Give thanks to the programmers, I say!

Does that sound arrogant, coming from someone who earns much of his living as a lighting programmer, the breed that takes a lighting designer's vision and translates it into the practicalities of how a lighting console talks to a bunch of lights, or moving lights, or video projectors, or whatever? Or maybe we're “board operators with air miles,” as one student recently described programmers.

Maybe. I'm not giving thanks to myself but to the people so many of the self-styled “programmers” forget: the real programmers — the people behind the software, the people who actually make the tools we use to make our living. Without them, we are nothing.

We borrow their job title, but we don't necessarily fill it. We are like the office worker constructing a fabulously complex spreadsheet in Excel. It can be brilliantly done, beautifully constructed, a work of art in its own right, but it is built using a tool, and someone, or some team of people, had to create that tool in the first place.

These are the forgotten people in the lighting industry. When did you last even consider the programmers behind your lighting console of choice, especially in the 99.99% of the time the console performed flawlessly, however hard you hammered it? Were they thanked when a cunning new software feature let you create a chase in ten seconds that, a year ago, would have taken ten minutes to accomplish? Or only in that rare moment when something odd happened, when the cue mysteriously vanished or the playback ate itself?

Woe to you if it was the latter, because that's not fair. Compared to those working in other fields, the software engineers in our industry work to satisfy demanding requirements on relatively tiny budgets. How many programs do you have on your computer that pause, then think, then do what you asked them to do? How would you feel if your lighting console did the same thing when you pressed “go”? How often do you pay good money for the latest version of SuperVectorWordCad? How often do you download, for free, the latest console software with its exciting new features?

We are privileged that, at the moment, these upgrades generally cost us nothing (though how long that can or will or, dare I say it, should last, who knows?). We are fortunate that, even though those writing the code don't always know about entertainment lighting, they are at least led by people who do. These people know what we are trying to do with their tools and don't balk when we eventually break something but listen to our fuzzy report of how the problem occurred, then fix things so it won't happen again.

This year, at last, the people behind the products are gaining at least a little recognition in two ways. Some are featured in a new book by Robert Bell, the man behind WYSIWYG, and one of the few to span this divide. Let There Be Light: Entertainment Software Pioneers In Conversation reveals the thoughts of some of the names behind the products. Others have become known through online lighting bulletin boards, with one particularly high-profile group recently martyring themselves by leaving behind the product that they have labored so long over, the Whole Hog® III.

Both cases raise an interesting question: given that the products we use are created by relatively tiny teams of people, with the programmers often serving as or alongside product managers, how inseparable are products and their creators? When those who created the “DNA” of a product are no longer there to tend it, does the product remain unique enough to maintain its following of loyal fans who've accepted its methodology, or does it become just another lighting console driven by multiple demands from multiple users until limited by budget? Or does it stop responding altogether and become outdated? Do the end users still trust the product? After all, when we are surrounded by an audience waiting to start the show, trust is everything.

The software people have an interesting role. They must create and support a product that serves our strange, unpredictable, fussy needs. To do that, they must listen to our wants, take note of our demands, filter that input, figure out what it is that we actually need, and reconcile hundreds of contradictory ideas. Then, if they're really clever, they implement those ideas in a way that fits in with the spirit and feel of the console, doesn't interfere with the 90% of users who only use 10% of the facilities offered, gives those of us who do use more than 10% more than we actually asked for, all while not breaking anything! Tough gig!!

So, from me to you, thanks. I couldn't do my job without you — without the ones who make the products I use and without the ones who make the rival products that help drive the market forward. And yes, I am sucking up a little. Remember, my ideas are the good ones — the ones you need to implement!

I'm looking forward to seeing them in the next version.

Rob Halliday spends most of his time programming the lighting for shows (including Les Miserables, Anything Goes, Oklahoma! and the forthcoming Mary Poppins), some of his time lighting shows (The Fix, Maggie May), and what's left writing about shows. He can be reached at rob@halliday.demon.co.uk.