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An Interview with Watts Humphrey, Part 34: Women in Software and the Change Problem

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In this transcript of an oral history, Grady Booch interviews SEI Fellow Watts Humphrey. In Part 34, Humphrey discusses why more women don't go into software, if Africa will be the next India of software development, and his concerns that the U.S. is losing its competitive advantage.

This interview was provided courtesy of the Computer History Museum.

See the entire interview.

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Women in Software

Humphrey: One thing before I forget. I keep saying “he” but there are lots of very good women in software. The team lead at Boeing was a woman, as was the technical lead. The problem is that not enough women go into software. We have that image of a tech-y culture, sort of where everybody is glued to a screen night and day, so lots of women don’t see it as a fun job. I have four daughters, and they like working with people, and I think a lot of women don’t see what a marvelous people-intensive field this is, and the TSP really helps with that. It’s all about people and how do you lead and motivate them and how do you negotiate and mediate. Women are often darned good at that and we need more of that talent in software.

Booch: Yeah, you’re right.  Let's talk about issues of inertia. Why is it so hard to change organizations and change people?

The Change Problem

Humphrey: I've struggled with that. One of the things I keep running into--and I ran into it at IBM--when IBM was at the top of the heap, you literally couldn't get them to look at things differently. This was IBM. We were winning. Why do you want to change things? We're ahead. The conclusion I reached is, one, when organizations are at the top of the heap and they're enormously successful, it's extremely hard to get through. No one has to change--unless you run into someone who is a strategic thinker and is looking out for opportunities and ways to improve--and very few do.

There are very few who, like Art Anderson of IBM, say, “there's always room for improvement.” Most of them are basically working on what they're doing, trying to improve costs and profits and the competition, but they're rather narrowly focused on the paths they're on. So when they're winning, they don't have any pressure to change it at all.

And then the other side of that is when you get into harder times, now they get into trouble. The difficulty there is, they can't afford to change. They're under financial pressure. They've got high-priority stuff they've got to do. They're in survival mode. And so that's what we run into. To get people to change when they don't have to is what we've got to deal with. When they really have to change, it's extremely hard to get their attention. Now we occasionally run into people like that--for instance, these foreign countries. They're moving, not because they have to change, but because they see an opportunity, and they're after a strategic change. Well, that takes vision, and there aren't a whole lot of people with the kind of vision to do that. And that's what Toyota did. They had a vision, and they talked to Deming and others, and they started moving in that direction. I don't see that. Very little of that comes out. Occasionally, an Adobe or an Intuit or someone like that will have a vision, a manager down in the bowels of Microsoft. He's had a vision and he's been a great supporter, but it doesn't get up to the top. We've never gotten to Ballmer and the top executives. They've got other stuff to do. When they really need it, it'll be a little too late.

And so these great big organizations, it's very hard to move them. So the lack of pressure, the lack of something requiring change, means it's very hard to do it. And when you really have to do it, software improvement is not on the priority list, because they've got to survive. Take the case of General Motors. What are you going to do there? You get in there, you go into Delphi or one of these suppliers. Every one of them could use our methods, but they're not going to pay attention to it. They really can't afford to right now. They've got a survival problem and that's it. I believe that's the problem.

Booch: So as you think of companies that are on the top of the heap now, tell me where you think Google might fit into this. What advice would you offer to them?

Humphrey: My reaction is that any company like that--certainly Google would be one of them--they really ought to sit down, look at their technology, what's going on, what works and what doesn't. Why can't we deliver products on schedule that work exactly the way we want them to work? I haven't looked at their stuff in great detail, but that's certainly true. You look at that at RIM and the BlackBerry. They've got all kinds of software they come out with and quite frankly, if you look at it, they've got a hell of a lot of defects in their software. It doesn’t hit you and I too much, but it costs them a bundle. That's true in a lot of these places, and I see enormous staffs of people fixing and responding and that sort of thing.

So looking around and saying, “What's going on, and what are the technologies that really show promise and how could we improve and grow our business?” and that sort of thing, there ought to be at least some effort like that in these companies, and it ought to be from the very top of the business. The senior executives ought to be actually looking around. What are the choices? What are the alternatives? Because winning companies, by and large, ultimately lose because they're blindsided. Somebody comes at them that they didn't expect. They're just not ready. All of a sudden, there they are and they're out in the wind. That's a real problem. Now General Motors wasn't blindsided by Toyota. They saw them coming, but IBM was. I was there and we talked about that. Somebody new came in and a few years, bam, they were really in trouble. That could very well happen to Microsoft and to Google and every one of these companies. A lot of people would like to take a piece of that action.

What people keep forgetting is that the rate of change is accelerating. According to the Economist (Sept. 19, 2009), 24 firms dropped off of the Fortune 500 list, on average, every year from 1956 to 1981. From 1982 to 2006, that number jumped to 40 firms a year that got pushed out of their top spot in US industry. That is an extremely high rate, and it happens to all of the big fat-dumb-and-happy companies. Nobody gets a free ride any more. Look at the companies that are gone: the old AT&T, Pan Am, Gulf Oil, and all the others.

Booch: When you're on the top, people like to push you off of the top because they want to be on the top.

Humphrey: Oh yeah. Well, they're going to. They're going to work at it. There's enormous motivation to do it. And the thing that's interesting is, in our business, in the software-connected business, getting into this business is really remarkably cheap. All the open source stuff, the very low cost hardware, the low cost of communication. People in Zimbabwe, when they stop all the fighting over there, I'll tell you, they've got an awful lot of very smart people. There are an awful lot of potentially very smart, very capable people throughout Africa who would work for peanuts, and they're looking for opportunities and growth. And this is true throughout the world. We just sit in our little comfortable corner here and assume that we're going to stay ahead. The odds are rather small. There's an enormous amount of energy behind trying to crawl past us and take us for a ride.

Booch: Would it be fair to characterize it, your view relative to the US, Africa's the next India?

Humphrey: I'm not sure. I think Latin America's going to surprise us. I think competition is coming out of there faster. In terms of the politics, I'm afraid that in Africa it’s going to be too long before they can get control of their political situation--the enormous problems they have with graft and all of that sort of thing. The corruption is really destructive.

But I think India and China still are continuing to move up. I gave a talk to a university group [in China], must have been a couple of hundred people, mostly students. I asked, “How many of you know about the PSP and TSP?” and just about every hand went up. So I said, “How many have actually taken a PSP course?” Almost half the hands went up. So they're looking at this stuff. The companies aren't doing it yet. They're building the skills and stuff might happen. Some of them may wake up in time. I will say, by the way, when I talked to people at the Microsoft lab in Beijing, they said they wanted to go out and hire about 100 engineers. So they put out some kind of a post and they got 10,000 applicants. The talent and the skill available around the world are just way beyond anything we can comprehend in this country. We have typically 50,000 people will apply for our Westinghouse science scholarships in the US every year. China has a similar effort and they have 5 million applicants.

So we've got to stay awake here. If we don't really stay out front and lead the world technologically, and with our methods and our skills--and we've got the opportunity to do it--but if we do what the US industry did with Deming and wait 20 years till we start to pick up on these methods, we're not going to catch up. The world will be moving too fast for us, but that's what scares the hell out of me. It's frustrating, so very little strategic vision. So that's a problem.

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