Thursday, June 4, 2009

Chinese Plumbers

I tend to be a low-budget traveler, easily choosing quantity over quality for my accommodations. So, not surprisingly -- in some Chinese city, which will remain nameless -- I found myself checking into a rather inexpensive double room, with private bathroom, in a youth hostel.

All and all, it was a nice place. The youth hostels in China are badly categorized. Unlike their European inspirations they don't just cater to the younger set. Old folks, families and kids are also common sites, the designation is more about historic roots, than actual clientele.

And so it was, that I found myself checking out the bathroom for our latest room.

At first glance, being neat and beautifully adorned with big deep brown tiles, it seem to belong to a much more expensive accommodation. Very modern looking, like something you'd find in a swank big city hotel.

I reached out to use the sink, but the tap was wobbly. Not "a little wobbly". In order to turn it on I had to hold it with both hands or risk causing some underlying damage to the pipes.

As I stood there, contemplating whether to poke my head underneath the vanity and manually tighten the screws, I noticed a sign on the wall making two big points.

The first point was a warning that in some of the rooms, the hot and cold water dials were reversed.

Sure enough, when I looked at the shower, while the hardware had a little red and blue sticker adorning each knob in the right places, the wall behind the taps had similar little red and blue stickers, but reversed. Hot was cold, and cold was hot.

Checking out the shower controls made me suddenly aware of the large clear plastic square on the floor that was overlying the shower drain.

Now, it's not uncommon in inexpensive hotels to find bathrooms where the shower stall is the bathroom. They just tile everything, and when you take a shower, the water gets sprayed all over. It's a sort of innovative use of space, and hey, you don't have to clean anything if people are showering a lot.

I've seen this layout before. But the see-through plastic square was weird.

The second point on the sign near the sink helped clear it up. It said that during showers the square should be moved off the drain so the water can escape, but afterward it should be placed back over the drain again. It doesn't take long to figure out why.

It seems they forgot to put a trap on the drainage line, so the sewer gases find their way back up the plumbing. If you forget to replace the cover, the bathroom quickly smells like sewage. If you remember to replace the cover, then it only "slowly" smells like sewage. Quite the fix.

By now, you are probably wondering what a gross series of plumbing errors in a bathroom in China has to do with programming or software development. We'll get to that soon enough.

In North America, I would mostly expect, unless someone did a hacked home-brew job, that the sink bolt would be tight, the hot and cold water values would be in the right order and that there is a trap on the drainage pipe. I'd expect this, because we have standards. But also because those standards are enforced.

I'd like to think that the bathroom I was standing in, would have resulted in the plumber being dragged out and beaten. Or possibly sued and drummed out of plumbing for life. OK, maybe not that serious, but I couldn't imagine someone here just accepting such a cluster fuck and not trying to fix it. Not demanding that it get fixed.

Now, I don't know if China even has standards, but if they do, they were clearly not followed. Although the bathroom was perfectly functional -- and it was a rather nice shower, all things considered -- from a North American perspective it was totally crazy that this was allowed to occur, and even crazier that all the proprietors did was post up some nicely written signs instructing their patrons to work around the issues.

Total madness, when it would not have been that hard to do it properly in the first place.

But in traveling, you quickly learn to accept these types of things. Parts of the world can be really disorganized and crude. This particular bathroom, was actually one of the nicer, more modern and better laid out ones. As a traveler I'd probably even recommend the hostel.

I'm fine with this in a hostel in China, but no doubt I'd be furious if I hired a plumber to fix my bathroom and this was the result. My expectations for my house are much higher. The hot water tap should be on the left. No excuses accepted.

Interestingly enough, if you asked someone who lived in China, it wouldn't surprise me if they just shrugged off the question, and secretly thought you were nuts. Since -- depending on how common it is -- this type of plumbing job is probably nothing out of the ordinary. It's probably standard, of normal quality. A local might even praise the extra effort of having warned someone with a sign of the tap reversal. Maybe.

If you live in those parts of the world were people have to frequently make do with "whatever", they tend to have significantly lowered expectations. Little things to them, aren't worth crying over, they generally have much larger, more significant problems to worry about. Problems that rarely effect wealthier nations. Problems that make inconsistent plumbing seem trivial.

It's all a question of perspective.

Well, not really. It's more about stability and advancement. My world has less big problems, so we can afford to concentrate on fixing the smaller, yet still annoying ones. We were probably back there once, but over time we managed to move ahead. We can trust the order of our taps.

What's interesting about these specific plumbing problems is that they bring me right back to software development.

In a very real sense, I see so much "commercial", "enterprise" and "professional" software out there that smacks of being put together by Chinese plumbers. It's eaxctly the same; there are so many awkward bits and gross inconsistencies that it is hard to imagine people ignoring them. Clearly the stuff works well-enough, and people are buying it, but I'm always shocked to see just how poor, messy and un-professional it really is.How far back it is.

In software, I always feel like a tourist. I've often just stopped by at a few typical Enterprises and been totally shocked to see how development and operations sit on the edge of chaos. I realize that things are working, but exactly like the plumbing, I come from a place where I don't think what I see is a necessary problem. It can, and should be fixed.

Modern software development operates at the same level as plumbing in inexpensive hostels in China (I don't want to generalize too much :-). People just whack it together, and then accept whatever, if it's just good enough. They quickly move on to whack out more stuff.

There are few applicable standards, and even if there were, they are not being followed or enforced.

The software might work, but while I don't mind seeing it when I travel, I'd hate to have to depend on it. Oh wait, we do...

That many programmers go at their jobs with the ethics of Chinese plumbers is bad enough, but too often I see them trying to justify it as some sort of creative license. It's at that point, I think, that it is really insane. Sheer madness. I have a hard time believing that hooking up the hot water to the cold water facet is an expression of artistic freedom, yet in one form or another, that argument echos all over programming discussions.

No doubt the plumber working quickly in the hostel would have been irritated by someone criticizing his efforts, containing his work-force or just slowing him down, but all I can see is a missed opportunity by someone -- anyone really -- to ensure that a critical job gets done correctly. It wouldn't have taken much more effort to avoid that mess in the first place. It says a lot about the level of operation. Things that shouldn't be, shouldn't be.

Someday, perhaps, the software industry will find its way out of our current state. Someday things will install or upgrade easily, mostly work, and be easily fixable when they crash. Data won't get lost, and inter-operation won't be a mythical buzzword. Someday we will assemble massive systems, spend minimal effort collecting data and then use the results to further refine our efforts. Someday we won't have to finely read the manual in order to grok yet another level of arbitrary madness. Someday comparisions between programmers and people who hack off their own ears for undecipherable reasons won't be so common. Someday.

Finality: No, I didn't say that programming was the same as plumbing! Read it again.