*“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
- Albert Einstein*
If somebody were to ask a group of Information Technologists (IT) to build a house, they would start with the second-floor bathroom, regardless of the fact that there is no first floor.
Those of us in the technology industry have developed the curious ability to find something interesting in a project and to only focus it, without necessarily considering the context of everything else that is needed for complete success.
Imagine a world where people moved into houses still under construction, at least half of which were left incomplete, and when one actually was finished, it would be torn apart.
That is IT.
Rapid Technology Innovation
What sets the technology industry apart from all others is the high rate of change. What is new today is old hat in only a matter of years. This is true with not just consumer devices, but the very expensive systems that drive all technology. Multi-million dollar investments are made each year, with an expected lifespan of three or so years. Imagine if the general world did the same with a house, expecting to get the full value within three years, after which it was torn to the ground and replaced?
I know of no other industry where a major investment is discarded and replaced so quickly. We tolerate this because the needs being met by the newer technology are so valuable that they become critical to our plans, sometimes before they are even implemented. The technology that manages to make it into common use, however fractional, is often already obsolete, sometimes at just the point when we finally understand how to use it best. With such short life cycles, this dilemma has become perpetual. Should we discard a partial investment and go to something new, or continue to hack away at something we know is already halfway into its grave?
A great example of this is containers and server automation. The industry just came to grips with how to easily automate the management of technology systems—or to use a car analogy: a robotic repair shop, making it easier and cheaper to do maintenance and updates on servers which are costly to buy and stand up. But just as this technology is coming into its own, along comes containers. These are encapsulated vehicles that can be easily created with little effort, and since they are so easy to create, there is no reason to maintain them—simply discard them when finished. Suddenly the investment in server automation seems wasted. People who spent years learning the inner workings of these automation frameworks (Puppet, Salt, Ansible, Chef, etc) are now trying to figure out how to leverage them in containers—when the simple answer is don't! The world has changed, at just the point when it seemed to stabilize.
This rate of change creates an atmosphere of severe anxiety for anyone willing to admit it: How is it possible to understand the new technology, when it grows in complexity with every iteration, and each new release means everything we used to know is rendered useless? Because of this, it has become acceptable to ignore the big picture in order to cope with the immediate challenge. We just pick smaller pieces that make sense to us, and we focus on those fractions, while telling ourselves we are helping our customer.
The customer needs a second floor bathroom, right?
This environment of rapid technology change has fostered the attitude that partial success is okay. New projects frequently spin up in competition with each other, only to be shut down and discarded before completion.
Simply put, the complexity of the industry multiplies so fast that we fear we cannot come to understand everything, so we focus on the parts we know or can understand to keep sane—but this makes it difficult for us to design a truly strategic solution to meet our customer's needs.
The rapid rate of change in technology creates an almost-impossible task and the innate fear that we each have around what we know and understand becomes a subtext to our entire approach.
Fear comes from so much more than the rate of change in technology. As a species, we are driven by our fears. Feelings deeper than thoughts motivate most of our actions, such as: am I able to provide for my family? Can I pay rent this month? How can I protect my children? Am I appreciated? What if I screw up? Did I hurt his feelings? We fear that what little knowledge we do hold is suddenly obsolete, meaning we are no longer valuable to our organization.
These fears bind us, and drive every bit of our behavior.
We cope with it by either focusing on specific technology disciplines (silos of knowledge), or by giving up and joining management, where we can defer the fear to process and other people. All the while, we fear becoming obsolete.
This fear is intensely important in understanding the ‘what’ and ‘why’ behind how IT is different from most other industries.
Within IT, fear has quietly and insidiously woven its way throughout the very fabric of how we do business. Success is no longer delivering a finished product across the finish line—instead our the rules are twisted and it is about how many parts of the product we can finish before the technology is obsolete, the project is cancelled, or our funding is cut. Our very goals are now driven by failure, rather than success.