Technology Matters. People Matter Most.

I’m a technology geek.

I got my first paying programming job, computing Astrology charts on a TRS-80, in the summer of 1978. The “Trash Eighty” was actually the third system I’d worked on, the others being the Apple ][ and a DEC PDP-11/03.

My current programming task involves a tool which will be managing the process of focusing the James Webb Space Telescope (which we hope will be launched in 2013), making a kind of “astronomy chart.”

But the computers are the easy part.  They do what you tell them to do, whether you want them to or not.  Software is capable of arbitrary complexity, and hardware complexity increases, roughly according to Moore’s law.   Complexity means you can solve computationally difficult problems, but you have to pick your problems.  Using computing technology effectively means picking problems that are useful to human persons.

In retrospect, I don’t know how useful my first programming task was.  It was fun, and the results were entertaining, but I really do think the fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.  (Sorry, Bill.)   In prospect, my next task won’t be useful right away.  I think it will be most useful if I can make it nearly invisible, so that users can focus (pun intended) on the data and the algorithms that will get the mirror on JWST properly aligned.
That may be the perfect model for really good software:  Make it invisible.  Very few people notice the software on their iPod, even though software is the key to making a music delivery system successful.  But invisibility is my current watchword in understanding how people want to use computing resources.

Understanding what users need, understanding how they want to work, and understanding how they understand the data we process, that’s the hard part. But that is also the part that matters.

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