Random Acts of Architecture

Tales of an architect trying to bring order to the chaos that is modern information technology.

Monthly Archives: September 2012

A Glimpse at Stack Overflow

As any software developer that has searched for anything on the Internet probably knows, the Stack Exchange web sites contain an increasingly large body of useful knowledge. This initially included sites like stackoverflow.com for programming issues but has expanded into diverse areas like cooking, poker and lego. There is even a Stack Exchange site for questions about Stack Exchange.

This popularity is largely fuelled by gamification, where game design and theory is applied to ordinary tasks to make them more engaging. Stack Exchange does this primarily through reputation, similar to the XBox’s Gamerscore. Participants gain reputation primarily for asking or answering popular (up voted) questions. As participants gain reputation, they gain access to more privileges, eventually being able to effectively moderate the site.

There are also badges, akin to Xbox achievements. A bronze badge is given for simple things like completing your user profile or answering your first question. Silver and gold badges are awarded for harder things like asking or answering questions with many up votes.

Interestingly, Stack Overflow has reportedly been used by some to demonstrate competency when applying for jobs and Stack Overflow now has a careers site that requires a minimum reputation to enter. This made me wonder how difficult it would be to gain Stack Overflow reputation, say 1000, by genuinely trying to help others and participate in the intended spirit.

I registered on stackoverflow.com at 2:39pm on Thursday 30th August 2012 (Sydney, Australia time) and exceeded 1000 reputation at 10:44am on Wednesday 5th September with 850 reputation (tracked separately) on programmers.stackexchange.com, a site dedicated to software engineering and architecture rather than low-level programming issues. Indeed, Stack Exchange makes this “flair” available showing my very modest reputation and badges:

 

Although it was only six days, it was a significant time sink. Many hours were spent each day looking for questions to answer and formulating responses. Reputation (in the form of up votes) and answers often go to the first to answer so people learn quickly to provide a simple response then add more detail (and preferably sample code) later. Another strategy is seeking older, unanswered questions but the easy ones are probably already answered and such answers are unlikely to receive many up votes.

Answering questions on Stack Overflow is a lesson in humility. People often give better answers more quickly than you can type them, even in areas you consider yourself an expert, or radically different solutions. A diligently researched and prepared answer may be ignored or a negative comment may incite down votes. This can be frustrating but it can make Stack Overflow a great learning experience because the penalties for being incorrect are minor compared to the rewards of success. It is worth having a guess and let the more knowledgeable correct any mistakes.

Indeed, the reputation system provides surprisingly few opportunities for abuse. For example, someone could up vote a question they have answered (to put it back near the top of the list, looking for other’s up votes) and down vote others’ answers but up votes and reputation from up votes are capped per day. (Please note I didn’t try it. As I said above, the intention was to participate in the intended spirit.)

However, Stack Exchange is far from perfect. It does not guarantee high quality questions. Many are answered by a simple Internet search or are poorly expressed but they usually disappear quickly as the good questions are up voted. Questions on niche technologies may also languish unanswered and, when they are, lack a critical or interested population to up vote them. Like any Internet community, it is also cliquey with long established members.

Overall, I was impressed at the depth and breadth of the community and the site’s reward system. I doubt I will have the patience and dedication to reach the 400,000+ reputation some have earned but the temptation to refresh the page to see if there’s one more question you can answer is there. Answers marked correct by the question author are usually (but not always) thorough and correct and other answers or comments often contain good supporting information.

Many years ago, a potential employer could only verify one’s expertise by contacting old employers or limited technical questioning. Although not a substitute for these, Stack Exchange is one opportunity to demonstrate ability outside previous employment or education. The most telling aspect is the career’s page lets you link your best answers and highlights technologies you have participated in rather than list reputation and badges. My modest stack overflow reputation will not be appearing on my CV but maybe I’ll try to get to the next level, err, get more reputation on the stack overflow MMORPG.

