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23 February 2010

Working in the movies

By Andrew Clifford

Although very different, the IT industry can learn lessons from the movie industry.

When I was a student, a common type of exam question started "Compare and contrast ...", and would then continue with a couple of items to test your knowledge, like "... the feeding strategies of coral and carnivorous plants".

In a throwback to my student days, I though I would do the same. Today's exam question is "Compare and contrast the IT industry and the movie industry."

In many ways the two industries are very different. The movie industry focusses on the production of unique, consumer-oriented products (movies). The IT industry focusses on the production of more standardised, often business-oriented products (IT systems). Video games are an exception, and indeed are often linked to the production of movies.

Each movie is a one-off, independent entity. Even where a sequel or a series is produced, each movie is a separate artistic and commercial endeavour.

IT systems are rarely one-off, or independent. Computer software is integrated with other software, and software is periodically replaced with new versions. If this were to happen in the movie industry, you would be sent an update to each movie every quarter in which there was an even happier ending.

Despite these differences, the IT industry can learn from the movie industry.

Responsibility for the creation of a movie is split into two. The director is responsible for the artistic content. The producer is responsible for management. The producer and director each pursue their own role, and although there will be conflicts, each role can be represented effectively.

IT rarely defines roles so well. Often IT project managers act as both a technical and management lead. Some project managers achieve this admirably, but most project managers favour one or other role, and in many cases neither is done well.

Movies are well-defined entities. Although IT systems are very different from movies, they would also benefit from the a higher degree of definition and separation, to make management of them simpler.

IT projects and movie projects can both have very large budgets, or very small budgets. The return on investment can vary hugely from one project to another. Sometimes low-budget productions give astronomical returns. In each industry, a small number of successes finance a large number of failures. This is not well understood in IT, and is a constant source of frustration.

Lastly, the success of movies is heavily dependent on celebrity. A famous actor can almost guarantee the success of a movie. Newcomers are attracted to this glamour. IT has fewer stars, and is less willing to admit that some individuals make a disproportionate contribution to the success of IT.

Although very different, the IT industry can learn lessons from the movie industry. IT projects can benefit from a more defined split between technical and management responsibility, with neither overriding the other. IT systems can benefit from a more careful definition and separation, to make their management easier. IT can learn about financial return from the movie industry, rather than glibly assuming that all IT spend is worthwhile. Lastly, IT could recognise that some people make a disproportionate contribution, and use success and celebrity to attract and develop talent.

Next: Five years on: The IT Industry


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