Friday, October 06, 2006

The Top 5 Issues Facing IT Today

Working in IT seems to be a constant game of "two steps forward, one step back." And that's on the good days. On other days it's most definitely one step forward, two steps back, get tripped over by the person you didn't see sneaking up behind you and have your face stepped on while lying on the ground.

Thinking about the problems faced by the IT industry, they fall into two categories that I'll call micro-threats and macro-threats. Micro-threats are the problems faced by individual workers within the workplace. This might not seem like an issue for the industry overall, but if individual workplace are held back by dysfunctional practices then ultimately the industry as a whole suffers. Macro-threats are the big issues that, if not quite industry-wide, have the effect of stifling or even crippling whole sectors. While it often seems impossible to do anything about these big issues on an individual level, if they aren't recognised and addressed, we all suffer.

So here are my top five:

1. The Stifling of Innovation - IT almost by definition is about innovation; the only constant in this industry is change. The industry is worth more than US$2.5 Trillion annually worldwide and yet faces constant attempts to thwart its continued success.

Whether it's the lies of the entertainment industry, cynical people building business strategies around patents rather than actual innovation (or even work), Microsoft (and others) spreading Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt about their competitors or Apple (and others) pursuing increasingly spurious lawsuits to "protect" their businesses, it has the same effect. Comparatively tiny vested interests are threatening the continued growth and prosperity of the vast majority. Until we stop seeing this bullshit as "good business" and recognise it for what it is - a shakedown - everyone's future is at risk.

2. The obsession with technologies and methodologies over results - the fundamental disconnect between a technologist and a business person often comes down to focus. We geeks love our gadgets. A Southern Baptist preacher aint got nothin' on a hardcore geek evangelising about his favourite technology. Here's a hard fact for many IT people: the right technology is the one that gets the job done. The average business person has no interest in the programming language, operating system, hardware or methodology that you believe is the one true path to the promised land.

That's if you're lucky - in my experience, there's nothing worse than a business person who has arbitrarily decided that one technology is better than another. If you're convinced that your favoured technology and methodology is the best, prove it with results, not rhetoric. Religious arguments are bad enough when they're about religion; elevating technology to the level of religion is counter-productive and downright scary.

3. Arrogance - Here's a tip: if you're trying to explain technology to someone and they don't seem to understand, treating them like they're stupid isn't going to help anyone, you least of all. It doesn't matter if they really are stupid, the IT industry's reputation for arrogance has been earned by the frequent misapplication of grossly unjustified arrogance from many IT practitioners. And if you think arrogance makes you "strong", just stay the hell away from me you sociopathic jerk. Besides making average(non-arrogant) geeks' life a misery, quite a few major companies have been destroyed due in no small part to arrogance.

Napster probably should have been a huge commercial success, it could have opened the door for huge new revenue streams for record companies and artists. But Shawn Fanning's extraordinary arrogance turned him into his greatest potential customers' mortal enemy. It's true that the record companies seem to be controlled by greedy old white guys who run their business like the mafia. They might have gone after Napster if Fanning had been as sweet as pie but his attitude in the early days pretty much sealed his fate. By the time he had been sufficiently coached to act like a grownup it was too late.

4. Hype over Substance - There's no getting around it, IT is exciting. The rate of change and the explosion in computing power have opened so many possibilities it's dizzying. Sometimes literally. It seems that "irrational exuberance" is an occupational hazard in IT. Sure, it's a great way to get media attention and investment capital but it seriously hurts your credibility if you can't deliver on the hyperbole.

Have you ever noticed that overhyped "world-changing" technologies almost always fail utterly? (the Segway springs to mind). And the truly life-changing things seem to sneak up on us. In retrospect we can see how great they are but they weren't heralded by trumpets from the heavens. The iPod was unveiled as a great product but I don't recall outlandish claims about how Apple would sell millions, create an entire new market and essentially rejuvenate the entire company with a bloody portable music player. If Jobs had introduced the iPod by predicting the sales figures Apple have actually achieved in the years since, he would have been a public laughing stock.

5. Constantly focusing on "the now". While IT development is arguably about creating the future, I'm always astonished at how many colossal screw-ups are perpetrated by thinking only about the current moment in time. The Y2K issue was created by programmers deliberately introducing an appalling limitation into systems essentially because it wasn't a problem for them - someone would fix it in the future. Arguably, this turned out to be true but this issue is a perfect illustration of how short sighted thinking in IT has long term consequences.

This can also be seen in how people tend to discuss the current stars in the IT environment at any given time. The number of discussions running rampant at the moment about the disproportionate power of Digg are utterly ridiculous. Digg came out of literally nothing a very short time ago. The very fact they exist and have achieved prominence so quickly is evidence that Digg is likely to be irrelevant long term. There is every possibility that a different, better service will eclipse Digg in the future. But far too often, analysis of these topic seem to be based on the idea that the status quo of today will never shift. Because Digg (or YouTube or MySpace or even Google) is so dominant today, they will always be dominant and it's pointless to even try to compete with them. This simply isn't true but you hear it again and again.

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For each of the above examples it would be easy to cite examples of companies and individual who have triumphed over these threats (and hopefully people will provide some in the comments). The fact that these threats can be successfully fought doesn't invalidate this article, that's the whole point of the article. Knowing what issues you face is the first step in dealing with them (that's the analyst in me talking). Ignoring threats or worse still, being totally ignorant of the threats you face is playing Russian Roulette. And sooner or later you're going to spin up the wrong chamber.

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