Systems People

S. A. Modena samodena at csemail.cropsci.ncsu.edu
Thu Jun 25 02:33:36 EST 1992


In article <HUNTER.92Jun24172755 at work.nlm.nih.gov> hunter at work.nlm.nih.gov (Larry Hunter) writes:
>
>
>Important point number 3: It is extremely difficult to successfully write and
>maintain a complex computer program without some serious training in computer
>science.  Hell, it's not that easy if you have a bunch of training and have
>real experience in writing large systems. 

That is to say: knowledge of software engineering practices, specifically.

 
>                                           I have delved into the heart of a
>lot of code written by biologists who have "picked up some computer science
>along the way," including some very well known ones.  The code usually works,
>but there tend to be certain kinds of problems that make these programs hard to
>extend, reuse or maintain.  

I'll vouch for the truth of that point from direct experience.  Being able
to write down mathematical algorithms in FORTRAN is commonly called
"programming."  But it's not: it's formula writing.  Programming centers
on making the computer work reliably and understandably to all other persons
in the world...and not just to and in the hands of the original "programmer."


>	Larry
>hunter at nlm.nih.gov (internet)

I think this is all revolving around the pay and status issue.

Getting a CS degree is often an overt decision to steer away from animate
disciplines.

A CS major sees *directly* computer-science-derived fruits everywhere in the
everyday world.  As a biologist, I find it more dificult to tell people how
studying the heat shock proteins of a blow fly's hind leg twitch muscle
will benefit mankind.  Only a "fellow biologist" could appreciate those
appologetics.  

A CS jock says: I'm working on a project to shrink a desktop
computer to the size of my thumb nail and it will cost $100.  Delivery date:
5 years from now.  Everyone nods and *appreciates* what his objective is.

A CS major comes to work with biologists (of almost any stripe) and meets
overt, purposeful phobic distain.  That attitude slows down *only* when a
particular biologist *needs* the CS major to ramp his data up into a
spectacular piece of analysis that can only be done by someone who has spent
5 to 10 years learning computers systems, databases, networks, etc.
You know: you can put a bandage on your scratch, but it takes a surgeon
to repair a ruptured spleen....otherwise you don't trust MDs in general.

Makes no difference whether a person with "the knack" started in CS and
learned Biology or started in Biology and learned CS along the way.  But
I have observed that sharp CS majors immediately scoff at anyone who thinks
that there skills are of a "secondary" value and they head right out to AT&T
where they will be *welcomed* and *appreciated*.

The question is: will "biology" pay the computerist a peer-level salary?
Yes? Then "biology" has matured to the level of realizing the necessity
of the interdiciplinary partnership.  No?  Well, it might be quite true
that the computerists have not yet been sufficiently productive in the
relationship to merit that salary/rank/tenure recognition.  Or it might
be old fashioned stubbornness or a remnant of the mindset generally
associated with neo-colonialists.

Have a nice day!  :^)

~~~Steve    a biological computerist 
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