive or universal. At the end of the day though, a meeting is taking up time you could be doing something, they should be looked at that way. All that time you are sitting in meetings talking about all the stuff that could be getting done if everyone wasn't stuck in meetings all the time... my head hurts. What we need are people with their hands on the problem empowered to make decisions and move things forward. Then we can meet once a week to talk about how things are going, instead of sitting around all week wondering why nothing is getting done.