The responses and tributes following this week’s sad news about the passing of Gerald Weinberg have been filled with emotion. Feelings of great sadness have been matched by an outpouring of love and respect for someone who has taught, mentored and influenced so many people.
It is rare to encounter such a genuine feeling of warmth towards someone, even from people who, like me, may not have met Jerry but still feel a connection and have a story to tell about how he affected their lives and their work.
I was both surprised and delighted when last year Jerry very quickly responded to an email I sent to him, asking for his permission to quote him in the book that I was writing. Not only was he very happy to oblige, he also offered some kind words to me as a first time author. This meant so much to me. His influence on the book went far beyond the quote. Both the subject of the book – the quality of software as experienced by people using it – and the style of the book – including fictional people and situations as examples – were heavily influenced by Jerry’s own writing.
For me, his great gift as a writer was his ability, through his books and other work, to impart incredible wisdom in understandable, relatable and often humorous language. Reading Jerry’s work can feel a little like having a fireside chat. There is warmth and a conversational tone, and there are stories and examples that bring ideas to life.
I’m very happy that in my email I shared my admiration for this gift, and that I was able to say ‘thank you’ to Jerry for his work and everything I learnt from it.
There are two themes that, to me at least, come through strongly in that work.
The first is the theme of learning. In the New Preface to ‘How Software Is Built’, Jerry talks about how much he has learned in his time in the computer business. In fact, the word ‘learn’ crops up repeatedly in the New Preface and the original Preface to that book. Throughout Jerry’s books there are stories and ideas about how people learn and how organisations learn. In a time when there are no shortage of self-proclaimed experts, here was a genuine expert whose work recognised the truth. True knowledge is the knowledge that there is always more to learn. True mastery is mastering our ability to learn.
The second theme is the powerful theme of humans, of the people that software is intended to help, and the people who work on that software. Perhaps his most famous quote, “Quality is value to some person” puts the human at the heart of software work. His writing on leadership used similar language – “If you are a leader, the people are your work.” In professions where technical knowledge and skills are often valued to an absurd extent, Jerry’s writing reminded us that we are not in a technical business, but a people business.
Reading through some of Jerry’s blog posts, I came across one entitled What’s the most touching thing to say to a teacher? and these wonderful thoughts, which I think perfectly reflect the two themes:
“I agree that telling your teacher “thank you” can be touching, but in my 60+ years of teaching, it’s only the second most touching thing. So, what’s the most touching?What touches me most is when a student teaches me something I did not know. That shows me that the student has become a contemporary, a grown-up person who will go on to teach others, part of the great chain of “paying forward.” When that happens, I know that I have succeeded in some small way of helping that student and the world in which we all live. That’s what touches me the deepest.Moreover, in my career such learning has happened thousands of times. If I am a better teacher today, a better human being, I owe it all to my students. Thank you, students. Thank you.”