27 November 2008

Verity Stob: Geek of the Week

Real geeks read Verity Stob. Verity writes her painfully funny invective from a powerful advantage, she is a geek herself, and her humour comes from the pain of every-day life as a programmer. Verity Stob, with her unique, and hilarious, contribution to making our lives bearable, had to be our Geek of the Week. We sent Richard Morris to interview her, of course.

If you are a geek, and you are staring at a screen, laughing, the chances are that you are reading something either by Verity Stob or maybe Simon Travaglia (BOFH). It is a disruptive act to draw attention to one of Verity’s postings in an open-office area where developers are working.

Another thing that drives me
away from Microsoft is: they
are soooooh rude. I admit it’s
likely not deliberate. I think
because they are an inward-
facing organisation they don’t
appreciate their own bad

Verity is the Prankster of the Geek community. Her savage wit is all the funnier because it comes from a long experience as a geek. The humour grows out of the pain of the day-to-day work of a programmer. Nobody has succeeded as well as Verity in poking fun at such things as  Linux Distros, Windows Vista, Web 2.0 and open-source databases. When we asked for nominations for Simple-Talk’s Geek of the Week amongst the Geeks at Red-Gate, Verity came in only a whisker behind Linus.

Verity Stob is the pseudonym of a programmer based in London, England. Although she professes competence in C++ and the usual curly-bracketed scripting languages, and designs and writes code for a number of platforms, she is probably at her happiest and does least harm when she is making Windows programs in CodeGear’s Delphi.

For over 20 years Verity has written amusing articles and columns for various magazines, newspapers and websites, including the ‘legendary’ (i.e. long defunct) .EXE Magazine, Dr. Dobb’s Journal and her current home, The Register. In 2005, she published a collection of these pieces as The Best of Verity Stob and in so doing achieved a lifetime’s ambition – to be paid twice for the same work.

“Verity, as anyone who’s ever done it professionally knows, programming computers isn’t as bewitching… ”
“Are you sure you are comfortable? ”
(baffled) “Sorry? ”
“You don’t look comfortable, there, perched on the edge. Shall I get you another chair?”
(uneasy) “No, actually, it’s fine… ”
“There’s a nice swivel chair next door, although of course then you will be a bit high…”
” Thanks, but I’m quite ok. I was asking you, why did you choose a career as a computer programmer over that of a cover girl or a willowy clothes horse? ”
“I never realized clothes horses were made of willow. Bit like cricket bats, eh? ”
“But to get back to your question. Thing is, David, …”
“Richard. ”
“Sorry. Thing is, Richard, I don’t accept your premise. I was saying only the other day to Agyness how I really admired her mastery of C++ templates – she is absolutely the best meta-programmer on the New York circuit, whatever Freja may tell you, and one day soon hopes to contribute a little something to Boost, if she can fit in with Vogue’s spring shooting schedule – and she said to me, she said, ‘I so much envy you Verity. It’s all very well being an ambassador of British youth culture, but I never get time to play around with the proposed C++ 0x language extensions, and I literally haven’t written a white paper in two years.’

So you see that is isn’t all pampering and privileges on the catwalk. What profit a girl if she earns $5 million a day, but hasn’t got time to install Visual Studio 2008 service pack 1?

And there again, I do wonder if I would have been suited to a super-modelling career. For example my in-flight bitching technique is, let’s be frank about it, hopeless. I’m quite content to sit in cattle class and think up names for the six peanuts in my in-flight complimentary snacklette pak. I know I should be up there, other side of the curtain, spitting in the face of the stewardess, storming onto the flight deck and demanding that they turn around and go back to Paris as I have left behind my third favourite pair of Jimmy’s… ”

 (helpfully) “Jimmy Choo’s? ”
 (very sarcastic): “You were expecting maybe Jimmy Riddle? ”
“Ah, so you DO have the rudeness of the super model. ”
[blushes] “You boy, you! Next question please. ”
“You’re rightly known as the comedienne of the programming world… ”
“Excellent use of the word ‘rightly’! ”
“…and have been writing satirical columns of IT life since 1988. In your opinion what is the most significant development in IT during this time? ”
“Mmm, so much to choose from. Obvious stuff, like Sir Tim ‘Come on Tim!’ the CERN giant, and his wonderful invention of free porn for everyone. Such vision. The ingenious miniaturization of electronics in the modern mobile phone that means, wherever you are in the world, you are never more than three minutes a way from a bore accosting you and trying to show you 23 blurry photos of his late dog.

