Book Review: Dreaming in Code (a book about why software is hard)

Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest for Transcendent Software
(or “A book about why software is hard”) by Scott Rosenberg

Before I dive into my review of this book – I have to come clean. I must admit that I have lived and breathed the world of software development for years. I have, in fact, dreamt in code. That is NOT to say that I was programming in my dream, rather that the logic of the dream itself was rooted in the logic of the programming language I was learning at the time (they didn’t call it Oracle Bootcamp for nothing).

With that out of the way I can say that I loved this book. This book was so good that I somehow managed to read it cover to cover while taking two graduate school courses and working full time. Looking back, I am not sure when I managed to fit in all 416 pages of it (ok, there are some appendices and such at the end that I merely skimmed).

Rosenberg reports on the creation of an open source software tool named Chandler. He got permission to report on the project much as an embedded journalist does for a military unit. He went to meetings. He interviewed team members. He documented the ups and downs and real-world challenges of building a complex software tool based on a vision.

If you have even a shred of interest in the software systems that are generating records that archivists will need to preserve in the future – read this book. It is well written – and it might just scare you. If there is that much chaos in the creation of these software systems (and such frequent failure in the process), what does that mean for the archivist charged with the preservation of the data locked up inside these systems?

I have written about some of this before (see Understanding Born Digital Records: Journalists and Archivists with Parallel Challenges), but it stands repeating: If you think preserving records originating from standardized packages of off-the-shelf software is hard, then please consider that really understanding the meaning of all the data (and business rules surrounding its creation) in custom built software systems is harder still by a factor of 10 (or a 100).

It is interesting for me to feel so pessimistic about finding (or rebuilding) appropriate contextual information for electronic records. I am usually such an optimist. I suspect it is a case of knowing too much for my own good. I also think that so many attempts at preservation of archival electronic records are in their earliest stages – perhaps in that phase in which you think you have all the pieces of the puzzle. I am sure there are others who have gotten further down the path only to discover that their map to the data does not bear any resemblance to the actual records they find themselves in charge of describing and arranging. I know that in some cases everything is fine. The records being accessioned are well documented and thoroughly understood.

My fear is that in many cases we won’t know that we don’t have all the pieces we need to decipher the data until many years down the road leads me to an even darker place. While I may sound alarmist, I don’t think I am overstating the situation. This comes from my first hand experience in working with large custom built databases. Often (back in my life as a software consultant) I would be assigned to fix or add on to a program I had not written myself. This often feels like trying to crawl into someone else’s brain.

Imagine being told you must finish a 20 page paper tonight – but you don’t get to start from scratch and you have no access to the original author. You are provided a theoretically almost complete 18 page paper and piles of books with scraps of paper stuck in them. The citations are only partly done. The original assignment leaves room for original ideas – so you must discern the topic chosen by the original author by reading the paper itself. You decide that writing from scratch is foolish – but are then faced with figuring out what the person who originally was writing this was trying to say. You find 1/2 finished sentences here and there. It seems clear they meant to add entire paragraphs in some sections. The final thorn in your side is being forced to write in a voice that matches that of the original author – one that is likely odd sounding and awkward for you. About halfway through the evening you start wishing you had started from scratch – but now it is too late to start over, you just have to get it done.

So back to the archivist tasked with ensuring that future generations can make use of the electronic records in their care. The challenges are great. This sort of thing is hard even when you have the people who wrote the code sitting next to you available to answer questions and a working program with which to experiment. It just makes my head hurt to imagine piecing together the meaning of data in custom built databases long after the working software and programmers are well beyond reach.

Does this sound interesting or scary or relevant to your world? Dreaming in Code is really a great read. The people are interesting. The issues are interesting. The author does a good job of explaining the inner workings of the software world by following one real world example and grounding it in the landscape of the history of software creation. And he manages to include great analogies to explain things to those looking in curiously from outside of the software world. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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Posted on 24th May 2007
Under: book review, context, electronic records, journalism, learning technology, open source, preservation, software | 1 Comment » | Print This Post Print This Post

One Response to “Book Review: Dreaming in Code (a book about why software is hard)”

  1. ArchivesZ Data Challenges: Oregon State University Archives - Spellbound Blog Says:

    […] wrote the version 1 ruby script). For those of you who are not programmers, you can skim through my Book Review of Dreaming in Code to get a handle on why this can be harder than it sounds like it should […]

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