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Thursday, November 10, 2016

Some Thoughts on the Recent Election

To all who are upset at the results of the Presidential election, remember this, from Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien:

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
And to those upset with the failure of California’s Proposition 62 (to eliminate the death penalty in the state), more from Lord of the Rings about Gollum:
“No, and I don’t want to,” said Frodo. “I can’t understand you. Do you mean to say that you, and the Elves, have let him live on after all those horrible deeds? Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death.”

“Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Oh, Those Presidential Debates!

I didn’t see either the first presidential debate, but I did see the second and third. I also saw several of the debates for the primaries.

I’d love to see the debates restructured so all candidates sat in soundproof booths that are clear so the audience can see them. They would be wired for sound so the candidates could hear one another and the moderator. Each booth would have a microphone. The microphones would be off unless the candidates was supposed to be speaking, for example to answer a question from a moderator or the audience. So if one candidates were answering, the others could not interrupt.

I think that would make the debates much saner — one candidate could not talk over the other or snipe at them until their turn.

And at least it would make the debates easier to follow!

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Customers as Shareholders

Here’s an idea for improving customer service.

The goal of American, and other, companies is to keep their stockholders happy. Paying executives large bonuses, automating as many aspects of their work as possible, and outsourcing functions are all attempts to increase the revenue that stockholders receive. Customer service is simply one of these functions. As long as the customers come, it does not matter how poor customer service is. When customers cease to come, then the company will try to improve its customer service.

This is particularly pernicious when few vendors supply a needed service. Consider air travel. Currently, three airlines — American, Delta, and United — dominate the U.S. airline market All treat the customers as revenue generators, not human beings. The width of seats has shrunk to the point where some people cannot fly coach for medical reasons; the pricing structure of tickets is incomprehensible; and the customer bears the brunt of any problems. Witness United’s and Delta’s recent computer breakdowns. The result: customers could rebook without charge (the airlines emphasized the latter). Now, if a customer misses a meeting because the flight is delayed, the airline does not provide any compensation. Rather one-sided — and the customer can rarely move his business to another airline, because all of the airlines operate the same way. The customer produces money. Complaints? Doesn’t affect their shareholders, so they won’t do anything.

Improving customer service requires an incentive. The bottom line is keeping stockholders happy, and this usually (but not always) involves profits. If profits fall, the money stockholders make falls, and they will become discontent — and possibly change company management, or dump their stock, causing the price of the stock to drop, thereby hurting the company’s financial position. If profits fall, companies will try to find the cause and correct it. So, tie customer service to stockholder satisfaction. The belief that improving customer service improves revenue, and therefore stockholder satisfaction, simply is not working, especially when the company is a monopoly or near-monopoly. This suggests making the tie more direct.

Here’s the idea: make the customer a shareholder. For example, when I fly on (say) Delta, I receive a share of Delta’s voting stock. If I fly often, I get more stock; indeed, this could be handled like a “frequent flier” (loyalty) program. Now, I have a direct voice in the overall management of the company because I can vote my stock at a shareholder’s meeting. Further, I can band together with others of like mind to make our stock be a larger block and hence increase the strength of our voices.

Now as a shareholder, the company will want to keep me happy; and it can do so not just by revenue, but also by making my flights more comfortable. And to do so it will have to reverse the trend of poor customer service.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Certification, Software, and People

I recently sat through an excellent talk in which the speaker reported on a Gartner meeting in which the software industry captains said their biggest problem was finding people who know how to write secure, robust code. He then said that academia had to start producing these programmers.

In the Q&A period, I pointed out that people who practice “secure coding” (really, low assurance programming, as opposed to no assurance programming!) and forms of much higher assurance programming require more enterprise resources and time to develop, implement, test, and document their software than most employers are currently providing their programmers. My question was how to persuade corporate managers and executives to understand and be willing to provide (and pay for) the additional resources, and allow the additional time, to enable the developers to produce high-quality software.

The speaker’s reaction was interesting. He agreed that this was a problem, but one that could be solved by requiring software to be certified. He said that now if a programmer refuses to deliver software until he or she could ensure it was robust (secure), they would probably be fired for not meeting deadlines. But if software industry practices were modified to require software certification, and gave the programmer the duty to certify the software met some standard, the programmer could (and presumably would) refuse to sign the certification. Then the managers could not fire the programmer without giving up the signature. The company could not market the software without the certification. He drew an analogy with lawyers and the legal profession. Lawyers are certified, and the profession disciplined miscreants. He thought that the same should be done for software developers and programmers.

