Software Needed for Work

When I first started studying computer science setting up a programming project was easy, write source code files and a Makefile and that was it. IRC was the only IM system and email was the only other communications system that was used much. Writing Makefiles is difficult but products like the Borland Turbo series of IDEs did all that for you so you could just start typing code and press a function key to compile and run (F5 from memory).

Over the years the requirements and expectations of computer use have grown significantly. The typical office worker is now doing many more things with computers than serious programmers used to do. Running an IM system, an online document editing system, and a series of web apps is standard for companies nowadays. Developers have to do all that in addition to tools for version control, continuous integration, bug reporting, and feature tracking. The development process is also more complex with extra steps for reproducible builds, automated tests, and code coverage metrics for the tests. I wonder how many programmers who started in the 90s would have done something else if faced with Github as their introduction.

How much of this is good? Having the ability to send instant messages all around the world is great. Having dozens of different ways of doing so is awful. When a company uses multiple IM systems such as MS-Teams and Slack and forces some of it’s employees to use them both it’s getting ridiculous. Having different friend groups on different IM systems is anti-social networking. In the EU the Digital Markets Act [1] forces some degree of interoperability between different IM systems and as it’s impossible to know who’s actually in the EU that will end up being world-wide.

In corporations document management often involves multiple ways of storing things, you have Google Docs, MS Office online, hosted Wikis like Confluence, and more. Large companies tend to use several such systems which means that people need to learn multiple systems to be able to work and they also need to know which systems are used by the various groups that they communicate with. Microsoft deserves some sort of award for the range of ways they have for managing documents, Sharepoint, OneDrive, Office Online, attachments to Teams rooms, and probably lots more.

During WW2 the predecessor to the CIA produced an excellent manual for simple sabotage [2]. If something like that was written today the section General Interference with Organisations and Production would surely have something about using as many incompatible programs and web sites as possible in the work flow. The proliferation of software required for work is a form of denial of service attack against corporations.

The efficiency of companies doesn’t really bother me. It sucks that companies are creating a demoralising workplace that is unpleasant for workers. But the upside is that the biggest companies are the ones doing the worst things and are also the most afflicted by these problems. It’s almost like the Bureau of Sabotage in some of Frank Herbert’s fiction [3].

The thing that concerns me is the effect of multiple standards on free software development. We have IRC the most traditional IM support system which is getting replaced by Matrix but we also have some projects using Telegram, and Jabber hasn’t gone away. I’m sure there are others too. There are also multiple options for version control (although github seems to dominate the market), forums, bug trackers, etc. Reporting bugs or getting support in free software often requires interacting with several of them. Developing free software usually involves dealing with the bug tracking and documentation systems of the distribution you use as well as the upstream developers of the software. If the problem you have is related to compatibility between two different pieces of free software then you can end up dealing with even more bug tracking systems.

There are real benefits to some of the newer programs to track bugs, write documentation, etc. There is also going to be a cost in changing which gives an incentive for the older projects to keep using what has worked well enough for them in the past,

How can we improve things? Use only the latest tools? Prioritise ease of use? Aim more for the entry level contributors?

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>