March 2014

Volume 29 Number 3

Editor's Note : Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Calvin and Hobbes

Michael Desmond | March 2014

Michael DesmondDon’t Get Me Started columnist David Platt this month dives into the revolt at Avon over the company’s attempt to deploy an SAP-based order entry and customer management system. Our back-page columnist takes his cues from many a muse, be they Nobel-winning physicists or cartoon characters from the funny pages. And in that last regard, he and I share common inspiration.

When Bill Watterson’s brilliant Calvin and Hobbes comic strip exploded onto newspaper pages in 1985, it was an unexpected well spring of insight and wisdom. As a parent, I’ve marveled at Watterson’s ability to capture the simple genius of a boy at play. And as editor in chief of MSDN Magazine, I’ve found that Watterson’s incorrigible 6-year-old, Calvin, and his loyal tiger, Hobbes, offer real lessons for working developers. Here are just a few.

Test, Test, Test! The Duplicator story arc is one of my favorites in the 10-year run of the comic, but it’s a cautionary tale for developers. Calvin invented a box that creates copies of himself, who he hoped would do all his chores and school work. But Calvin never tested his Duplicator, and he quickly faced a squad of ill-behaved dupes. If Calvin had designed a test to determine the actual behavior of the dupes his invention created, he might have saved himself a lot of work.

DuplicatorRemediate Calvin later developed an add-on for his Duplicator, called the Ethicator, which let the operator set each dupe’s personality to either Good or Evil. A simple patch saved what would otherwise have been a costly project failure, as Calvin created a compliant, good-aligned dupe to do his chores.

Fail Gracefully Alas, the good Calvin dupe tried to befriend Calvin’s nemesis Susie Derkins. “I don't mind if he cleans my room and gets me good grades,” Calvin griped, “but when he starts talking to girls that’s going too darn far.” The unpredicted behavior led to an angry confrontation between Calvin and his dupe, who suddenly cried “Oops! I’ve had an evil thought!” and vanished in a puff of smoke. An exception-handling routine could have preserved the investment in the duplicate Calvin.

Value Extensibility Then there was the Transmogrifier, which could turn anyone into one of four target animals: eel, baboon, giant bug or dinosaur. Calvin showed great awareness allowing support for additional targets, including an extensible UI to handle them. The Transmogrifier would later support worms, elephants, tigers and giant slugs. I wonder if he used XML?

Leverage the Platform Both the Duplicator and Transmogrifier—as well as later Calvin inventions the Cerebral Enhance-O-Tron and the Time Machine—were built on a common, corrugated cardboard box platform and permanent marker UI. Simple geometries, familiar materials and streamlined interfaces defined all four inventions.

Don’t Skimp on Security When Calvin and Hobbes created their exclusive club, “Get Rid Of Slimy girlS (G.R.O.S.S),” they secured entry to the club treehouse with a long, multi-verse password about tigers, which ended with the line “Tigers are great! They’re the toast of the town. Life’s always better when a tiger’s around!” That final stanza alone is a 308-bit password, and I haven’t even described the dancing component. But Calvin struggled to remember the verse, illuminating the deep challenge of balancing usability and security.

Mind the Org Chart G.R.O.S.S. offered a final, valuable lesson—the danger posed by vague, shifting or tangled lines of authority. Calvin may have been “Dictator for Life” of G.R.O.S.S., but that didn’t stop “First Tiger” Hobbes from trying to usurp his authority. Constant management reorgs created a volatile environment that produced hijacked meetings, failed initiatives and constant, internecine bickering. G.R.O.S.S. never did mount a successful attack on Susie Derkins.

Make Space for Creativity If Watterson’s protagonists have one message for developers, it’s this: Dare to dream. Some of Calvin’s greatest insights occur while careening through the woods in a toboggan or wagon. Take risks. Make mistakes. And, remember, life’s always better when a tiger’s around.

Michael Desmond is the Editor-in-Chief of MSDN Magazine.