an interview with Jerry Weinberg

Jon
If you were stranded on a desert island with five books which books would you choose and why? Please don’t pick more than one of your own!
Jerry
  • An empty notebook with as many square feet of blank paper possible, for keeping my journal of this desert island adventure.
  • The complete Oxford English Dictionary, so I can study the English language in depth for the future when I might be rescued.
  • Frazer's Golden Bough, so I can immerse myself in the vastness of human culture.
  • Martin Gardner's The Annotated Alice (Lewis Carroll's Alice books, annotated by Martin Gardner) so I could read for wisdom and humor at the same time. (I've used this book as a text in s/w development.)
  • If a Kindle counts as one book, I'd take that. Otherwise, Wilderness Medicine, Beyond First Aid, 5th Edition by William Forgey (I'd like to research this one, because I haven't read this, but I would need the best such book.)
I don't have any computer books on the list because I'm assuming I wouldn't have a computer. If there were such a book, I'd probably want *How to Build a Two-Way Radio Out of Coconut Shells*.
Jon
Which books would you change and to what if you did have a computer?
Jerry
  • I would not need the empty notebook, as I could keep my journal on-line. Instead, I'd want a complete service manual for the computer equipment.
  • I would not need the OED, for the same reason — an on-line OED. Instead, I would take Don Knuth's The Art of Computer Programming. I assume we count all published volumes as one "book."
The rest I would keep the same.
Jon
What do you consider your biggest contribution to the software world.
Jerry
That's easy. I answered that some years ago, and my answer hasn't changed. My biggest contribution to the software world is that I never invented yet another programming language.
Jon
What would you still like to achieve?
Jerry
I'd like to persuade more computer people to work on the unsolved problems of our profession, rather than the (pretty much) solved ones such as compiler writing.
Jon
Could you give some examples of what you consider to be the important unsolved problems of our profession
Jerry
  • requirements: finding out what will really make people happy
  • doing the things we know we ought to do
  • not doing things we know we ought not do
  • conservation of knowledge from one generation to the next
  • developing some sense of standard practice (can be more than one, but not too many) that will be followed around the world

Jon
You’ve written that you get a lot of inspiration from nature. Could you give some examples - of both the inspiration and nature that inspired it.
Jerry
Jon
If you had a one-time-only time machine how would you use it?
Jerry
I wouldn't. I have a rule: Don't mess with time.
Jon
Suppose you used it to visit your younger self what advice would you give yourself?
Jerry
When someone offers advice, you ought to taste it, but you don't have to swallow it.
Jon
In question one you mentioned Martin Gardener’s book, The Annotated Alice. Could you expand on how you used this as a text in s/w development.
Jerry
Alice's trip across the chessboard to become promoted quite nicely parallels a typical development process. It's no coincidence that Lewis Carroll (Dodgson) was a mathematical logician. He was able to do logic, and to make memorable the instances of illogic. For example, the Red Queen's behavior is that of many bad development managers ("Off with their heads.") The students were invited to find other parallels in the book, which hopefully set their minds to work.
Jon
What is the biggest change you'd like to see in the software world?
Jerry
Slowing down in order to do things right.
Jon
What would it take to make this happen?
Jerry
Hell would have to freeze.
Jon
What question would you ask yourself?
Jerry
What question would you ask yourself?
Jon
And what is your answer.
Jerry
What question would you ask yourself? Just kidding. That was a fun recursion.
Jerry
[this is the real question Jerry would ask himself] Why are you writing novels these days?
Jerry
[and this is his real answer] Like any life-changing decision, the switch to fiction has many reasons, all intertwingled. What follows are some of the reasons I have been able to disentangle.
  • All my life, I've dedicated myself to helping smart, talented people be happy and productive. You can see that theme in my books, I think, and it's the theme I've continued in my novels (see list below).
  • But not all my work has been through writing. Dani and I have also spent our careers training these smart, talented people through the use of experiential workshops — Problem Solving Leadership Workshop (PSL) Organization Change Shop (OCS), Systems Engineering Management (SEM), and the Amplifying Your Effectiveness Conference (AYE). We use experiential training methods because they are effective. They reach many people, and much more deeply, than your typical lecture class with PowerPoint slides.
  • In many ways, reading a non-fiction book can be much like one of those PowerPoint lectures, so whenever possible, I have used stories to bring my non-fiction works to life. Stories have always been powerful for learning, going back thousands of years. Why? Because a good story arouses the readers feelings of participating in the experience the story describes.
  • A great deal of the popularity of my books (and other non-fiction writers like Tom DeMarco) is in the stories. They make for lighter reading, which some people love and some people find objectionable, but overall, I have managed to present lots of hard stuff effectively through these stories.
  • Some of my books have been directed specifically at Information Technology (IT) people. Some have not. Generally, the ones that have sold best and longest have been the ones not so specifically directed at IT people — books such as These readers tell me they like the stories, even those that have some technical content. In fact, they often learn technical concepts and details as a byproduct of reading and enjoying the stories. I like that, because it says I have reached many smart, talented people who don't happen to be IT folk. The novels do that even better. I hope more people try them.

