Specifications


From that single organic nodule of package life an offspring is produced, or not.  This week has been particular enriched with insight and wisdom, some unsolicited and others remaining a bit of a quandary.

This week Hubert Dreyfus passed away.  A professor and a human being, a philosopher who challenged us to consider the practical limits of computers.  Aside from his academic acclaim and intense experience as a human being his message was far deeper than the antidotal point on message.  Yes, he asked us to consider the depth of use and application of technology in our personal lives, business and society.  He appears to have know the extent of human temptation and addiction.  Today we are drawn to the light like a moth to a candle, embracing the new and forsaking the tried and true. Is it because we are afraid of being left behind or are we considering the real vs. illusionary value of it all?  Or is it that we are sitting on the edge of restrained obsolesce and the jump seems right even if we might be stepping out into the darkness with hardly a basis of comfort.  Although I never had the chance to meet him in person I enjoy some brief ‘technological’ interchanges to better understand his stance on artificial intelligence.  During my advanced studies he provided invaluable opinions about the difference between machine learning, the need for social contact and interchange, along with some quite private discussions about risk.   It was a bit unnerving to consider to realize which was always in front of my eyes that the success or destruction is not in the device but the enablement provided by the human steward.   To me it wasn’t just a learned opinion, although gifted with experience at MIT and Rand, but his deep and profound thought given on the subject.

The Junk Drawer

Few people do not have a junk drawer.  Whether it be made up of household repair items or kitchen gadgets we all manage to eek out a space to stash away an much anticipated device of salvation.  Likewise we see the emergence of the same for abandoned technology.  Cables, cell phones, chargers and various explored ancillary devices find their way to ‘the drawer’.  We pretty much know that what goes in is unlikely to come and be used, time is not on the side of technology and the obsolescence that occurs.  But our frugal nature suggests that we or someone might find a need or use for these cast aside items.   I mention the junk drawer in a broader context that we have lots of technologies that have come and gone.  Often replaced by what appeared to be superior solutions, that later prove to be less superior that even more future ones.

I think back to my very first expose to artificial intelligence in the 1970s.  It was with a very simple but quite illustrative product called VisiEXPERT produced by the now defunct Visi Corp.  The product was a very rudimentary rule based artificial intelligent (AI) solution.  Its operational example used the pairing of cheese with wine and allowed for the addition of new elements and relationships.  At that time it was robust enough to learn or be driven by inference, it required aggressive assertions in order to advance outcome delivery.  Later in the 1980s we saw the ADA and LISP development as service languages support for data driven behavioral modification processes.  In both cases their emergence was not months but decades in the making and although solidly formed it struggles to produce a groundswell of disciples.

So our junk drawer continues to grow and with this we see the rekindling of interest.  For those in the AI community the drive is not so much from the technology as it is the promotional support of the business community.  AI is talked about in a single breath with learning machines but how does this all fit together with life?


Embryonic Appearance

This past week (May 5, 2017) I read a piece that Scott Ambler a legendary agile disciple wrote about the “Darth of Qualified Agile Coaches”.  The points reflected a condition in which labels get applied but the lack of substantive value creates an abundance of non-value.  Even though the focus was on promoting professional qualifications there remains a quite similar condition as it pertains to AI.  We see a plethora of AI involved entities who for all intense purposes are new market entrants.  But let us not also be fooled by capabilities driven by attending a course, as Scott pointed out, it involves intense and purposeful experience to fulfill the obligations as an expert in a given field.  Even in my case with over 40 years in the information technology field and intensely active engagement in AI related activities I still feel I have lots to learn.  Its from this vantage point I wish to ask the question about capabilities.

When I think in quite simplistic terms as pertaining to AI I think of ‘the seed’.  That kernel catalyst that will drive the growth of technology based learning.  I also think about risks and what level of permissiveness that we should allow the AI model to undertake.  Embedded in that kernel is data and we need to be astutely aware that data is not always clean, controlled and ready for use.  It necessitates sterilization to make it ready and all must be done in as near to real-time as possible.  Momentary lapses in time or hesitation in commitment of cleanliness jeopardizes the AI value proposition.