Let’s split his answer into two parts. The first part is that software products should be certified before being marketed; the second, that software engineers and those involved in the development of software should also be certified. Both are more complex than they seem.

First, consider the idea of certifying something as secure. What exactly does “secure” mean here? The definition of “secure” requires a security policy against which the software’s security can be defined and, ideally, measured. But security is not just a property of the software. It is a property of the software, the environment, and the installation, operation, and maintenance. If any of these cause the software not to satisfy the security policy, then the software is not secure. So any certification will need to specify not only the security policy, but also the environment and other aspects of where and how it is to be used. And even then, there will be problems.

A good example is the certification process that was used in the United States for electronic voting machines. There, both software and hardware had to be certified to meet specific requirements, usually from a set of standards promulgated by the U. S. Election Assistance Commission. But the original standards did not take into account the processes and environments in which the machines were to be used. As a consequence, the certifications would have been inadequate even if the testing labs had thoroughly tested both the hardware and software — and, unfortunately, the quality of at least one lab was so poor it was closed.

Neglecting the processes and environment leads us to another problem — who does (or should do) the assessment for the certification? Presumably, a set of independent laboratories vaguely similar to the Underwriters Laboratories for electrical elements would be authorized to do this. Unless theses labs co-operate, however, the scenario that developed with electronic voting systems may arise. In that scenario, the vendor paid for the evaluation by the lab. If the system failed the testing, the vendor would be told how it failed and could then fix it and resubmit it for certification. But then the vendor could request a different lab to recertify it; the vendor need not return to the original lab. Thus a vendor could seek a lab that gave more frequent favorable reviews, and concentrate its certification requests there. This would give the labs financial and business incentives to find systems meet the requirements, in order to improve their chances of gaining repeat business from the vendor. Various approaches can ameliorate this situation, but ultimately laws and regulations would control the methods chosen, and their effectiveness depends on what they say and how they are enforced. The result could well be like the electronic voting system certifications — a certification system that is far from robust.

Next, let’s look at the recommendation to certify programmers and software developers. To what standard or standards should these individuals be held? Should those standards be a function of what they are developing (such as an operating system, a mobile phone app, or a text editor)? A function of what tools they use to build it (such as a particular development environment such as Eclipse)? A function of the environment to which the system is to be deployed? Or some combination of these factors? For example, would the certification be general (for virtually any system or set of tools, or for both) or specific (for writing programs in the programming language XYZZY for the PLUGH operating system, using the Magic Source Code Scanner)? If a program or system fails in the field, is the programmer liable? And if a programmer is certified to work in a specific environment, with specific operational and maintenance requirements, how would one ensure those requirements and environment were maintained? How will those requirements be changed, and how will programmers ensure their certification continues to meet those changed requirements?

Complicating this is the fact that programmers rarely work alone; they usually are employed by a company, and work in teams. In particular, companies will not want to increase the cost of the systems they deliver, nor the time to delivery, because customers will not be willing to pay more, or wait longer, for the systems they want. So if liability is tied to the programmer(s), the company has no financial incentive to give the programmer(s) the resources and time they need to develop the secure systems. The only consequence to the company would be that programmers and developers would likely migrate to companies that provided the needed resources and support. However, if the software had to be certified before it could be marketed, then the company would have an incentive — it would need to have programmers who could certify the software, and presumably those programmers themselves would need to be certified.

Given that programmers work for a company and work in teams, how would one determine the programmer(s) responsible for the software, so necessary discipline could be applied? Particularly in these days of global outsourcing, when much of the hardware and software upon which we depend is created overseas, how would the U.S. ensure that those programmers or the companies that employ them (over whom the U.S. has no jurisdiction) meet certification standards? How would legacy software, which was written before certification of developers and software were instituted, be dealt with?

Certifying developers and giving them the responsibility of certifying software also ignores the question of why the developers are held responsible for what are, essentially, marketing decisions over which the company executives have control. As anyone who has worked in the software industry knows, plans for software development, including timetables and testing protocols, are often not under the control of the developers. The practice has long been to move quickly to market, and then patch software problems as they arise, rather than invest from the start in secure and robust coding practices.

All these questions and complications would need to be resolved before a credible certification system is put into place. Otherwise, the mess we are in with respect to software will only get worse. I would love to hear someone discuss these problems in more depth, and ideally come up with a way to resolve them.

And once that happens, then I am optimistic that certification will indeed improve the quality of software and systems!

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Holly Bishop and S. Candice Hoke for their valuable comments.