Making Software for People

Software Should be Made for Humans

I attended Cornell Silicon Valley 2017, #CSV17, in early March. I’m a graduate of Cornell, and have found all of the Cornell events I have attended beneficial. This year’s conference was no exception. It featured presentations on various types of software innovation, some designed to plumb our humanity,  others designed to replace it. The event never fails to rejuvenate me, inspiring new ideas and fresh thinking.

I listened closely to the keynote speech on reverse-engineering the brain for intelligent machines and thought the most important takeaway was that current algorithms are very fragile, not adaptive. Yes, we have gone beyond the first stage of artificial intelligence. But for truly adaptive and learning algorithms, we have a long road ahead. Applying this to our field of software engineering and, in particular, software quality and testing, I get a clearer picture of what’s ahead for software testing. We will see test cases that adapt and change, applying testing algorithms rather than specific test cases. Just as there will be software innovations in development, they will occur in quality assurance as well.

In their presentation, Jeff Hawkins and Subutai Ahmad shared their brain research and how to apply it to intelligent machines. This will fuel the next wave of robotics, among other things. There was also discussion on how this will affect the labor market, in that software engineers will need to elevate themselves because software will create software. As one innovation displaces people, another generally emerges to offer them new opportunities.

Software Innovation Driving Change: When will driverless vehicles displace us?

Discussion at CSV17 on Software Innovation in Autonomous Driving

Panelists Discussing Software Innovation in the Autonomous Driving Industry

“Where Will Our Cars Take Us?” kept audience members on the edge of their seats. Autonomous driving certainly is far off, but it has made strides in such a short time. When it does arrive, it will transform our society in ways we cannot predict. What will we do with all the space when we increase autonomous utilization from 5% to even 20%? For starters, fewer parking spaces, less traffic and fewer parking tickets. How will municipalities deal with the decrease in revenue? With fewer professional drivers, what will they all do? Re-educate themselves to do what? With a reduced probability of accidents, how will insurance companies adjust their tables?

All fascinating questions. But for software engineers, the implications are sobering. There will be little room for error with lives at stake. Failure to properly evaluate and test software before releasing it could exact a staggering toll.

I found Shaun Stewart’s talk intriguing. He discussed building, managing and leading effective teams in his presentation, “Making the Impossible Look Easy and the Easy Look Impossible.” This was of particular interest to me in terms of our own company, XBOSoft, as we are always morphing to adapt and innovate and not just become self-sustaining but self-improving. Stewart’s talk also applied to Agile teams and scaling Agile, in which we specialize. As everyone in the software business knows, hurdles can stand in the way of developing an effective Agile team.

Michael Mina, in the session “Technology to the Table,” explained how he became involved in open table and built his restaurant empire. I was excited to learn from the chef and Mina Group founder that chefs are sharing recipes online in a bank. Sharing, rather than secrecy, has become part of the culinary culture. This reminded me of open-source code and GitHub, where engineers are sharing code to be built upon and improved by others. It’s exciting to see that the world is taking the sharing economy and applying it to other contexts.

“Genetics — It’s Personal!” was also interesting in that computational power, storage and research are bringing the information direct to patient and consumer. For a charge, you can gain a genetic understanding of your heritage, as well as any particular genetic-based diseases that you may carry or be predisposed to. To me, knowing this information may be intriguing, but I have no burning desire to seek it, which leads me to the question of value. Do others have a burning desire to pay for this information? And, lastly, when it comes to both sides, once you know, you cannot un-know.

Big Data guiding the design of healthcare facilities

The faculty-led panel on “The Impact of Research on Innovative Design” touched on healthcare settings and how they have become more in tune with what patients need. This includes simple modifications such as changing the wheels on carts so they make less noise. Big data and analytics are helping to create more innovative healthcare spaces. These new spaces are not just more aesthetic and comfortable but more efficient. The placement of the equipment, people and facilities is optimized so they are located where and when the patients need them.

UX Improvement Point of view

Improving UX – Recognize that Users at Lazy, Vain and Selfish

Scott Belsky’s presentation, “Crafting the First Mile of Product Experience,” had the most wide-reaching content because we all develop products and services and have customers. He said we need to focus on the first part of a customer’s experience when they use our products, it needs to be simple and the customer must derive value instantly. I liked his analysis of users/customers: they are lazy, vain and selfish. It really is all about them.

The event was capped by an alumni keynote, “My Life in Business and Philanthropy,” by financier Sanford Weill, among the most famous Cornell alums. He was engaging and self-deprecating, making it sound as though he stumbled along in life, when in fact he tirelessly worked his way up to chief executive officer of Citigroup and is now its chairman emeritus. Weill told entertaining stories about his road to that success and also filled in the audience on his philanthropic efforts.

The event was ended as usual with the singing of the alma matter with everyone standing in the room trying to remember the words. Although the event was titled “Impact Through Innovation”, for me, it really was about Software Innovation. Not only because I’m in the software industry, but because I truly believe that software is where most innovation will come from in the next decade either directly or indirectly. I’m already looking forward to CSV18!