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Jan Barkhed

Published on 2 July 2023

Advisers from voodoo land

We have all met them – on workplaces, at tech conferences, when we hunt for prospects or simply watch YouTube channels. We may have them as close friends, or we may even have become one ourselves. The False prophet, the bogus expert, the fake authority. People who talk often, say all the right words, big entertainers and stage performers. They give the impression they know how the world works, how the future will be; and to impress they use words we seldom hear in daily conversations. But it’s all lies and inventions. If we buy it, we will end up in a place we won’t be able to recover from. The scary part is that genuine prophets exist also, it’s only hard to separate them from the false ones, and true prophets can be wrong also.

Watching these charlatans often takes a long time before they reveal who they really are. Their track record will expose most of their failures, but they have a con artist’s skill in making it look good and to hide everything that went wrong. We can be pretty sure there will be spectacular fiascos and embarrassments on their résumé. They are never precise with words, and their statements can be interpreted anyway they want. They are skilled at using main stream subjects and terminology, words we have heard hundreds of times, and subjects that are hot and discussed on a regular basis, but everything is stolen and nothing is genuine. They may not even understand what they are saying themselves, the consequences they don’t understand for sure. Their motives are very prosaic: to get promoted; or to have a position; to sell a solution that doesn’t work; or to simply make a deal the buyer will regret for a long time.

Many tech companies behave in the same way. They have institutionalised the art of copying, either it’s hot tech, the latest fads in architecture, or new ways of working. But the copy needs to be better than the original when it comes to developing a product, or the strategy won’t work. Failures are nevertheless quickly forgotten and new, self-appointed experts come up with never-before-seen solutions that astound audiences. Truth is not enough today, neither in tech, politics, nor culture. Simplicity doesn’t sell, so it must all be delivered wrapped up in convoluted stories no one dare to admit they don’t understand. Remarkably, we live in an age when smart people have frequently nothing interestingly to say. Leaders on their part must entertain to be able to charm potential investors and customers. Market plans and ideas are one thing, reality brings unpleasant realisations that will only dissipate existing coolness.

To discredit opponents, false prophets often use reasoning that borders on wickedness, as their own arguments can’t sell on it’s own merits. It has become especially noticeable in the software industry, who long ago abandoned the hope of becoming an engineering discipline. When an approach doesn’t work in today’s voodoo land of software development, it’s always the fault of the disciples, never the clergy. After twenty years of continuous hardships, students have now become the misunderstood teachers, who in reality are nothing but bogus experts who have learned little from own failures. Selling a tailor-made service to a single customer, as custom-built software for payroll and employee management is, is different from a software product intended for an open market. Contractors have a more narrow view of how tailor-made software best fulfils business needs and have a tendency to disregard the larger picture. A tailor-made solution will exist in an evolving environment long after the contractors have been disbanded. Patching custom-built software works for a while, until the situation becomes untenable, and the users face a much harder problem to replace outdated software. Independent software vendors (ISVs) can’t afford to be this short termed and must view a new product in a much broader context, where users have diverse background but still shares a common problem. Products expect to be released on a regular basis, and they have to satisfy more than a single customer. Instead of tailoring a solution to a limited number of users, organisations should adapt to the tools they work with. Tools have to be flexible still, which is a constant worry in product development who need to make critical trade-offs.

Software testing has become the main focus in current development trends, which only reveals how dysfunctional it all have become. Quality Assurance, who historically cared for such activities as code reviewing, bug reporting, proficiency, process compliance, and fulfilment of standards and regulations, is now equivalent to software testing only. Test cases have replaced product requirements and made other work obscure. The narrative is clear, software that passes unit testing have fulfilled user needs and can be released. People who have visited Microsoft in Redmond know that only a handful of PC configurations are used to test new releases. It still works.

Internet and social media has made it possible for influencers to spread unproven ideas and advice that are nothing but opinions. To support a dubious case, they write books, based on anecdotal evidence that in reality are semi-failures. Depending on who you should talk to in these projects, you would discover organisational ineptness and people who are indifferent to grandiose claims. Software production seems to be heading the same way as advertising: From something that was elegant to something that is pure poison in our lives.