Of Patents and Putters

The recent victory of Apple over Samsung has brought the arguments for and against software patents to the forefront once again. With many of the big technology companies engaged in patent litigation, many ask whether patent law is a distraction that stifles competition. Many technical luminaries, blogs and articles are openly anti-patent so should software developers be actively filing patents in organizations willing do so?

Patents can be beneficial for the developer. Some companies offer financial rewards for filing patents and researching whether something is truly novel, required for filing a patent, may reveal other solutions and techniques. However, patents’ biggest benefit is demonstrable innovation. A filed patent has been reviewed by the organization’s internal process and the patent office. This is rarely perfect but far more review than many other achievements.

That said, filing patents can distract developers from working on products and can be expensive for the organization. Similarly, if a developer files patents on a product then moves to a different organization working on similar products, the developer must carefully avoid infringing those patents at the new organization.

Some, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (https://www.eff.org/patent), argue that filing software patents endorses or exacerbates the negatives of patents. Many prefer the open source movement ideals where information and software should be available to be extended and used by many. Much of modern computing builds on concepts and algorithms that, if originally patented, may have stalled or prevented much of what IT takes for granted.

However, is this being disingenuous? Could these concepts and algorithms have developed despite patents? Consider the case of VisiCalc, the first spreadsheet. It was not patented, allowing Lotus 1-2-3, Microsoft Excel and other competitors to copy, extend and eventually surpass it. If it had been patented, would Lotus, Microsoft and others created an even better solution to the original problem than a spreadsheet? (as per Russ Krajec’s blog post at http://www.krajec.com/blog/what-if-visicalc-was-patented)

There are many more arguments for or against patents. However, even if all the anti-software patent arguments were proved and pro-software patent arguments disproved, for example, there is still no guarantee the software patent system would be dismantled immediately or at all. Legal and political systems move slowly at best.

Indeed, the technical or ideological pro- and anti-software patent arguments are all academic. Organizations file patents to protect their intellectual property (IP) in a world where patent litigation is increasingly common and IP is becoming organizations’ greatest asset.  It is a strategic business decision.

If an organization chooses to file patents, a software developer refusing to file patents makes about as much sense as a golfer refusing to use a putter. The golfer may lobby for a rule change banning putters but, in the meantime, the golfer is only inflating his or her handicap. This is not a “two wrongs make a right” scenario. If the organization is successful, it will inspire copy cats and litigation from its competition. Depending on the industry and product, filing patents may be pragmatic.

Software developers often see themselves only as potential victims of software patents, the expense and difficulty of filing them and the misplaced assertion that developers do not producing anything novel fuelling circular logic. If the organization is willing to bear the costs of patent management, why not patent it? There are undoubtedly smarter people out there that can solve the problem more effectively if needed. The organization can always choose not to assert the patent over open source or use it defensively, too.

Some argue that nothing in software development is new and most work is merely reinvention but saying that modern software developers are all less capable, intelligent and imaginative than their forebears is clearly false. This is not to say that developers produce new things all the time. Similarly, while many patents are obvious in retrospect, it is also much easier to judge when their ramifications are in everyday use.

What developers can do is ensure filed patents cover only products the organization intends to produce. Much of the consternation around patents from developers revolves around “non-practicing entities” (NPEs or “trolls” as they are derogatorily known), where the focus is on licensing existing patents and not using them to produce products. Research NPEs are the exception, despite Ars Technica’s Fox News-worthy rant (http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2012/04/how-the-aussie-government-invented-wifi-and-sued-its-way-to-430-million/).

Irrespective of whether an organization chooses to file patents, developers should keep easily accessible evidence of design documents and design discussions, such as E-mails and written notes. Even if an organization chooses not to file patents or the organization is not building anything novel, the organization may still be the victim of a patent lawsuit and demonstrable prior art can refute or diminish a patent’s novelty.

Software developers are very good at arguing things on technical merits. Unfortunately, the software patent issue has never been a technical or even ideological issue. These are merely rationalizations. This is as economic and political issue, and most software developers are not economists or politicians. Some protection for inventions is required and patents are the current, imperfect implementation of this. Until we come up a better system, software developers are only hurting themselves by not using all the rules of the game to their advantage.

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