Arnt Gulbrandsen
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2014-05-14

Is this going to bring any results?

Most readers will not have visited the world's largest city: Kiruna, in northern Sweden. It's bigger than Wales, and snowier as well.

One dark winter afternoon, which in Kiruna is very dark indeed, Medel­svens­son was going home from work when he met someone outside the entrance to the office building, searching for something in the snow. Hi, have you lost something? My car keys. I'll help you look for them. After five minutes they hadn't found the keys, and Medelsvensson asked: Are you sure you lost them here? No, over there, I think, pointing to the deep snowdrifts in the darkest, farthest corner of the parking lot. Then why were you looking here? The light is much better here.

This is not a joke. Or if it is, it's not a laughing matter.

I have to ask the same question about some code I'm working on. It's well documented, but one question the documentation does not answer is: Why oh why was feature x implemented long ago and y only started, when y was clearly much more important?

In this case the fool who chose x was I, and I remember that I even knew, somehow, vaguely, that y was the more important feature and x just a supplement. Then why were you looking here? Medel­svens­son would ask me. The sad answer is that y needed cooperation, the kind that involves waiting on obscure processes and far-away meetings. x could be solved in my office, where the light was better.

I write this today out of frustration. I've just talked to someone who's beginning on an x. They know about several ys, I don't think there's much disagreement about what's important and what not, but the x is what will be done. And I understand why (it's not something I should say in public), and yet I am unable to explain that it is a mistake.

It's bad to have made this mistake, worse to watch someone make it. It hurts.

It's not just people. Bureaucracies with meeting-laden decision processes make the same mistake. Last year the newspapers reported that the US had been tapping Angela Merkel's phone. One of her phones, namely the one she used for election campaigns. Angela Merkel is not a threat to the US, and the people she talked to aren't likely blackhats. So why tap that phone? Said the Swede, the light is better here. I dare say it's easier to find the phone number of a campaigning politician than of someone who does his best to hide his very existence. Never mind that it doesn't lead to worthwhile results.