Then there’s ‘The IT Crowd’. It’s early days yet, but I suspect that the TV comedy representation of our humble way of life by the talented Mr Linehan is going to turn out to be very important indeed. Just as, under the doleful influence of James Herriot, my generation wanted to stick its collective arm up a cow, so we can look forward to the young people of today surging into IT departments in the hope of being allowed to listen on the phone for forty minutes at a go while some overpaid halfwit fails to get his Excel macro to work.

But the big thing, the really big thing has been the inexorable decline of the big public’s respect for us IT-bees. In the good old days, when screens were green and software mean, non-techy punters would approach humbly and beg for help. They were pathetically grateful if one performed straightforward chores for them such as copying disks, or getting an é into a WordPerfect document. They were delightfully gullible when warned that if you pressed the backspace too many times you could delete the whole hard disk, or that Epson dot matrix printers usually have an 11kV line driving the ink cartridge and 14 people were fatally injured trying to change the ribbon in 1987 alone.

All gone, now. Users – not ‘lusers’ any more – still don’t really know what they are doing. But now it’s a confident click, click, click everywhere they go, and they treat us with all the respect of something unpleasant found on the bottom of one’s shoe.

Me, I blame the GUI. Xerox Parc – pah! Not a patch on Alton Towers, from what I hear. ”

“In the past, straight-forward sexism was a real problem in the IT industry – women in IT were discriminated against simply because they were women. Have you ever had a problem with overt sexism at work? If so, how did you deal with it? ”
“The peculiarity of the modern IT industry is, to adapt an old Flanders & Swan joke, that it is asexual – ie it is all male. To my perception, this has got worse – not better – over the last 20 years. The first two jobs I had as a programmer, the M:F ratio among my peers was 4:1 or 5:1. Programming was seen by society at large as ‘just another technical job’ – not particularly attractive to women, but not notably repellent either.

These days, I suspect thanks in part to the rise of nerd culture and the stereotyping of the programmer as a poorly-socialised male obsessive, my impression is that that ratio has declined to 20:1 or worse. If that is an example of straightforward, overt sexism – and I think it is – then it has been on the upgrade.

As to the impact on the individual female, it can make an IT career seem very lonely and intimidating. There are opportunities for the thinking she-techie, if she has the right disposition. I read an interview with Catherine Tate where she described how much she enjoyed being the only girl at a boys’ school; I think the same sort of thing applies here. But this is hardly a solution.

The other day I found an (unintentionally) hilarious and lavishly-illustrated article entitled ‘Ten easy ways to attract women to your free software project‘  by one Terry Hancock. This sounds like an ingenious scheme devised by male techies whose love life could do with a fillip, but who in these credit-crunched times don’t run to Porsche 911s, so are obliged to set up a lurve project on SourceForge into which they hope dopey girlies will fall.

The reality is even better: an extended example of that kind of feminism that implies the intrinsic superiority of women in nearly all things while simultaneously demanding privileges to compensate for claimed weaknesses, without noticing any implicit contradiction. I particularly enjoyed suggestion #4 that female-friendly projects should use attractive-to-women programming languages such as Python and Ruby (and Perl too, it says. Is Terry sure about this? I would say that Perl was notoriously one of the most engine oil-besmirched languages around, full of syntactical structures that are hard to shift if one only has small hands, and shot through with rusted-solid regular expressions that only reluctantly yield to the full weight of a big fat bloke).

I now see the programming world in a new light, and have hit upon a wonderful idea. I intend to devise an index that ranks all the major programming languages according to their pulling power. It will range from old favourites like Fortran, which is hopelessly male but in a pleasant pipe-smoking, GWR steam engine, leather elbow patches sort of way that reminds me of Dad; through to an obviously female-attracting language like Delphi: elegant and friendly, using proper words instead of resorting to pointless grunty man-squiggles, yet instinctively practical and not at all like frilly, ditzy, slow-to-react Ruby – the only language actually to be coloured pink.

I’m sorry, you seem to be squirming a bit. Did I give you too much coffee? Do you want to use the loo? ”

“No, I’m fine thanks. Reading through several of your latest columns I was left with the feeling that you’re not too fond of Microsoft? Why is this? Have you had a bad experience with them? ”
“Well, I admit I do have some not-very-friendly things to say about Microsoft; there again, as a mostly-Windows programmer I am exposed to their software rather a lot, and it does not inspire friendly thoughts.

