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March 26-29, 2012, Software Test Professionals Conference, New Orleans
July, 14-15, 2012 - Test Coach Camp, San Jose, California
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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

What do you believe about information systems?

This I am currently teaching a second-semester-freshman course on Computing with Spreadsheets. The book focuses on click-here, click-there, clicky-clicky-everywhere with formulas, functions, and graphs, but I'm trying to make the lectures go a bit beyond that - to explore questions like why the students are in the class, and what are we trying to do?

I'm thinking of creating a sort of business or note card, via something like vistaprint, to hand out at the end of class. The idea is to put it in your wallet, maybe tac it up on your cube some day (I have a few graduating seniors who are catching up on core graduation requirements) - to be reminded of some of the core tenants of IS.

The College is a Calvin College, a four-year Christian liberal arts institution based on the Christian Reformed Tradition.

So far, this is the idea I have; what do you think?

Tenets and Thoughts on Information Systems (front side of card)

Data is not information. Information is not Knowledge. Knowledge is not Wisdom. Wisdom is not Truth.

In the absence of a story but the presence of data, people may invent a story to match the data. This is dangerous.

Because of this we can not 'let the data speak for itself'; we can, however, strive to tell a compelling story, with integrity, that stands up to scrutiny.

There are some things that can not be quantified, so it is inadvisable to make decisions based on measurable numbers alone. We call this distinction qualitative vs. quantitative metrics. (Example: If you cannot control what you cannot measure - how do you decide that you need a hair cut? Do you get out a ruler to measure your hair?)

Our measurement tools can be wonderful aids, but from this we should not forget: A fool with a tool is still a fool.

(Back Side of Card)

Clerks follow a stable, predictable, defined process. Heroes, on the other hand, take a vague and ambiguous problem, under time and resource constraints and in the face of conflicting requirements - and solve it. Managers provide vision and ensure that heroes are not taxed beyond their breaking point. Our society needs them all. Who do you want to be?

The tendency to take people and view them as numbers in a spreadsheet can be very strong; but that does not make it right.

The word 'Truth' appears 228 times in the the Bible, 'Respect' appears 44. - 'For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?' (Matthew 16:26, KJV)

Do you think I'm missing something important? Would a different order be helpful? Does the wording stink? Should I work harder to credit Frank Zappa or the Context Driven School of testing for the initial statements, or W. Edwards Deming for the idea that not everything can be measured? Do you think i'm fundamentally off base?

You may not like this list - I'm not super hot on it either. It turns out, condensing my philosophy of IS into a hundred words is not an easy thing. I'd like to make it better, which means I would really appreciate hearing from you.


Anonymous said...

The word you want is "tenets"

Anonymous said...

Someone beat me to the tenents comment (big peeve of mine).

I get what you're saying with the first statement, but for some reason it's not sitting well with me. Perhaps it's because if you consider that knowledge is an asset, and that software is a storehouse for knowledge (Armour), then data *can* be knowledge...but you're right in that the data alone isn't knowledge - it's data + interpretation / evaluation / analysis.

_Anything_ without context is dangerous

The hero reference scares me - it brings thoughts of screwed up efforts "saved" by someone swooping in at the last minute to hack together a workable solution.

Joel Montvelisky said...

I see the sequence and order of the first 3 or 4 tenets, but from then on it starts looking like a bunch of bumper-stickers that you decided to glue together. Good bumper-stickers, but still not under a single line of thought, at least for me.

I think you should compromise and stick to a single subject, for example Information; or work on your progression to make it feel more linked.

Specifically about Information, I would add something along the lines of: A property of information is that it needs to allow you to make a decision or an action, and thus it's timing can be as important as its content.

Good Luck with the class!

Anna Baik said...

I'm not sure if this falls within the scope of your syllabus, but the statements you have so far miss what I personally find the most interesting and challenging thing about information systems:

They're not just composed of the lines of code in the software, the machines that run it, and the data stored on them. They're not even just the combination of those two things and the business rules and processes around and within them. The people who use them, whose details are recorded in them, whose lives are touched by them in some way, are also part of your information system.

Losing sight of those people makes it very hard to fathom why your information system works as it does. It's also in my experience usually the first thing that gets forgotten.

John McConda said...

>"The word 'Truth' appears 228 times in the the Bible, 'Respect' appears 44."

I don’t have my concordance on me at the moment, but I would venture to say the word “serve” appears more often than "respect" as well.

I graduated from Taylor University, which has basically the same philosophy as Calvin. At our graduation ceremony, we get a diploma and a towel. The towel represents the washing of others’ feet, commiting us into a life of service. I still take that seriously, especially in the context of how I’m serving the people who help build and use the system I’m testing.

Zachary Fisher said...

First, your post ( and John's comment respectively have affirmed me at a fundamental spiritual level. I must thank you both for this. Indeed, servant mentality is very much needed and something instilled very early by my Christian heritage. I enjoy reading other's mention it as well.

Now, regarding the list. I do find myself reading the first statement several times. Something doesn't gel with me, and perhaps it only because I've not thought about it as much as you have.

Could I impress upon you to explain that sentiment a bit more?

Finally, your people-to-spreadsheets example reminds me of 2 Samuel 24:10.

Matthew said...

Hi Zach. On the "data is not information" quote:

The simplest example of this is an example I use in my IS-171 class. I give them an excel file with a bunch of numbers - some big, some small, some negative. It's data. You can't really grok it.

Then I show the headers - one is a date, one is the number of troops alive, and one is the temperature on that date - it turns out it's what happened to napolean's army in the retreat from Moscow. This is information.

But it's still not very meaningful. So I show them the chart that Tufte popularized, that shows the location on a map, and the size of the force at a time by the thickness of the lines, with the date and temperature -- uh, this one:

In the information visualization literature, it's considered a classic.

The full quote is from Frank Zappa, and also includes:

"Wisdom is not Truth, Truth is not Beauty" Zappa would add "Beauty is not music, and music is ... everything!" We've adapted the quote for the discipline of information systems, but I suspect he got the end of the quote wrong. But who's the author of music? :-)

We talk a good deal in the class about how the role of an information system is to provide information for decision makers, and how summarizing, analyzing, and synthesizing data can be a valuable service.

Sound anything like software testing?

Kyle said...

I think your cards are great Matthew. I'm enrolled in a BSIS degree program with American Sentinel University (online program: and while I love it, this is an example of one of the things that I miss from being in a physical classroom.

We don't get to have the same types of discussions like I'm sure some of your quotes must have encouraged. In particular, I really enjoyed this one: "Our measurement tools can be wonderful aids, but from this we should not forget: A fool with a tool is still a fool." I think it nearly perfectly sums up modern society and the state of our technology!

Very interesting map of Napolean's army too- I'm very interested in military history, but know shockingly little about him. I've never run across a "map" or "graph", or whatever you'd call this before though- it's amazing!