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16 August 2011

Hitting things with bricks

By Andrew Clifford

Our IT is not as sophisticated as we think it is.

It might date me somewhat, but when I first got married, we drove a very old Hillman Imp.

Hillman Imp

Is your IT as modern as this car?

The Hillman Imp was fantastically unsophisticated by today's standards. No electronic engine management - it was all manual choke and distributor caps. No power steering. No air conditioning. It was horribly rusty and unreliable. But I have many fond memories of it.

One of my favourite memories was one of the many times it would not start in the morning. I phoned the breakdown service, and a man arrived shortly afterwards in his van. He jumped out, not even bothering to switch off his own engine. He picked half a brick up off the driveway, opened the back of our car (which is where the engine is), and hit the starter motor with the brick. This fixed the problem, and the repair man jumped back into his van and drove off. The whole repair took about 90 seconds. It was such a simple car, he could see what was wrong immediately, and needed nothing more than a well-aimed brick to fix it.

Of course, cars are very different now. I have been driving the same Nissan for ten years, which never gives me problems and does not have a spot of rust. Although in comparison to the old Imp, my Nissan is soul-less and boring, it is in a totally different league in terms of reliability.

I don't think my experiences are unusual. Over the past 25 years cars have somehow "grown up", and become an order of magnitude more reliable.

It would be wrong, though, to think of the Hillman Imp as an early car. The first cars were produced almost 90 years before our Imp was made. In its time, the Hillman Imp was a very innovative car, with many features not found in other vehicles of its class.

It would be wrong to think that there has been an increasing amount of innovation in the last quarter century. Although in absolute terms there are more incremental innovations, in relative terms the rate of automotive innovation in the early twentieth century was staggering.

It would be wrong to think that automobile innovation has stopped. There is still a huge amount of development, even towards self-driving cars.

What has this to do with IT?

Sometimes we are beguiled by the improvements we see in IT, and the rate of change, and the promise of the future, and forget that IT is still a young industry.

Although we can not draw direct parallels with the automobile industry, it provides a useful reminder that what we might think of as modern is still very unsophisticated. Most people's experience of any type of IT, whether it is PCs, or enterprise systems, or consumer gadgets, is that it is temperamental, and unreliable, and lasts only a few years before it becomes outdated and unusable. And when there are problems, our response is often to fix it with the IT equivalent of hitting it with half a brick, rather than solving the underlying problem. Somehow, IT has to grow up.

Next: Projects are immature

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