For one thing, a lot of their engineering just isn’t terribly good. In part, I think this is an effect of corporate entropy. Robert X Cringely has a nice description somewhere about how companies change as they grow large from being a small band of talented fanatics to a huge morass of not-terribly-bright clock-watchers. This decay has been happening at Microsoft for a long time, and although they try to fight it by absorbing little companies and poaching talent, it is an unequal struggle.

I have generally
used Apache and PHP
for web projects, in
preference to IIS and
Because my eyes
tell me it is the
logical thing to do.

I have generally used Apache and PHP for web projects, in preference to IIS and ASP.NET. Why? Because my eyes tell me it is the logical thing to do.

Perhaps I can persuade your users to make a simple experiment. Think of any Microsoft website – say MSDN, or Technet or microsoft.com itself. Go there now, for preference using IE. See how long it takes to load? (And, though I admit this is a subjective side issue: see how ugly the result is? I’ve often wondered why MS designs web pages to look like the out-of-date marketing leaflets, with a sort of deadly compound of plastic enthusiasm and tinsel gaudiness that surely jars even the most dedicated Softie lover.) Now load up a page from a big, complex LAMP site – Wikipedia is a good example. See how much faster it is? Now change browsers to Firefox (or Opera or Safari or, zippiest of the lot by a big margin, Chrome – this is not just about Open Source, it is about the paucity of Microsoft’s efforts). Whoosh.

Remember that Microsoft has more resource than anybody else in the world to throw at this – bigger server farms, more bandwidth, more designers can be theirs – and yet they still can’t do big websites for peanuts.

So to choose Microsoft tools for projects automatically without looking at the alternatives is to import mediocrity into your own software before you have written a line of code. I don’t understand why anybody who cares about doing a good job would do this. ”

“I see. So which Linux… ”
“Another thing that drives me away from Microsoft is: they are soooooh rude. I admit it’s likely not deliberate. I think because they are an inward-facing organisation they don’t appreciate their own bad manners. They think they can use any contact with a paying user to promote their interests. But it really isn’t ok.

To take a case in point. I have been using Visual C++ for about 10 years. At no point in that time has it displayed the correct help material on first request.

When I first used it, if you asked for help on the C++ library, it took you to the help file for Cross Platform MFC for the Macintosh (or some such nonsense – I forget exactly what it was called). Pretty much nobody ever wanted help on MFC for the Macintosh, because we were all writing Windows programs, as you would expect, given that we had shelled out for Visual Studio for Windows. So we all had to waste time clicking back to the proper Windows MFC. Of course, the right thing for Microsoft to do would have been to have supplied a configurable setting, which defaulted to the mainstream option. But at that time, the Macintosh cross-compiler was what Microsoft was pushing, so that was where you were sent.

Then, after a year or two, Microsoft gave up on Visual C++ for the Macintosh, and wanted to get people developing for Windows CE. Sure enough, the C++ help switched to taking you to Windows CE all the time, inconveniencing 98% of Visual Studio users. The excellent third party add-on, Visual Assist, actually had a feature that you could enable that blocked this, and took you to the right place. But it seemed pretty thick that you had to buy an add-on just to be able to use the help properly.

Recently, Visual Studio help has taken to dumping me in topics associated with Microsoft’s ghastly C++/.NET hybrid, whatever that is called this week – yet another technology used by nobody at all if they can help it. Hello? Hello, Redmond. It doesn’t matter how many times you push me into the wrong help topic, I am NOT going to start using a different technology. Honestly. It doesn’t work like that. I just curse you, and use Google to look the thing up instead. Is that really what you want?

Of course, there is another possible explanation. It is possible that this misdirection is not the product of inept marketing, but of pure technical incompetence. In which case that’s hardly a reason, a reason to… ”

“Sorry, Verity, you seem to have got something… On your mouth… Would you like to borrow a hanky? ”
“Thanks. No, it’s just ordinary foam. Nothing much to worry about, according to the doctor. I may live for years yet, quite happily and normally. ”
“Oh… good. Um, does this then mean that you prefer Linux to any other O/S? If so, which distro do you use? ”
“I don’t use Linux for a development platform… yet. But since 2000 or thereabouts, I have been careful to maintain at least one Linux box at work, and have gradually insinuated it as a specialist server into the work of the company. We keep our projects database on it, and we use it for the company Wiki. I enjoy working with Linux; as I said, I think it is the job of a conscientious programmer to be aware of what technology is out there.