To further emphasize this point I will refer you back to some earlier writings on did on advanced analytics.  I find that while analytics also makes use of data, it also has the potential to become a close partner with AI and the learning machine.  As stated in this earlier article (10/15/2014) the real next generation is not in preceptor or predictive analytics, it in the real of preemptive which takes action vs. alerting us of or indicating that a condition has the potential to occur.  In short, the model reflected the raw basis of the learning machine.  While not centered on growth of knowledge and more centered on action the elements exists for the feeding the AI model through preemptive analytics.  I also contend that anything short of being soundly grounded preemptive logic, including predictions is really shaky ground for AI.  The basis of this opinion is the potential for runaway illogical reaction by the AI model paradigm.  In the most simple of examples I think of how I look at a situation and react to later discover it was not exactly as I saw it.  If this had been applied to an AI scenario who knows whether reversion would have occurred and if it did was it through intervention or a separate set of rules to deal with error management?

Conclusion… Just a Wee Bit of Fertilizer

No planting would be complete without a bit of care and accelerated nurturing.  AI is no exception.  In this context our growth enhancement hormone is a combination of pragmatic engineering, anticipatory examination and a purposeful examination of our present state of intellectual discourse.  Most would agree that humans make errors and thus anything we do is both prone to error creation but also possibly error propagation caused by what we presently do.  One cannot view human emulated thought process as simplistic.  Even the most rudimentary movements, considerations, evaluations and commitments entail literally thousands of possible paths and choices.  While technology can handle volume and responsiveness it remains the dutiful obligation of humans to craft the paths, the gates of decisions, correlation of relationships and discernment of probable paths with rational and common place or dissenting opposition.  Its for these reasons that the engagement of personnel involved with AI cannot be causal technological Spartans.  Technical proficiency will remain important but the management of the operating intellectual paradigm will remain critically essential.  This involves raw in-sources from data, progressive analytics, paradigm development and deployment to error corrective models as the minimum for sound control.   Even then understanding is bounded by experience and therefore secondary ability to communicate, examine and model will help bolster the skill set needed for application of AI.

To the consumer there may be some worry or dissension, much as was the case with the use of voice response systems.  People are hesitant to embrace what is uncomfortable or viewed as inadequate by comparison to what they have grown accustom.  So while AI proponents dabble in the science there remains a great degree of need for transitioning of people to a new world order.  Some may enjoy a more hidden affront to consumers where others will be challenged regularly by real-time consumerism exchange.  Simply remember that all things are solvable as long as we understand the nature of the best, the human condition.

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Engineering (from Latin ingenium, meaning “cleverness” and ingeniare, meaning “to contrive, devise”) is the application of scientificeconomic, social, and practical knowledge in order to design, build, maintain, and improve structures, machines, devices, systems, materials and processes. It may encompass using insights to conceive, model and scale an appropriate solution to a problem or objective.  (source: Wikipedia)

As humans we are apt to try and fool ourselves into believing that we aren’t perfect but we can be if we follow a ritualist approach to things.  We do this in order to convert what might be haphazard into a prescriptive, methodical and cohesive way.  One might ask why this is wrong?  In fact it is quite well intentioned and in most cases a quite appropriate thing to do.  Since the beginning of engineering like activities we have worked as skilled, talented artisans.  As the popularity and durability of the profession became established a need flourished to put formality (in written and pictorial form) to it.  But did we do it right or did we simply scribe forth what we had done and overlooked some of the more important aspects such as the ‘skilled craft’ element that only a select few can do?

I’m sure some of you have read ‘How to’ books, how often can you apply what is being written and have it turn out like it was intended to?  Skill, talent and even mental conditions are of immeasurable importance to the outcome whether we follow guiding instructions or not.  We often marvel at those individuals who can use (or not use) a guide and still overcome challenges and may even further improve upon what is being done.   The true purposes behind these pragmatic and detailed engineering frameworks is to institutionalize behavior in the context of the masses.  It is a foregone conclusion that the ‘masses’ must do something with it other than blindly use it.  People need to consume, explore, develop experience with and institutionalize it within the sphere of technical abilities.  It isn’t about adaptation but embellishment.  We hear time and time again that it “will depend” or “it may not fit all circumstances” and my reply is simply “rubbish”.  The framework of engineering is universal and if sound it will bear tentacles applicable to the situations and circumstances for which it is being applied.  An example is the comparison of traditional software development methods (waterfall, RUP, RAD, JAD, iterative, conical, V-Model…) against agility (Scrum, Xp, Crystal…).  They all have three components; a stimuli, construction and confirmation.  Whether the stimuli is created in an ah hoc fashion by inexperienced and unskilled individuals is irrelevant.  What we do with this source and the participants involve is a totally different matter however.  Its only when it start entry into the engineered construction cycle that we make choices about the raw materials.  If substandard or inadequate we know that it needs transformation to a level acceptable for advancement.  As professionals we are obligated to exercise prudent care, not reckless acceptance.  NO Engineering method will ever overcome environmental conditions that are unacceptable.  If one leaves these matters to chance or luck then its not engineering its what we would call ‘game theory’ and the last time I knew there was no mention of such facts in the annals of ‘best practice’.  The ploying of engineering practices to construct make best sense when in harmony with the intellect and experience level of its participants.  Even though there might be a better engineering approach to a problem one can never overlook the readiness of the people involved.  Too much, too dramatic and a steep uphill learning curve that has been contaminated by past failures is not a right setting for revolutionary change.  Let me be a little more to the point, it might be just what is needed however all of the other things (in the negative) that have gone wrong will only make this attempt ripe for failure by way of it being used as an excuse.

