"INAG"

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I thought I’d better start off this week with that well-known email disclaimer "INAG" (I’m Not A Golfer). Mind you, when I was a lot younger and fitter, I did occasionally caddy for a few affluent visitors to the R.A.F. Changi course in Singapore. Though when I say "caddy", what I actually mean is "carry the bag and look for lost balls", but you get the drift.

Anyway, the story goes that two of these affluent golfers were walking down the third fairway one day when one said to the other "I hear that John has bought another set of golf clubs." "Really", replied the second golfer, "TaylorMade? Wilson? Dunlop?" "No", said the first, "St. Andrews, Augusta National, and Royal Troon."

Sorry about that ... but isn’t it a strange coincidence how much golf is similar to developing software. They both involve a very limited start location, provide various ways to progress, and have an extremely hard to reach destination.

I mean, for a golfer, you can start each hole from anywhere you like as long as it’s within a patch of grass about 4 yards square. For the software developer, you start with whatever system the customer is running. If you are lucky, it will be some reasonably modern hardware, a reasonably up to date operating system, and a database that is at least contemporary with modern thinking. If you are unlucky, you’ll start in 1980. It will be an old lump of big-iron and a database that uses text files with fixed width fields ("...and can you make it do Web services please...?").

As to progressing towards the target, thoughtful golf course designers generally provided a range of routes that include plenty of rough, some out of bounds if you're lucky, and usually a nice selection of bunkers. In fact, one guy I used to caddy for never once ended up at the green with the same ball he started the hole with, and religiously navigated via each of the bunkers in turn. We sometimes had to come back the next day to finish the round.

Likewise the software developer has a vast range of tools, development environments, software frameworks, and languages to choose from. Mind you, for the golfer, the rough and the bunkers are generally in the same place when they come back next month, next year, or even five years later. This is, of course, unheard of for the developer. They’ll be lucky if the software, tools, and languages are the same next week. In a year’s time they will be "legacy", and in five years time they will be obsolete.

Then there’s the target. OK so it can be tough for golfers. Course managers have a habit of moving the pin around, so the player may have to exert extraordinary powers of observation by standing on the edge of the green and scanning up to 20 degrees left and right to find the large pole with a flag nailed to the top. But it only takes half a dozen putts to get the ball into that little white cup, and you know that you are there.

However, developers probably never even get to see the hole at all. Effectively arriving at the green with a prototype, they are likely to be greeted with "Why does this button do that?" "How do I tell if a customer has paid their last bill when I'm entering an order?" "Three of our operators are allergic to Arial font." or even "Why does it keep asking me to enter a customer order? We asked for a stock control system".

Maybe we should all investigate taking up golf as a profession instead...

  • I like the idea of users being allergic to a font. It's the sort of excuse that some clients come up with.

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"INAG"