How we work, and for whom.

It’s often said, among people who think seriously about how ESS works, that we are pathologically incapable of building the wrong system just because of specification. That’s true, as far as it goes. We certainly can build the wrong system, and to some extent we have in the past. We probably will again. But we don’t do it because of specifications. We do it from a combination of misunderstanding and pig-headishness.

The old “Tom’s two rules” are

  1. The customer is always right
  2. Users are stupid

Again, both are true, as far as they go.

The problem with users is that if there is a way to misuse your software, users will find it. So there’s a strong need to make sure that if user do misuse your software, the result isn’t a disaster. (Annoying, however, is fine.) But you can’t assume that because the user can do stupid things, they are stupid people. They in fact do know what they want to do, even if they don’t always have the best notions of how to simplify, improve, and accellerate the work they do. If you believe your users are simply stupid, you will not do a good analysis of their problem, and you will almost certainly do the wrong thing.

The problem with customers is that they usually aren’t users. The people who buy the software (in our case, Missions) are almost never stuck with actually using the software. When dollars are tight, as they are now, they tend to think in terms of what they can afford in the next year, and lose track of what the people using the systems will need in three or five or ten years. Not because they are short-sighted, but because their vision is reasonably constrained by what they can afford, and what they know themselves.

I wrote recently that, regardless of the project that builds ground system software, ESS gets left holding the bag for that software. Way too often, our users also get left holding the bag. Unlike us, they can’t “look inside the bag” to see why things have gone wrong. Most of the time we work closely with our internal users, and listen carefully to our external users. The problem we have, for the moment, is that we have very few real users other than for HST. Even for HST, it is sometimes hard to find the right users when the Mission Office takes a greater interest.

ESS has for many years now been about sustaining HST. It will continue to serve that role for a while yet, but the future is not HST. The future is MAST, and SAGE, GALEX and Kepler, and hopefully most of all JWST. We need to figure out how to balance the customer and user both now, and for the future.


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