Sunday, 12 June 2016

Ten Out Of Ten



As is probably abundantly clear, my educational path took me down Humanities Main Street with few diversions until I found myself, as we all eventually do, standing at the edge of Education City with not much clue where to go next. Although, having gone through the grammar school curriculum of the 1960s, I did also study maths, physics, chemistry, biology, and even geology to a level that makes the "triple award" science GCSE studied in many of today's schools look like the inadequate and muddled gesture it is. We have much to be ashamed of in our current education system, but the decline of proper science teaching in state schools is very high on the list.

However, the path I followed thereafter into academic libraries took me into some interesting places, where I discovered aptitudes I didn't know I had. For example, I became a self-taught programmer, starting out with GW-BASIC in the mid-1980s. In those days, if you wanted a sort routine, say, you simply wrote your own. You learn a lot about logic, clarity, and the need for proper sequence that way. Then in the 1990s we bought into a library management system called URICA, supplied by McDonnell Douglas and based on the rather wonderful Pick operating system. The underlying philosophy was, "Our system doesn't do what you need? Hey, write it yourself!" So I did, and discovered a whole new world of fun. By the time I retired, I was spending much of my time doing what most proper, professional programmers would love to do, but can't: just tinkering around, finding problems to fix, and writing Perl scripts to fill gaps in the functionality of our latest, Linux-based library system. My proudest moment was writing an entire suite of CGI programmes that managed the transfer of 50,000 books from one library to another, in the process automatically reclassifying each item's Dewey Decimal shelfmark into its Library of Congress classification equivalent, printing a new spine label, and carrying out various other tweaks (changes of loan period, deduplication of stock, etc.).  It reduced a massive task to a simple matter of barcoding trolley-loads of books in at one end of town, hauling them over in a van, barcoding them out, printing and attaching the new labels, and getting them swiftly up to the shelves. Hey presto!

In the process, I had changed from a typical humanities airhead, attracted to intangibles and mumbo-jumbo, to a notoriously hard-headed number-cruncher. Universities, surprisingly, are full of people who think that believing something is possible is enough to make it so. Few ever bother to quantify a task – the time it takes, how often it must be done to achieve a certain target, how many people it would take to do it, how much those people will have to paid – before deciding it will be done, and what's more finished by, oh, let's say Christmas. Those few that do make those essential calculations are, inevitably, never popular with senior management, and attract a reputation for "negativity". Both of which are promotion poison. But, as I think I have said before, my single greatest insight into project management was that an institution requires two key personality types: people who make things happen, and people who make things work. And, for successful projects, the important thing is that the former must learn to respect the latter, and the latter must never be put in charge. For obvious reasons: movers and shakers hate detail, and tend to despise those who focus on it; technicians have the words "if it ain't broke, don't fix it!" engraved on their souls. Left to themselves, movers and shakers leave a trail of impractical, uncompleted schemes in their wake, whereas technicians would happily hunker down in a cosy world of well-oiled stasis.

One upshot has been that I am very good at quantitative predictions. My mentor in my early career was a man named Geoffrey Ford, who passed on any number of useful rules of thumb. Two of his favourites were the "80:20 rule" (80% of loans are generated by 20% of library stock, 80% of wealth is owned by 20% of the population, etc.) and the essential observation that, to estimate the cost of a project, you must sample everything, analyse every process, quantify all costs down to the number of paperclips, and on that basis work out a best estimate of the budget, and then – double it. Consequently, I am proud to have made myself unpopular by saving my institution from several financial and logistical embarrassments over the years.

All this hard-won practical wisdom proved useful when I turned to self-publication. Unlike so many would-be publishers, I took the trouble to do some simple sums: how much would it cost me to produce a quantity of books, and how much would I have to charge per copy, and how many copies would I have to sell to recover my costs? What about the ten copies I would have to donate, free, to the copyright libraries, and the cost of getting ISBNs? Then there was distribution... Would I pay for my book to be placed in bookshops, or travel the country myself, lugging a suitcase of stock? How much of a financial loss was I prepared to bear, simply to indulge the fantasy of publication? Several thousand pounds? Forget about it! Well, you can see why such hard-nosed calculations do not endear you to the can-do fantasists who make stuff happen in this world. You can also see why I'm such a fan of Blurb.

Anyway, remember my prediction that I would sell ten copies of the Blurb version of England and Nowhere? You may have thought I was exaggerating, self-deprecatingly, for effect. It is, after all, a wonderful book which anyone would be pleased to own! And, besides, all regular visitors to this blog would be bound to buy a copy of the ludicrously cheap e-book or PDF, just to show solidarity, wouldn't they? Even if they never looked at it more that twice! But I have long been immune to wild fantasies like, say, selling 50 copies, and know only too well how this story goes.  Below are the sales for April, including the period when the book was on offer on a no-profit basis:


Ten copies – spot on! Geoffrey would have been proud of me. No sales at all so far in June. The only remaining question is what to do with my hard-earned £17.78?

5 comments:

Thomas Rink said...

Hey, GW Basic was my first language, too! Perfect platform to create a nice little mess of spaghetti ;^) I progressed via Turbo Pascal to C and x86 Assembler, motivated by the grossly underfounded German university system. As an undergraduate and later as a graduate student, I did research work in biophysics; the task was to make junkyard-ready lab electronics from the 60s together with department-built stuff ready for digital data acquisition. We had a variety of computers ranging from Atari ST's over x86 PC's scrapped by companies to SUN and SGI workstations. As a graduate, I picked up C++ which I still use today. So nobody should claim that the alma mater doesn't prepare you for life ;^) Since I've left academia, I work as a software engineer; the last couple of years as a development team leader, which often puts me into the unenviable situation to make the lofty visionaries respect the opinion of the coders.

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...

Thomas,

I'm not sure how the division of labour works in Germany, but in the software industry here it was generally the setup that "systems analysts" were the officer class, and programmers mere other ranks (or "grunts" as they say in the USA), and paid accordingly. It always seemed to me that a good programmer was worth any number of "analysts", and their actual skill level much higher.

Mike

Thomas Rink said...

Mike, I work in the german subsidiary of a swiss company, and our company culture is based on consent (much like swiss politics ;^) We run an agile development process (Scrum), which puts most responsibility into the teams. Of course, this sometimes leads to conflicts with our line manager, but we've always managed to sort them out in a civilised way. There is not much fluctuation in the staff, so most of us witnessed the rise of the company from a bit more than a garage business to a company with about 300 employees at 12 subsidiaries worldwide. So we trust our managers to understand our customers, and they trust us to get the job done.

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...

Thomas,

*So* amusing to listen to "Brexiters" going on about how we have nothing to learn from Europe, and will be much better off going it alone...

Actually, it's not amusing any more, and downright alarming.

Mike

Thomas Rink said...

Mike, a couple of years ago I interviewed an applicant for a software development position in our company. He was German, but studied computer science in the UK and worked in a London based software company thereafter. When we asked him why he came back to Germany, he told us that he married and is now a father of two, and wasn't able to support his family based on his salary.

Back in my university days, I met people with a work ethos similar to yours. I made friends with a lab technician who was a model railroader in his spare time, and consequently was very skilled in precision mechanics. He improved our experiment setups in significant ways, making possible experiments which really made a difference in our research work. Now, do you think he received any reward for this? Nah. We had another lab technician, who spent her entire workday reading (cheap) novels, but had a higher educational attainment than he had, and consequently even made more money! Such is work in the public sector here.

Best, Thomas