There’s a Fly in the Milk (and a Bug in the Software)

Where “software bugs” got their name — the dead moth stuck in a relay in Harvard’s Mark II in 1947. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Software_bug

As one does, I spent a good part of this weekend reading the Annual Report of the Michigan Dairymen’s Association. It provides an interesting glimpse into the processes that have to be managed to source raw materials from suppliers, to produce milk and cream and butter, and to cultivate an engaged and productive workforce.

You might be yelling at your screen right now. DairyMEN’s? Aren’t we beyond that now? What’s wrong with them? The answer is: nothing. This is an annual report from 1915. Your next question is probably what could the dairymen be doing in 1915 that would possibly be interesting for production and operations managers in 2019?  The answer here, surprisingly, is a lot. Except for the overly formal and old-timey word choices, the challenges and concerns encountered in the dairy industry are remarkably consistent over time.

It turns out that flies were a particular concern in 1915 — and they remain a huge threat to quality and safety in food and beverage production today:

  • “…an endless war should be waged against the fly.”
  • “[avoid] the undue exposure of the milk cooler to dust and flies.”
  • “The same cows that freshen in July and August will give more milk in December it seems to me… because at that time of year the dairyman has flies to contend with…”
  • “Flies are known to be great carriers of bacteria, and coming from these feeding places to the creamery may carry thousands of undesirable bacteria direct to the milk-cans or vats.”

In a December 2018 column in Food Safety Tech, Chelle Hartzer describes not one but three (!!!) different types of flies that can wreak havoc in a food production facility. There are house flies that deposit pathogens and contaminants on every surface they land, moth flies that grow in the film inside drains until they start flying too, and fruit flies that can directly contaminate food. All flies need food, making your food or beverage processing facility a potential utopia for them.

In the controls she presented to manage fly-related hazards, I noticed parallels to controls for preventing and catching bugs in software:

  • Make sanitation a priority. Clean up messes, take out the trash on a daily basis, and clean the insides of trash bins. In software development, don’t leave your messes to other people — or your future self!  Bake time into your development schedule to refactor on a regular basis. And remember to maintain your test tools! If you’re doing test-driven development with old tools, even your trash bins may be harboring additional risks.
  • Swap outdoor lighting. In food production facilities, it’s important to use lighting that doesn’t bring the flies to you (particularly at night). Similarly, in software, examine your environment to make sure there are no “bug attractors” like lack of communication or effective version control, dependencies on buggy packages or third party tools, or lack of structured and systematic development processes.
  • Install automatic doors to limit the amount of time and space available for flies to get in to the facility. In software, this relates to limiting the complexity of your code and strategically implementing testing, e.g. test-driven development or an emphasis on hardening the most critical and/or frequently used parts of your system.
  • Inspect loading and unloading areas and seal cracks and crevices. Keep tight seals around critical areas. The “tight seals” in software development are the structured, systematic processes related to verifying and validating your code. This includes design reviews, pair programming, sign-offs, integration and regression testing, and user acceptable testing.
  • Clean drains on a regular basis. The message here is that flies can start their lives in any location that’s suitable for their growth, and you should look for those places and keep them sanitized too. In software, this suggests an ongoing examination of technical debt. Where are the drains that could harbor new issues? Find them, monitor them, and manage them.

Although clearly there’s a huge difference between pest management in food and beverage production and managing code quality, process-related pests have been an issue for at least a century — and likely throughout history. What are the flies in your industry, and what are you doing to make sure they don’t contaminate your systems and bring you down?

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