As to Linux flavour, I use Ubuntu, both at work as I have described and at home on one of those little ‘webtop’ computers that I keep by the telly-watching sofa. I use it for resolving-by-Google arguments that arise during the watching of ancient repeats on ITV3 eg ‘Oooh look it’s him, that actor who died years and years ago. Got killed in a crazy Radio 4 stunt that went wrong.’ ‘No he didn’t, he’s the second favourite to be the next Doctor Who – it was in the Daily Mirror of the man sitting opposite on the Tube.’ ‘No, you’re getting him mixed up with that bloke who presents Wasps do the Craziest Things’ etc. I find that Ubuntu configuration of Gnome is uniquely suited to this compute-intensive application.”

“You say that senior management are forever thinking of ways to earn their existence. You must have come across some crazy ones. ”
“For a dreadful moment I thought you were going to say ‘zany’ there. Phew! that was a narrow squeak.
There was one particular moment of notable pointy-hairedness that I experienced as a young programmer, working for a certain organisation, well-known then but no longer with us. There came down this directive that we programmers were henceforth not to consider our work as our own, nor to take any pride in it. I think it was at the time when code walkthroughs were in vogue – a phenomenon I have written about elsewhere – and the idea was to make one less defensive about one’s efforts, and content to accept criticism in cool and rational way.  Following this pronouncement, we programmers were all to become as Vulcans, with Boolean emotions and pointy-ears.

Of course, in real life, programmers who don’t care about their work are not from the planet Vulcan at all. Instead they have journeyed from the far distant galaxy Slipshod in the constellation Cantbe’arsed. I think this was pointed out, but was haughtily rejected by the powers-that-were. I don’t know how long the policy of encouraging the idle at the expense of conscientious persisted, because I very shortly left that job to continue my own space odyssey, a long and futile search for the planet Real World.”

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Richard Morris is a journalist, author and public relations/public affairs consultant. He has written for a number of UK and US newspapers and magazines and has offered strategic advice to numerous tech companies including Digital Island, Sony and several ISPs. He now specialises in social enterprise and is, among other things, a member of the Big Issue Invest advisory board. Big Issue Invest is the leading provider to high-performing social enterprises & has a strong brand name based on its parent company The Big Issue, described by McKinsey & Co as the most well known and trusted social brand in the UK.

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  • Peter Ruff

    I’ve been reading Verity Stob for years and it’s nice to be reminded of her humour. Is she a relative of Phil Space, I wonder?

  • Brent Ozar

    Link doesn’t work
    Check the link on Verity Stob’s name at the start of the article. It goes here, which doesn’t work:


    It should point here instead:


    (Thanks for spotting that! This is now fixed,  Ed.)

  • Phil Factor

    One of the great writers on IT
    Verity is one of the great writers about IT, and one who has honed the vituperative arts to rapier sharpness. She has demolished the golden calves of IT by a heady mix of litotes, satire, paradox, derision, metonymy, catachresis, sarcasm, irony, calumny, cacophony, hyperbole and ..err.. persiflage.

  • Arles

    Code walkthroughs and smeared copies of our intellectual DNA
    Truly hilarious! I’d like to comment about code walkthroughs which was mentioned at the later part of the interview. Here’s a snippet of an article I’m writing which happened to coincide with the walkthrough topic:

    Have you heard this phrase, “They’re not going to tell me how to write my code or how to do my work”, more often than not, is one’s fear of being revealed about their ineptitude and lack of coding skills. Coding is an art and when done beautifully should be revealed in full regalia, shamelessly shared and exposed, unless of course if it has security implications. It is human nature to be very defensive when people attack our labor of love and we are unable to separate the actual work from the people who created it. The undulating process of code creation is in reality – a naked exposure of one’s intellect and logic. Every line of code is a smeared copy of our intellectual DNA left to dry in mirage of zero’s and one’s. Good, bad or indifferent, it hurts when our work is critiqued, gutted out and left on the cutting room floor and never to see the light of the day and the satisfaction of being included in the final release, but then again it may be the difference between getting an Emmy or a Razzie.

  • Rowland Gosling

    Fab article!
    Does Microsoft’s search anywhere work? Looks like I’m not the only one using Google as the Codex to their dodgy documenation.

    Did she ever write for Monty Python? Her style has got a similar rhythm. Not so much Cheese Shop as ‘Bring out your dead!’

    Thanks you!

  • Andrew Hasley

    Another great article
    Thank you Richard, Verity Stob and Simple Talk. Another very readable article. Great stuff!

  • Chris Massey

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