Lessons are where you find them
© Douglas E. Welch 1999
April 9, 1999
I am an avid reader of an eclectic variety of books. I love learning
about something new. I especially love when my reading in one
area is applicable to another, completely different, area of my
life. Too often we fail to see how rules established in other
arts, crafts and technologies can give us a better understanding
of our own field and career.
Such was the time I picked up , ABC of Architecture, (James F.
O?Gorman, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997) at my local
library. Although I wanted to read this book to learn more about
architecture I found much that could be applied to computer service
and support jobs, programming, the rest of the high-tech industry
and other areas of our lives.
The Three Pillars
O?Gorman?s book is based on a re-visitation of the three pillars
of architecture developed by the Roman architect Vitruvius. He
discovered that any building must be developed using three basic
principles, Utilitas or function, Firmitas or form and Venustas
or beauty. Like a three-legged stool, none of these concerns can
be omitted or the building will not be successful. Unfortunately,
many of us in high tech careers violate these principles in every
project we develop.
Form is developed from a client?s needs. They come to the technology
worker in search of a solution for a given set of problems. Unfortunately,
technology workers can violate form in so many ways and we see
it every day. Sometimes we give the user what we "think" they
need. Sometimes we ignore their needs altogether. Sometimes we
develop shoddy systems because developing a good system requires
too much time, energy or budget.
Our abandonment of form can leave us with software that doesn?t
meet the needs of the users for which it was designed. Programs
that promise the world but have no organization and only limited
usefullness. Too often these failures are do to the lack of a
coherent design of the product. Too many features are tacked on
to too many screens and too many menus. It is like a house that
is built from whatever detritus that was at hand without any relation
to what the final product might look like.
The same fate can befall training programs that try to teach everything
to everyone instead of a few useful operations. How many great
attempts to increase productivity and profits have failed because
no one had the over-riding vision to focus on form. Any project
must have a clear definition of form or you risk ending up with
a house with 4 porches and no bathrooms.
Function is how we accomplish the form the users, your clients,
have requested. Unfortunately, even when we have a clear vision
of what software is supposed to accomplish or what a new training
program is supposed to teach we can still go astray. If we ignore
function, how the form is accomplished, we have many ways to fail.
Requiring an 8 hour training class in a little used piece of software
will result in bad feelings, political battles and very little
learning. In this case we have the right idea, training, but did
not consider how it should be accomplished. If we think about
function we can develop easier methods to accomplish out goal
and still keep people relatively happy.
In this example you could break the class into shorter sessions.
You could purchase training tapes or computer-based training (CBT)
that could be used at a person?s desk whenever they had a free
moment. You could train a few users who would then go and support
those around them.
Without function, the most idealistic and altruistic goals will
fail. Execution does matter.
This pillar is often the one most violated when it comes to technology.
Too many of us figure that if something works it doesn?t have
to be pretty. This falsehood is a deep trap that we all need to
Lack of beauty in technology shows itself in so many ways. Programs
that require a 20 step process to perform a straightforward task.
Systems that require extensive gyrations to backup or restart.
People who make you jump through bureaucratic hoops to get the
computer you need to do your job.
Even though the form may be well-defined and the function at least
usable, the lack of beauty forces us to expend much more energy
than should be required. For example, if 10 people are using an
ugly program that allows them to turn out 10 documents a day,
imagine how many more people might be able to turn out how many
more documents if the program were designed with an eye towards
beauty. We sacrifice our productivity because we do not take the
time and energy to develop beautiful or elegant systems.
Most of us have come across a beautiful system at one time or
another. Try to remember how it made you feel. Try to remember
how much it expanded your productivity. Imagine the effects if
every system were designed in the same way.
The next time your are called to work on a project or develop
a piece or software or write the curriculum for a training class,
consider the three pillars: Utilitas, Firmitas and Venustas. A
few minutes of thought might yield a better system and maybe,
over time, a better world.
Douglas E. Welch is a freelance writer and computer consultant
in Van Nuys, California. Readers can discuss career issues with
other readers by joining the Career Opportunities Discussion on
Douglas' web page at: http://www.welchwrite.com/
He can reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org