Self-Driving Cars Should Be Open Source

Self-driving cars are (will be) the pinnacle of consumer products automation – robot vacuum cleaners, smart fridges and TVs are just toys compared to self-driving cars. Both in terms of technology and in terms of impact. We aren’t yet on level 5 self driving cars , but they are behind the corner. But as software engineers we know how fragile software is. And self-driving cars are basically software, so we can see all the risks involved with putting our lives in the hands anonymous (from our point of view) developers and unknown (to us) processes and quality standards. One may argue that this has been the case for every consumer product ever, but with software is different – software is way more complex than anything else. So I have an outrageous proposal – self-driving cars should be open source. We have to be able to verify and trust the code that’s navigating our helpless bodies around the highways. Not only that, but we have to be able to verify if it is indeed that code that is currently running in our car, and not something else. In fact, let me extend that – all cars should be open source. Before you say “but that will ruin the competitive advantage of manufacturers and will be deadly for business”, I don’t actually care how they trained their neural networks, or what their datasets are. That’s actually the secret sauce of the self-driving car and in my view it can remain proprietary and closed. What I’d like to see open-sourced is everything else. (Under what license – I’d be fine to even...

Five Must-Watch Software Engineering Talks

We’ve all watched dozens of talks online. And we probably don’t remember many of them. But some do stick in our heads and we eventually watch them again (and again) because we know they are good and we want to remember the things that were said there. So I decided to compile a small list of talks that I find very insightful, useful and that have, in a way, shaped my software engineering practice or expanded my understanding of the software world. 1. How To Design A Good API and Why it Matters by Joshua Bloch – this is a must-watch (well, obviously all are). And don’t skip it because “you are not writing APIs” – everyone is writing APIs. Maybe not used by hundreds of other developers, but used by at least several, and that’s a good enough reason. Having watched this talk I ended up buying and reading one of the few software books that I have actually read end-to-end – “Effective Java” (the talk uses Java as an example, but the principles aren’t limited to Java) 2. How to write clean, testable code by Miško Hevery. Maybe there are tons of talks about testing code, maybe Uncle Bob has a more popular one, but I found this one particularly practical and the the point – that writing testable code is a skill, and that testable code is good code. (By the way, the speaker then wrote AngularJS) 3. Back to basics: the mess we’ve made of our fundamental data types by Jon Skeet. The title says it all, and it’s nice to be reminded of how...

We Are Not Having a Productive Debate About Women in Tech

Yes, it’s about the “anti-diversity memo”. But I won’t go into particular details of the memo, the firing, who’s right and wrong, who’s liberal and who’s conservative. Actually, I don’t need to repeat this post, which states almost exactly what I think about the particular issue. Just in case, and before someone decided to label me as “sexist white male” that knows nothing, I guess should clearly state that I acknowledge that biases against women are real and that I strongly support equal opportunity, and I think there must be more women in technology. I also have to state that I think the author of “the memo” was well-meaning, had some well argued, research-backed points and should not be ostracized. But I want to “rant” about the quality of the debate. On one side we have conservatives who are throwing themselves in defense of the fired googler, insisting that liberals are banning conservative points of view, that it is normal to have so few woman in tech and that everything is actually okay, or even that women are inferior. On the other side we have triggered liberals that are ready to shout “discrimination” and “harassment” at anything that resembles an attempt to claim anything different than total and absolute equality, in many cases using a classical “strawman” argument (e.g. “he’s saying women should not work in tech, he’s obviously wrong”). Everyone seems to be too eager to take side and issue a verdict on who’s right and who’s wrong, to blame the other side for all related and unrelated woes and while doing that, exhibit a huge amount of...

Concerns About The Blockchain Technology

The so-called (and marketing-branded) “blockchain technology” is promised to revolutionize every industry. Anything, they say, will become decentralized, free from middle men or government control. Services will thrive on various installments of the blockchain, and smart contracts will automatically enforce any logic that is related to the particular domain. I don’t mind having another technological leap (after the internet), and given that I’m technically familiar with the blockchain, I may even be part of it. But I’m not convinced it will happen, and I’m not convinced it’s going to be the next internet. If we strip the hype, the technology behind Bitcoin is indeed a technical masterpiece. It combines existing techniques (likes hash chains and merkle trees) with a very good proof-of-work based consensus algorithm. And it creates a digital currency, which ontop of being worth billions now, is simply cool. But will this technology will be mass-adopted, and will mass adoption allow it to retain the technological benefits it has? First, I’d like to nitpick a little bit – if anyone is speaking about “decentralized software” when referring to “the blockchain”, be suspicious. Bitcon and other peer-to-peer overlay networks are in fact “distributed” (see the pictures here). “Decentralized” means having multiple providers, but doesn’t mean each user will be full-featured nodes on the network. This nitpicking is actually part of another argument, but we’ll get to that. If blockchain-based applications want to reach mass adoption, they have to be user friendly. I know I’m being captain obvious here (and fortunately some of the people in the area have realized that), but with the current state of the technology,...

Developers and Ethics

“What are some areas you are particularly interested in” – recruiters (head-hunters) tend to ask that question a lot. I don’t have a good answer for that – I’ll know it when I see it. But I have a list of areas that I wouldn’t like to work in. And one of them is gambling. Several years ago I got a very lucrative offer for a gambling company, both well paid and technically challenging. But I rejected it. Because I didn’t want to contribute to abusing peoples’ weaknesses for the sake of getting their money. And no, I’m not a raging Marxist, but gambling is bad. You may argue that it’s a necessary vice and people need it to suppress other internal struggles, but I’m not buying that as a motivator. I felt it’s unethical to write code that does that. Like I feel it’s unethical to profile users’ behaviours and “read” their emails in order to target ads, or to write bots to disseminate fake news. A few months ago I was part of the campaign HQ for a party in a parliamentary election. Cambridge Analytica had already become popular after “delivering Brexit and Trump’s victory”, that using voters’ data in order to target messages at them sounded like the new cool thing. As head of IT & data, I rejected this approach. Because it would be unethical to bait unsuspecting users to take dumb tests in order to provide us with facebook tokens. Yes, we didn’t have any money to hire Cambridge Analytica-like companies, but even if we had, is “outsourcing” the dubious practice changing anything? If...

“Architect” Should Be a Role, Not a Position

What happens when a senior developer becomes…more senior? It often happens that they get promoted to “architect”. Sometimes an architect doesn’t have to have been a developer, if they see “the bigger picture”. In the end, there’s often a person that holds the position of “architect”; a person who makes decisions about the architecture of the system or systems being developed. In bigger companies there are “architect councils”, where the designated architects of each team gather and decide wise things… But I think it’s a bad idea to have a position of “architect”. Architect is a position in construction – and it makes sense there, as you can’t change and tweak the architecture mid-project. But software architecture is flexible and should not be defined strictly upfront. And development and architecture are so intertwined, it doesn’t make much sense to have someone who “says what’s to be done” and others who “do it”. It creates all sorts of problems, mainly coming from the fact that the architect doesn’t fully imagine how the implementation will play out. If the architect hasn’t written code for a long time, they tend to disregard “implementation details” and go for just the abstraction. However, abstractions leak all the time, and it’s rarely a workable solution to just think of the abstraction without the particular implementation. That’s my first claim – you cannot be a good architect without knowing exactly how to write the whole code underneath. And no, too often it’s not “simple coding”. And if you have been an architect for years, and so you haven’t written code in years, you are almost certainly...