Sunday, March 1, 2009

I Am But a Humble Filing Clerk

This week we are returning to the series on Philosophy, and we will nail down the role of data and the database in any application that requires such things.

This is the Database Programmer blog, for anybody who wants practical advice on database use.

There are links to other essays at the bottom of this post.

This blog has two tables of contents, the Topical Table of Contents and the list of Database Skills.

Review of The Absolute

In the first essay in this series, The Quest For the Absolute, I offered the opinion that all programmers by nature seek absolutes to simplify and inform the development effort. Taking a page from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, I suggested that the best absolute was the quest for the virtuous program, which is to say a program that served its purpose well.

A program that serves its purpose well is one that meets the needs of the check signer, the end-user, and the programmer. The check signer needs some strategic goal to be met, the end-user must be productive, and the programmer must make a living. If a program achieves all of these, it is an ideal virtuous program, and has satisfied the absolute requirements that are true of all programs.

Considering the Decision Maker

Normally we think of a decision maker as some important person who has the power to choose your product or services, or to give her money to your competitor. She makes her decision based on how well she can judge who will meet her strategic needs.

Although the decision maker will have vastly different needs in different situations, and is usually thinking at a high level, she has at least one need that is universal: the simple need to keep and use records. She needs a filing system. All of her stated goals will assume that you both know this unstated goal is down there at the foundation of the entire proposed system.

We programmers often forget this simple fact because computers have been around long enough that we do not remember that in their original forms it was impossible to mistake that computers were just electronic filing systems. Way back when I was a kid the day came when phone bills started arriving with an "IBM Card" slipped into them. You returned the card with your check -- they were moving their files into the electronic age. Then came electronic tickets on airlines -- nothing more than a big filing system. The modern web sites we visit to buy tickets are nothing but an interface to what remains a filing system at its heart.

The Virtuous Programmer

So if we go back to the idea of "virtue" as the Greeks thought of it, which means serving your function well, a virtuous programmer will remember always that he is but humble filing clerk. This is not his entire purpose, but it is the beginning of all other purposes and the foundation that the higher purposes are built upon.

Not Just Relational

This principle is general to all programming. An email server is a program that must receive and store email for later retrieval. What good is an email server that cannot store anything? What good is a camera without its memory card? What good is a mobile phone without its contacts list? What good is a image editing program if it cannot read and write files?

So all programs exist to process data, and the business application programmer knows that in his context this means we are really making giant sexy record-keeping systems. We are the guys that color-code the filing cabinets.

Does Not Mean Relational Is Required

This idea, that we are filing clerks, does not automatically mean we must pick relational databases for the persistence layer -- the question of what filing system to use is a completely different question.

Conclusion

If we begin with the idea that the ideal program meets the needs of decision maker, end-user, and programmer, and if we consider first the needs of the decision maker, then we begin with the universal strategic need to keep good records. The ideal programmer knows this need is at the bottom of all other needs, and remembers always that we are but humble filing clerks.

Related Essays

This blog has two tables of contents, the Topical Table of Contents and the list of Database Skills.

Other philosophy essays are:

2 comments:

Seun Osewa said...

Thanks for the post, but I disagree.

We are humble filing system designers!

marco said...

To all data analyst, data managers, software engineers and data miners.


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