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Cargo Cults

Thursday, February 9, 2006

Perhaps you’ve heard the term ‘cargo cult programming’. Eric Lippert defined the term as follows.

There are lots of cargo cult programmers -- programmers who understand what the code does, but not how it does it. Therefore, they cannot make meaningful changes to the program. They tend to proceed by making random changes, testing, and changing again until they manage to come up with something that works.

The term derives from Richard Feynman’s “cargo cult science”. Feynman coined the term in a 1974 commencement address at Caltech. The speech transcript is a good read.

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head to headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas--he's the controller--and they wait for the airplanes to land.

The reason I bring this up is a Smithsonian Magazine article I read last week: “In John They Trust”. The author visited the remote island of Tanna to report on a real, enduring cargo cult. Villagers on Tanna worship John Frum, their American messiah. John lives in a volcano. John promised to return and bring shiploads of cargo, including bottled soda, canned meat, candy bars, and refrigerators.

Human behavior never ceases to amaze.

Christian Mogensen Thursday, February 9, 2006
Jargon File definition:

It also points to Feynman's "Cargo cult science" as a possible source for the programming term.
albert braun Friday, February 10, 2006
"Cargo Cult" also applies to certain executives at dot com boom era software startups.

On arrival, jubilant about their new VP positions at hapless startups, many execs tended to simply reimplement what had been done at their previous company ("hey, it worked from '96 to '99.")

"I'm gonna build us a sales pipeline and a sales forecast. Then we'll cross the chasm."

"Once we send this product to a focus group, we'll know exactly what to change."

"Engineers aren't working long enough hours. At XYZ we pulled 80 hour weeks and shipped on time. Show these guys a sense of urgency."

"Once we write our mission statement we'll all be on the same page and move forward together."

"We need an offsite meeting at a fancy hotel so we can brainstorm, bond with each other, and innovate."

Then the boom ended, but they kept doing the same things religiously. (Until they got fired.)

Maybe "cargo cult executives" never really went away.
scott Friday, February 10, 2006
Good one, Albert!
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