The art of engineering takes the pieces, places them inside of a vision (aka a design driven outcome) and is crafted and bonded together.  This is, as we all know, in the most simplistic and idealistic sense.  What really takes place is allot of effort driven by experience, compensated and grown through collaborative efforts, and willingness for open transparency as to what is taking place.  If it becomes an exercise in politics and hidden agendas the engineering initiative has failed from the onset.  This is about producing results and not about a total fixation on happiness.  Both can occur but not at the expense of the other.

This gives you a bit of a sense for engineering in its most primal sense.  Its pragmatic, yet flexible, intent on knowledge equality among the masses and a means to achieve sound/safe/reliable results.  An engineering method is only as good as the authors, for they are human.

The old adage about customers and their rightness has always been a bit of a sour pill to swallow.  It boarders on placating to the illogical to out and out capitulation without refute.  But does it have to be an all or nothing or can there be a suitable balance that can be established?

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First of all the first right move that the customer has made was selecting your company whether for a service or a product.  In pick you it is worth the effort to share with them a bit of wisdom… “

Good Job Mr./Mrs./Ms. Customer…. you are definitely on the right course and we do everything we can to satisfy your needs.  (However… with a pregnant pause) we must reach a fundamental level of understanding.  As a compassionate and professional organization we exercise proper care and experienced intelligence.  So  you are getting a bit more than just an outcome you are getting validation of your vision and the means by which it will be delivered.  We hope that you appreciate this and can accept this level of care as something we do as a normal course of business and at no extra cost to you.  In fact it will end up saving you money by getting rightness quickly and without unnecessary items that are ill conceived, patented commodity solution which will require rework.  The more you must make changes the more the overall maintainable design will be compromised.  We hope that you will receive this news as an open window of fresh air and make the whole experience truly a cooperative endeavor.  You will get what you consider right.”

I have shared these concepts with a number of companies over the years.  Some accept it at first glance only to revert back to old behavior.  Others have rolled their eyes only to endear it later on when they see that being right doesn’t mean being right in the full context of outcomes.  That its your partner that will ploy their talents and perspectives so that a ‘right’ outcome can be produced.  Final of course you have the total believers and non-believers both with different agenda, neither having any desire to change and only see one thing… how much will it cost and we need to have this done tomorrow.  Rightness, regardless of who is the author needs to put things back on track and sometimes this means a bit of debate and counseling.  Taking things in small carefully orchestrated pieces is a wonderful start to build trust in rightness.  Going too big and rapidly is almost certainly going to end up with things being thrown into jeopardy.

Right customers are those that we can service or deliver a product to.  Sometimes we have to make the decision that we are not miracle workers.  We are human beings, albeit experience-talented and sometimes down right amusing (yes you must have a bit of joy in all transactions no matter how somber you are) and for that reason we must know the limitations to what we do.  After all rightness for the customer is just as important to them as it should be for us.

ImageI think back to a course I took in college simply called “Introduction to Systems”.  With great expectations I imagined a program that would take some 5 years of field experience and round out my understanding about the topic and add some contextual perspective to my exposure.  It seems that my quote that “expectations is the road to disappointment” is quite true.  What I ended up with was a more global thinking on how various systems interplay.  My post class opinion was that it was a big waste of time, energy and value.  Some 30 years later I now understand, appreciate, apply and have drawn my own perspectives on the topic.

All activities whether involving technology, business or human existence is surround and involves systems.  Some are manual, others are fully or partially automated.  They are share one common element and that is precision (tolerable level mainstream management while succumbing to non-mainstream exclusion).  How we detect, treat, control and manage the exceptions plays a significant role in future system maturing.

What Do YOU Want?

ImageThe key word is “Requirements” but in using such a simple self-defining word we introduce risk.  We have a tendency to think in singular terms and fail to consider the multitude of other contributors to the specific “system” solution that sits on our project to-do table.  This system is often the melding of technology and manual participants.  It’s present state the culmination of years of change, some to address new opportunities and external mandates and others addressing delivery issues (often thought of as errors or bugs).

