Neither Sorcerers nor Alchemists

Notes from my TEDx Audition: Rethinking the “magic” of software and how it works.

Clint Andrew Hall


The following are my notes from July 21, 2014 for my five-minute audition to speak at TEDxRenfrewCollingwood. It is a person-centric view of earlier writings on the subject that were merely industry-focused.

In 1984, my uncle sprayed WD-40 into the disk drive of his brand new computer. He heard a “grinding” noise.

Thirty years later, I sat down to lunch with a friend who told me how she had helped upgrade her father to an iPhone. “And Clint,” she said, “it’s so funny: he actually *apologizes* to Siri, all the time!”

That stuck in my head: he apologizes to an app?

I can’t say I blame him. We’re raised the bar quite high for what a ‘good’ app is, haven’t we? It’s not enough anymore for an app to simply be useful. For an app to succeed it must not only be amazing in capability, it must be intuitive and easy to love… enticing.

Software understanding People has trumped People understanding Software.

My uncle recognized the sound of moving parts in the computer and applied his experience to “fix it”. Why would it end up taking so long for my friend’s father to adjust his input and “fix Siri”?

I believe too much “magic” has been engineered into our technology, and it’s begun impeding people’s ability to be productive or safe.

I believe that by inspiring and encouraging each other to imagine how systems work, rather than continue to imply that we can’t, those systems can become better and safer.

My goal today is to introduce this idea, one that I think can take us much further than engineering can.

Several years ago, I worked for a CEO, Neal Patterson, who liked to gather a group of engineers together and ask them a simple question:

“Is Software Engineering an Art, or a Science?”

Invariably the answer would be… both. You solve problems in creative ways with scientific logic.

But with Software understanding People, with more and more users being shocked and amazed, the engineering moves from Art or Science… to Sorcery or Alchemy.

Unfortunately, I believe that’s the reality we live in today. Now, you’re either a muggle, or you’re a wizard. You either “get this stuff”, or you don’t.

And with software magic, you’re not in the audience— you’re the volunteer onstage. And when that amazing feat has the potential to hurt you, you trust the magic (and the magician) to protect you.

And people have been hurt through software: they’ve been “hacked”.

I had a friend call me, convinced that an ex-boyfriend had paid $20 to “hack” one of her social media accounts.

“I mean, I know they can do that. You just pay some guy $20 online and he’ll break into your email and then your social media and then you’re hacked.”

I said, “well, if that were the case… why isn’t Conan O’Brien hacked? Why isn’t Katie Perry, or Kanye West?”

The truth is, computers are very smart— but people are clever. With more and more devices and accounts online, the desire to do evil has never been stronger. In fact, today, most “hacking” is done not through a keyboard, but through email or telephone call. It’s through social engineering, not software engineering, that hackers are the most productive.

We’re reached a point where fewer and fewer threats can be engineered away.

So… what can we do? What if we just “don’t get this stuff?”

I think we all can… we can get most of it, actually. I think we’ve gotten so used to technology moving so fast around us we just don’t stop to consider how it works.

In 1962, Spiderman was introduced as a teenage boy bitten by a massively radioactive spider. The Hulk was irradiated by Gamma rays. In both instances, the lack of the public’s understanding of radiation gave the authors the ability to step into the incredible.

Can you imagine trying to convince someone today that radiation can endow super powers? Yet we still can use a “faceless hacker” as the arch-enemy of any hero or heroine.

It’s only by understanding what is possible that we can begin to recognize what is not possible, too good to be true, or just “not right”.

We need to actively reject that software is magic. Instead, we need to ask ourselves the most famous of magical questions: “How did they *do* that?”

I want to inspire audiences to begin to speculate what’s behind the curtain, to fundamentally reject the idea that technology is beyond understanding. Only then can our expectations (and our input) begin to cooperate with reality. We won’t get frustrated with it. We’ll work with it. And we won’t be fooled easily when someone evil wants to exploit it.

So I challenge you: as you take a break and look to your silenced phone for all the Facebook posts you might have missed, take a look at your home screen. Choose your favorite, most mystical, or most enjoyable app. Then ask yourself: how do they do that?

Then… find out if you’re right.



Clint Andrew Hall

Engineer and Geek; Tech Lead for Shared UX at Elastic, previously at Facebook; married to a gorgeous Canadian; community theatre stages are a 3rd home.