Career Opportunities

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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.

Utilitas (Form)
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.

Firmitas (Function)
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.

Venustas (Beauty)
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 escape.
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:

He can reached via email at