tech tuesday: surviving software updates

Loyal readers of this blog have been enjoying Platypus Friday for a while now. Today, I’m introducing a new weekly item called Tech Tuesday.

Wait wait, don’t run away!

My goal for Tech Tuesday is not just to nerd-herd everyone into the deep end, but rather to cover a broad spectrum of topics in a way that’s generally accessible to the general [internet] public. Along those lines, if you’ve ever wondered “why is my frobnitz behaving like a snazzdoodle?” send your questions via mail or comment and I’ll do my best to answer them.

For the inaugural version of Tech Tuesday, I have some opinions on software updates, aka those annoying little messages when you turn on your frobnitz and you are interrupted from going about whatever you thought you were going to do and are instead to read helpful text such as “zomg! new version available! accept updaetz?”

A word about software: all software is broken. That is a fact [except for maybe Don Knuth’s programs, but he doesn’t count]. Some software is just less obviously broken than others.

When it comes to software [and let’s face it, everything has software in it these days], it pays to think like a software developer, and not like a consumer. Consumers see “new and improved” and think “oh goodie!” Software developers think “oh unicorn vomit!”

That’s because any piece of interesting software is complex enough that no single human being can understand it, which sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s close enough to the truth, so just go with it, ok? And when you make a change to a complex system, the results are unpredictable. Think of a butterfly flapping its wings in Japan and then Ashton Kutcher wakes up one day and is the king of social media.

Don’t assume that any company knows what it’s doing. When it comes to software, even the best developers in the world sometimes confuse “hope” with “QA”. Yes, that’s right — we often times don’t know what we’re doing but we ship it anyway.

So if change equal breakage, then the first rule of software updates is: don’t fix what ain’t broke. This rule applies for the annoying crap in Windows like Adobe Reader updates and Java updates and poxy HP printer driver updates. The smart phone world is a little safer because the design of the system helps decrease the possibility of breaking, but seriously — resist the shiny if you can, and your overall happiness level will go up. The rule definitely applies for things system software updates. In other words, unless you are actively experiencing problems, don’t upgrade.

If you are having problems or you just plain have impulse-control issues and absolutely must have the shiny, then at least wait. Don’t be an early adopter. Just don’t. Seriously, don’t. DON’T.

If a new OSX update comes out, wait a minimum of a week before you accept it; a minimum of a month if it’s a Windows service pack. Same story if it’s a new iPhone update. Your phone was working just fine before the update, it’ll continue to work without the update. Wait for other fools who don’t value their time or their data to run into the roadblocks, wait for the programmers to fix their steaming piles, and wait until you hear that the upgrade is generally accepted as a good idea.

Ok, you finally accept the update, and your data is gone. Platypus poop happens. The third rule is don’t panic. More data gets lost in the frantic frenzy of flailing recovery than from the initial breakage to begin with. When I baLEETED my backup hard drive two months ago, the first thing I did was turn the drive off. Then, I drank a beer, and possibly a few more. Then I stress-ate some bacon. And had more beer. I came back to the issue after a solid day of nothing, with a clearer head, and some ideas on how to recover.

With a more critical service, like a phone, there’s clearly more urgency to solve the problem. Even then, just walk away from the breakage for just a while. Clear your head. Eat something or go for a workout. You can’t fix stuff when you have adrenaline pounding through your system unless you’re one of those Hurt Locker guys. But you’re not; you’re just having a bad day with your frobnitz, that’s all.

A quick aside here: as smart phones, tablets, and other computer-like-but-not-“real”-computer devices get more popular, it’s important to understand that a lot of software updates on those things are one-way streets. Remember how I said no one understands computers? The changes involved with a system upgrade on one of those things is so complex that you can’t often just go back because it’s no one knows how to do it, safely. Seriously. That’s why you often can’t downgrade — because the upgrade is sufficiently complex that the programmers are happy that it works at all, let alone trying to go back to the way it was. See rules 1 and 2.

Don’t assume your intuition from the real world applies to software! It might — but it might not. If you move something in the real world, it’s easily moved back and no change is noticeable. This doesn’t apply to software.

Finally, the last rule of software updates is ask. Find someone you consider more tech savvy than you and just ask him [or her, but probably him, based on my engineering classes in undergrad]. “Should I accept the update?” “How do I recover?” “How much bacon can I safely eat in one hour?”

Again, after baLEETING like, all of my data, I asked a bunch of other colleagues what to do. People take a lot of pity on you when you tell them how smart they are and you ask them for their advice and you are crying like a whipped mule.

But what if you don’t know anyone savvy? Well, by virtue of reading this blog, you know at least one person: me. Yup, that is my gift to you, dear reader, for reading 1165 words about this topic. If you get this far and you have any sort of tech question at all, send me a mail or a tweet or whatever, and I’ll do my best to answer it. You can thank Seth Godin for encouraging everyone to give gifts. This is mine to you because I love you.

This post was inspired by Redhead Writing’s really bad experience but shouldn’t really be construed as a “response” per se. Think of her post as a catalyst around which some thoughts of mine that I’ve had for a while could crystallize. For what it’s worth, Erika’s experience with Apple sounded really bad, and between that and my secret photographic proof that iPhones are made from dead babies, let it be a lesson to all that even the best designed products can break, and if they’re closed systems, they’re really really really hard to fix.