Each and everyday we are need of change.   These systems we have concocted involve various stake holders and constituents.  Many think that we have a single person, often the funding source or primary users, and that is all it takes to produce system solutions.  Far be it to consider other stakeholders who may be responsible for adjoining/interconnection systems.  Far be it that we overlook that there are solution providers, such as information technology or service contract company (aka outsourcer), who is likewise needing to be taken into consideration.  The real issue behind requirements issues include a failure to,

  • Include and address other involved parties,
  • Have sufficient regular experience (when you have this you need help),
  • Use means and models to lower omission risk,
  • Employ ‘clear thinking/green field’ approach (our rush to solutions places us asking what we had only with a bit of a face lift),
  • Think in the long term but define in the near term requirements that are impervious to change not the whipping post to common conditions,
  • Understand what is needed, what is nice to have and what is simply a big wish, and
  • Understand the importance of roles in defining what you what.

I’m NOT a Big Fan

ImageCall me different but I get turned over by thinking that one size fits all.  Whether it be a horizontal solution (usually driven by functions such as accounting, finance, procurement…) or vertical discipline (pharmaceutical, manufacturing, commerce, logistics…) you can try to make that size 10 foot fit into that size 8 shoe but it will be painful and will often require modifications that will be clearly visible.  Not to mention it will be felt throughout the life of the system solution.  We all know that we seldom see systems go away.  If anything they endure the test of time, albeit often ungracefully, and there often times that it would have far better if we cut our loses and moved on.  Some while back I wrote about the durability of applications which follow a very similar life pattern to individuals.  They progress from conception to elder years with all of the stages and characteristics of humans.  Some reach old age, into senility while the organization remains committed to keeping it on life support.  When this occurs a red flag needs to be raised because we are placing business values at risk.  These will often include customer service, efficiency, accuracy, timeliness and the all important increase in service costs.  So why do we keep the albatross afloat when its terminal?  Simply… the belief that a system is perpetual.  I can’t think of many things in life that last forever, when used, without a need for replacement.  The few often were engineered with change in mind and permitted element replacement will retaining the design.  It should be pointed out that from a general system perspective that design endures time much better than implementation (aka detail design).

Let Me Revert

ImageGetting what YOU want is a personal issue.  It makes use of your education, experience, exposure to those non-mainstream occurrences, understanding of risk and constituent systems and most importantly free/clear thinking without prejudice to the ‘how’ (unless absolutely necessary).

I’m not a big fan of written, book form, requirements.  They are difficult to use, analyze, maintain and are highly inflexible.  At the same time they will be required for a vast variety of purposes (internal control, future maintenance, training, study/analysis, etc.).  I am a big fan of facilitated story boarding.  This involves a series of facilitated free thinking sessions each geared to eek out requirements.  In complex and/or broad system situations there will be a need for multiple group meetings (culminating in a combined familiarization and closure meeting) and the use of tools such as ‘focus sessions’ and preparatory reverse engineering input.  Don’t overlook open issues as a part of these solutioning sessions, Issues point to unresolved matters and areas where complexity (sometimes ‘rightness’ comes into question).

You can achieve quality requirement generation results in 10 hours.  This is hard to believe for many since it is often a journey that is much much longer, seems to never quite settle down and becomes a nightmare to maintain.  Behavior is often linked to group debate and contention, ever changing ‘rightness’ in terms of needs and value, and the general inability to digest a substantial specification (let alone measure coherency and completeness).  The use of story boards make visible requirements, needs and thoughts.  One needs to avoid subjecting them to critical evaluation until they are considered complete enough to proceed further.  At that point discussions can take place, risk and effort can be considered, merits can be examined and delivery scheduling and be undertaken.  We want to make absolutely sure that we don’t start shooting down someone else’s ideas until we have get all of our thoughts out on the table.  Furthermore the needs are based on merit and not based on whether someone has a bigger stake or not.  What might seem trivial to you may be absolutely needed by the other party… be responsible enough to consider this factor.

Conclusion

ImageObviously there are allot of other things to consider when dealing with requirements (or needs).  Trace-ability, test-ability, segmenting epics/sagas, estimating effort, engineering a total solution (whether a piece or the whole) and maintaining control over change.  Change is our enemy if we fail to manage it but at the same time change can keep our business in the game.

A solution is the end to a vision and not the glory of accomplishment.  System solutions is about achieving goals that are important and doing so in a complete solution fashion (without one sided prejudice).