[plt-scheme] Perplexed Programmers

From: Richard Cleis (rcleis at mac.com)
Date: Sun Aug 26 00:43:51 EDT 2007

On Aug 25, 2007, at 9:39 PM, Todd O'Bryan wrote:

> On Aug 25, 2007, at 3:47 PM, Anton van Straaten wrote:
>> Richard Cleis wrote:
>>> A tenth of a billion dollars was spent on a payroll system that   
>>> doesn't work because "complicated, varied job assignments and  
>>> pay  scales have perplexed computer programmers."
>>> http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me- 
>>> payroll25aug25,0,630079.story? track=mostviewed-storylevel
>>> As computers and computer science mature, these stories (and my  
>>> own  trivial experiences) get worse.  What's going wrong?
>> What's going wrong?  I'd bet it's all embodied in that sentence  
>> "complicated, varied job assignments and pay scales".  A highly  
>> likely translation of that is that as yet, there exists no  
>> specification that fully and accurately describes the required  
>> behavior of the system, including all the fudging and special- 
>> casing that the humans involved in the process rely on.  Without  
>> such a specification, it is of course impossible to produce a  
>> working program to automate these processes.
> As a high school teacher, I think the whole thing shows complete  
> stupidity on the part of the programmers and the people who  
> contracted with them.

I am not sure that stupid applies here.  Expensive failures start 'at  
the top.'  If the programmers are stupid, then that problem should  
have been addressed in the first few mil of the project.  My interest  
in this story is the fact that I know of two more like it (well, not  
as expensive as this one) in three parts of the country.  They make  
me wonder if business accepts software development as a flaky  
activity.  In my tiny environment, we do.  I/we rarely meet a  
schedule without experiencing overnite pizza.

> A district with 90,000 employees is not 90 times more complicated  
> than a district with 1,000 employees.

This is a hard one to judge.  It ought to be true, but complicated  
human interactions occur in the management of organizations as they  
grow.  A school district with 90,000 employees didn't grow within the  
bounds of today's computer age.  If it did, then there should be *no*  
complication difference between 90k and 1k.

> In any sufficiently complicated district (which means employees of  
> different types and schools that run on more than one schedule),  
> you will have to deal with all of the problems that LAUSD has to  
> deal with. Once you've solved the problem of handling multiple pay  
> schedules, handling several different kinds is substantially less  
> complicated.

I don't argue that the problem is easy.  I *do* argue that 95M$ ought  
to cover it... if modern program development is mature enough and  
managers actually respect it.  That's what I'm trying to ascertain.   
Everything that I do affects only a few dozen people.  I can't  
imagine working on something that can so naturally enrage/disappoint  
many thousands.
> And let's not forget that they're paying more than $1000 *per  
> employee* for this new system. That's INSANE!
> I think the consulting firm and the software firm need to be sued  
> out of existence by the people whose credit ratings have been  
> ruined and hours of whose lives have been wasted by their  
> incompetence. If doctors, lawyers, or engineers had shown such  
> gross incompetence, they'd lose their licenses.

This may happen in the LA case, according to the article.  I doubt it  
will affect the future, though.

> Todd
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