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16 February 2010

An unprofessional experiment

By Andrew Clifford

In our enthusiasm for our own profession, we make IT complicated and reduce value to IT users and owners.

Like all professionals, we are interested in and believe in what we do. And like all people, we are a bit selfish. We like to keep the best for ourselves.

You can see this in the IT that we ourselves use – the operating systems, development tools, methodologies, and operations tools that are aimed at IT professionals. These are much more fully featured and elegant than many of the end-user systems that are the ultimate goal of IT.

In fact, an awful lot of IT's efforts are aimed at IT itself. We are constantly reworking our design methods to make them more intellectually satisfying and elegant. We value abstraction and reuse, which allows us to consider problems in the general case and reapply solutions multiple times. We are forever creating new frameworks, components and toolsets. We, the suppliers of IT, are very well served by IT.

I am a particularly bad offender. I have built my career on the technologies, tools and methods internal to IT. The main product I sell, a generic tool for evaluating IT management, is aimed at IT and not direct business use.

To an extent this introversion of IT does trickle down into better systems for end users. But there is a darker side. All too often, we get carried away with the IT, building ever more elegant but convoluted solutions. We spend more time understanding technologies and tools, and navigating the complex interdependencies of a modern environment, than we spend on understanding and fixing real business problems.

As an example, I have recently been working with Microsoft integration and database tools. Used properly I am sure these are wonderfully elegant and productive, but we spent ten times longer configuring and debugging the environment than we ever spent on solving real business problems.

As well as overemphasising elegance, we constantly undervalue the boring parts of the solution that can help us manage efficiently in the long term, such as good documentation and regression test plans.

So, I am going to do an experiment. I am going to run a little project and try to shift my efforts from elegance, tooling and development efficiency to useful functionality and manageability. I want to:

  • Develop a simple web-based application.
  • Use only simple programming, with no additional tools or frameworks.
  • Manage external dependencies well, so that the system can be run or developed without any complication.
  • Provide complete documentation: user documentation, developer documentation, operations documentation and legal documentation such as licensing.
  • Complete regression testing, without complicated tools or frameworks.

I want to see what a system would be like if we focus solely on what is of real value to the user and owner (functionality and manageability), rather than what appeals to me as an IT professional (technological elegance).

I do not know if I will succeed. I may be diverted by the IT stuff, such as making simple programming elegant, or minimising dependencies, or self-testing systems. But I am keen to see if, by being less of a professional, I can focus more on what I should really be doing.

Next: Working in the movies


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