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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Hallmarks

Yesterday I was furniture shopping with my youngest daughter.  She is eight years old and we were shopping for a chest of drawers for her bedroom.  The old dresser she had literally had fallen apart.  We purchased it more than a decade ago, and it's had quite a bit of rough use since then.  As we looked at new furniture, I inspected the drawers to see how they were constructed.  I explained to my daughter that dovetailed joints were one of the hallmarks of good construction.

Thereafter, every piece of furniture she inspected was quickly accepted or rejected based on two criteria:  Could she see inside the top drawer, and did it have "dove".  She understood that these joints were a sign of good construction, but she didn't understand why.  Later we examined a piece that had "dove" but was not nearly as well constructed because glue was everywhere, the joints were loose, and well, simply of poor quality.  It went on my "no" list but her "yes" list because she'd learned to recognize the hallmark without understanding what it stood for.

I see the same thing in standards development.  There are some who advocate an agile process who don't really know what agile is.  They recognize one of the hallmarks though:  iteration.  Others look for services oriented enterprise architectures, without any real understanding of any single component of the term, but they recognize the hallmarks (its got services in it).  And if I were to ask those that understood only the hallmarks of these things, but not the reasons behind them, what they were looking for, they wouldn't be able to describe it very well.  There descriptions are remarkably like that of Justice Potter Stewart who said "I know it when I see it". Their understanding of the engineering behind what they are seeing is lacking.  So, they will buy furniture with poorly fitted, machine made dovetail joints, not understanding why it doesn't hold up after a few years.

So, don't buy into the first thing you see with the hallmarks of what you've been told are good.  Hallmarks can be counterfeited.  Instead, understand the process that went into making it, and then, only then, if you really need to, should you look for the signs of that process.  It is after all, the purpose of those processes and not the marks they leave behind that is really what we are after.

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