You can’t see atoms

You can’t see atoms. That’s what I was taught. Well, everything you see is actually made by atoms, but you can’t see single atoms – that was the meaning of the teaching. Simply it is not possible – it has to do with atom dimensions and light wavelength. I won’t delve into the scientific reasons, but every serious physic textbook will confirm this.You may imagine my surprise when I saw some pictures of actual molecules. In fact it is true that you can’t see atoms (nor molecules), but you can use specialized sensor to produce a visual representation of atoms and molecules aspects. Yes it is not seeing directly by light rays, but is fully equivalent for all practical purposes.
That’s the idea – something is considered impossible until someone comes out with an idea to work around the limitations and voila, what once was considered impossible, today is within everyone reach.
This is what my friend Jimmy Playfield (the name is fake to protect his privacy) told me.
Some days ago Jimmy’s boss called him and all senior programmer and senior hardware designers to assign them a homework for the short vacancy they were about to have.
The goal was to find a way to work in the company environment and successfully craft project after project. The constraint though were that they couldn’t change anything in the chaotic way projects were handled.
Here is a sum of the constraints –

  • budgets are fixed, no increase in the engineers workforce;
  • requirements are roughly defined at the beginning of the project, then they continue to pour in during the entire lifetime of the project;
  • Resources are not statically assigned to a single project, but they may be temporary (and not so temporary) shared among two (or more) projects;
  • contracts are naively written, no real fences and firewall are set to force the customer to behave constructively nor to protect the company from customer whims;
  • project manager role has been declared useless, so their company charges the responsibilities of project management onto project specialists;
  • there are more projects than programmers;
  • no real policy for resource management, no motivational incentives, no benefits, no training (well, here I guess Jimmy was somewhat exaggerating).

Easy, ain’t it?
Well it sounds a hard problem. Let’s see what “project management 101” has to say about this situation.
First the triangle of project variables. Basically for every project there are three variables – Budget, Features and Time. Of these three variables you can fix two (any two), but not the third one. E.g. you can fix Time and Features, but the Budget is a consequence, or you can fix Budget and Time, but Features are a consequence (this is the agile methodology configuration.)
Usually projects at Jimmy’s company have Budget and Time fixed. So the only chance would be to work on Features.
Features variable is to be intended as a mix of features and their quality. A poorly implemented feature is likely to take less time/budget than a robust and top quality implementation. So they could slash the quality.
The problem to work in this direction – put aside ethical aspects – is that usually quality is the topmost motivational driver. Taking pride of what one does helps the involvement in the project. When a programmer in despair states – “tell me what I have to do and I’ll do it” – that’s the end of motivation, the end of involvement and the sunset of efficiency. The programmer will consider that project an accident, something that is not worth his/her neurons to be burnt on.
The other problem in slashing the quality is that legal contracts have to be armored to protect the company against the customer that could complain about the lack of quality.
I can’t see any solution for them, at least, not within the system, much like you can’t see the atom without moving to another level.
So by moving to a meta-level, you can break out of the system, e.g. by hiring someone to write the code for the project. This programmer won’t do any better than Jimmy and his coworkers – sometimes he will complete the project, sometimes he will fail. But to the company is a win-win solution, if the contractor succeeds then the company wins, if the contractor fails then the company could blame him and that’s a win again.
The major problem I see with this is that it is a bit suicidal, i.e. Jimmy and his coworkers become redundant and disposable as soon and the contractor is hired. Good luck, Jimmy and let me know if you find a better solution.

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