TITLE: "Yes, We Do That" AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: September 10, 2008 2:59 PM DESC: ----- BODY: When I was in grad school, my advisor sent me to a series of swank conferences on expert systems in business, finance, and accounting. Among the things these conferences did for me was to give a chance to stay at Ritz Carlton hotels. This Midwestern boy had never been treated so well. At the 1990 conference, I heard a talk by Gary Ribar from KPMG Peat Marwick, one of the Big Six accounting consulting firms of the time. Ribar described LoanProbe, a program that evaluated the collectibility of commercial loans. LoanProbe was a rule-based system organized in a peculiar way, with its 9000 rules separated into thirty-three separate "knowledge bases". It was a significant application that interacted with sixty external programs and two large data bases. Peat Marwick took LoanProbe a step further and used its organizational technique to build a knowledge acquisition program that enabled non-programmers to create systems with a similar structure. I was so excited. I recognized this technique as what we in our lab called structured matching, a remarkably common and versatile pattern in knowledge-based systems. LoanProbe looked to me like the largest documented application of structured matching, which I was working on as a part of my research. Naturally, I wanted to make a connection to this work and share experiences with the speaker. After the talk, I waited in line to speak with him. When my turn came, I gushed that their generic architecture was very cool and that "we do something just like that in our lab!". I expected camaraderie, but all I received back was an icy stare, a curt response, and an end to the conversation. I didn't understand. Call me naive. For a while, I wondered if Mr. Ribar was simply an unfriendly guy. Then I realized that he probably took my comment not as a compliment -- We do that, too! -- but as a claim that the work he described was less valuable because it was not novel. I realized that I had violated one of the basic courtesies of research by telling him that his work was known already. These days, I think fondly of Ribar, that talk, and that conference. He was behaving perfectly reasonably, given the culture in which he worked. Novelty is prized. A few years after that conference, I came across PLoP and the software patterns community. This group of people valued discovering, documenting, and sharing common solutions, the patterns that make our software and our programming lives better. Structured Matcher did that, and it appeared in programs from all sorts of domain. Jeff Patton has described this feature of the patterns community nicely in his article on emerging best practices in user experience:
If you tell someone a great idea, and they say "Yes, we do something like that too!", that's a pattern.
Documenting and sharing old, proven solutions that expert practitioners use may not get you a publication in the best research journal (though it might, if you are persistent and fortunate), but it will make the world better for programmers and software users. That is valuable, too. -----