Jon
Could you briefly mention some of your favourite music and films.
Jerry
Music: Almost anything Baroque. Any of Mozart (I have the complete recordings of his works, which should tell you something). Most music prior to 1850; almost nothing after that except Sousa, Gilbert & Sullivan, and Scott Joplin.
Films: (I'm probably missing some, but all these are favorites that I can see again at any time, with no hesitation.)
Jon
Could you expand a little on your rule "not messing with time"? Does it relate to "Slowing down in order to do things right?"
Jerry
Yes. Things take the time they take, not the time you hope they will take. Pushing for half-time produces half-baked.
Jon
At your Problem Solving Leadership course I noticed you sometimes answered a question "obliquely". For example when discussing cancer treatments you told the story of the Aspen mountain passes and how none of them are really much good. Could you explain why you sometimes choose to answer a question in this manner.
Jerry
What you call oblique, I call powerful. Take your example. Few of my listeners have had cancer, but many of them have the experience of hiking on difficult trails. Thus, the lesson is more likely to stick, as it has with you.
Jon
You’ve said learning a new language (a human language, such as Spanish) really helped your ability to think in a Systems Thinking way. Could you expand on that?
Jerry
In my case, it was French, learned while living in Geneva for a number of years. After a while, I found myself thinking in French when my ordinary thinking wasn't solving a problem. For instance, in English we say things like, "I took an aspirin for my headache." In French, the expression would be "against my headache." To me, that seems to imply something different from the English expression — a different way of thinking about disease and cure.
So, in effect, after learning French, I have a second way of addressing problems — and once I have a second way, it's easy to see that there may be a third way, and a fourth way, and so on. Being able to see a situation in multiple ways is a key concept in systems thinking, and learning a new language favors that concept.
The same phenomenon occurs in so-called programming languages. Someone who can work in only one such "language" cannot truly be considered a real programmer, in my opinion. That's why in school, I always insisted that programming homework be done in at least two languages — along with a written analysis of how each language affected the way the student approached the problem.

Many thanks to Jerry for agreeing to be interviewed by me. Fiona Charles took the excellent photo of me and Jerry. If you're a fan of Jerry you should check out her excellent book The Gift of Time. This interview also appeared in CVu, a publication of the ACCU, an organisation of programmers who care about professionalism in programming and are dedicated to raising the standard of programming.

5 comments:

  1. Nice interview, Jon.

    BTW, in case you've forgotten. I took the photo you're using. It is standard practice to give credit when you use someone else's photo, and I'd appreciate you doing that.../Fiona Charles

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  2. Hi Fiona,
    I apologise. I have already made sure you'll to be credited for the photo in the CVu article. But it slipped my mind for the blog entry. I have amended the
    blog of course.

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  3. Great interview Jon, inspiring - even for us who have known Jerry for decades, or maybe especially for us?

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  4. Great post. I very much liked the "ability to think in a Systems thinking way" approach of Jerry Weingberg. And the way one should be relishing the advice as "When someone offers advice, you ought to taste it, but you don't have to swallow it" by Jerry Weinberg

    Wonderful effort Jon. Looking forward for your future posts!

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  5. Excellent interview, Jon. Thank you for sharing it.

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