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multics
jwg

Collaborative software

On Tuesday I went to the Expo portion of Enterprise 2.0 Boston 2012 - essentially a conference on the equivalent of social-networking in business. This used to be called Groupware and the academic side equivalent is CSCW (Computer Support for Cooperative Work). Going to these expos is about my only exposure these days to technology other than what I see on my screen or install on my computers.

I like to ask the demonstrators how their products support review or inspection of documents and relate this to my 20-years ago experience in this domain.

Twenty years ago our Applied Research group in Honeywell-Bull (working with technology from a research group at the University of Illinois) built a working prototype that could be used for the Software Inspection process (a more formal kind of peer review) that some companies like ours were using. The essence of Inspection is that a document (or program code) is given to a small "inspection team" who in the Preparation Phase look at it and make notes. Then a meeting is called and the leader walks everyone through the document and the inspectors raise issues that they found. The team classifies these defects and attempts to determine the cause. Afterwards the author corrects the document or code and the statistics are rolled up so the organization can learn what kind of things are causing defects so they can improve their process. Although designed for software this process is useful for other things such as legal documents, marketing materials, presentations, etc.

In our system, called Scrutiny, inspectors look at the document on their computer and make annotations. Then at an appointed time they all sit at their screens, the moderator zooms his/her mouse over a portion of the document and that gets highlighted on everyone's screen along with the annotations made to that portion and the discussion ensues via the text messaging component to identify the defect and classify it. We first demoed at the CSCW Conference in the fall of 1992. We wrote a few papers - I was usually the lead author and among other places got the this one: Scrutiny: A Collaborative Inspection and Review System accepted to the European Software Engineering Conference in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

We continued to develop it, got some people in the company to use, got a DARPA grant, and made several efforts to productize it including a possible spinoff- but large-company politics made it impossible so the idea was dead in 1995. I do point out that Network Technology was pretty crude in those days (Mosaic, the first Web Browser first appeared in 1993), so this was a pretty ambitious project.

None of the vendors that I talked to can easily support the synchronous meeting portion. Some use screen sharing which is a partial solution but no-one had the capability of allowing everyone to easily see other people's annotations (in our system this was automatic). Too bad, I still think this would be a useful function. There are some products available today - such as CodeCollaborator by SmartBear software that look like they do a pretty good job at this function but I've never seriously explored it.

(I used the Multics logo for this post - we started doing Peer Review of code in 1968, and had an electronic meeting tool, Forum which we used in the early 1980s, occasionally for peer review.)


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We knew about that! I know jwg from way back in those days at Honeywell (> Honeywell Bull > Bull HN > null set?) At one point the mgt. decided, Hey, we can save money by laying off the tech writers! After all, we only need them when the product is ready for market, so we can hire them back as contractors then.

Of course, they soon discovered that the tech writers have to be following the project development, because they can't document it properly from a cold start on an eight-week schedule (or whatever). So they wound up paying a helluva lot more than they had been for essentially the same service.

They may have applied the same cigol (spell it backwards) to other types of work. I don't remember whether the fellow I was talking with in the cafeteria one day, who described being laid off and contracted back in like this, was a tech writer or what. He said, "I'm in the same office, with the same title, doing the same work I was doing before, and making a lot more money for it." "Oh," I said, "so you're terminate-and-stay-resident." (I wonder how many who see this comment won't be familiar with that expression.)

"Oh," I said, "so you're terminate-and-stay-resident."

Very droll.

I always say that the technical writers are first on the chopping block of the technical staff. Then the testers. Once these two groups are gone, the company slides down the slippery slope and quality and usability go out the window.

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