In Praise of Stasis(IV): If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try Again. Then Give Up. No Use Being A Damn Fool About It.(*)

I feel the need to précis the last three semi-connected diatribes before embarking on the fourth and closing chapter of the trilogy. You, dear reader, due to a series of horrendous administrative cock-ups, have been headhunted into MegaGroup Financial Incorporated as their new hotshot CIO and have embarked upon a technology refresh of Herculean scale and ambition. It began with sunlight, trumpet fanfares and high hopes but rapidly decayed into anguish and chaos, and the resulting mess has been savagely amplified by staggeringly poor, wasteful and corrupt purchasing decisions. Now it is clear to all that the whole shebang is in its Death Spiral and needs to be put down. But how does your generic Doomed Massive IT Transformation Programme finally expire and die ? After the Imagineering Workshops, the extensive catering, the bribery, the dodgy deals, the crises, the denunciations and the purges, when it’s patently obvious even to the thickest most on-message arse-licking yes-man that the farrago is fatally boloxed, how in hell do you actually put the ruddy thing out of its misery ? This is trickier than it sounds. In a perfect world, you’d just concede that it was all nonsense and can it toute suite. Like this:

 The Royal Society for Putting Things On Top Of Other Things. More beneficial to humanity than 90% of technology renewal initiatives.

But we don’t live in a perfect world. Nobody, and especially nobody who considers himself to be In Charge, is ever prepared to say they were wrong or face up to the fact that for the last few years they have been wasting their own time, that of scores of their staff, and tens of millions of pounds to boot. No-one in a Senior Management Position can, you see, ever be seen to Lose Face. Therefore you cannot simply come clean and own up that it was a bleeding stupid idea in the first place sorry chaps let’s pack it in I’ll get me coat. You can’t say the planning was appalling as it was you who forced everyone to agree to the road map in all its deranged gung-ho rose-tinted optimistic glory. You can’t claim poor management was to blame as the dopes in charge were you and all your hand-picked placemen. It would be convenient to hold the third party suppliers responsible, but again they were your choices, heavily promoted by you and your stooges as best-of-breed blue-chip enterprise-ready operators with a world-beating product that was used and endorsed by the Fortune 500, the FTSE 100, the G8 and the Temperance Seven(**). And anyway, they greased your palms so heavily in order to get the gig that it would be ungrateful, churlish, criminally risky and financially foolish to drop them in it. A year or so down the road with another employer, once your next foredoomed IT Deathmarch is up and running, you might very well want to arrange another bit of mutually beneficial graft with them.

St Jeffrey of Grantchester, the Patron Saint of Privileged Shamelessness. At and beyond a certain level of seniority, whatever happens one must never say sorry, never concede defeat, never admit as much as the tiniest transgression. Deny, deny, fib and deny.

St Jeffrey of Grantchester, the Patron Saint of Privileged Shamelessness. At and beyond a certain level of seniority, whatever happens one must never say sorry, never concede defeat, never admit as much as the tiniest transgression. Deny, deny, fib and deny.

You can’t in any seriousness argue that the programme could succeed given another few months. It’s already taken twice as long as you said it would at inception in order to achieve virtually nothing and spent four times the original budget in the process. Major continent-spanning wars have been fought and won in less time. There is no easy way to halt the juggernaut and no story that can be spun around its stopping that does not leave you completely discredited in the eyes of your staff, your peers, your boss and the shareholders. Conversely, given the massive shambles your benighted programme has become, your reputation is ruined regardless. You are self-evidently a moron and a bully and either hopelessly naïve or a crook. The latter call of course hinging on whether folk believe the vicious rumours about the hospitality you received from the vendors and exactly how you managed to pay for that delightful villa a few kilometres up the coast from Malaga.  

Lovely, and perfectly situated. Near enough to civilisation for easy access from the airport, far enough away to put a good distance between you and the rabble. A little quieter and classier than the rest of the Costa, without being showy. But you did dispose of that fat mortgage strikingly quickly.

Lovely, and perfectly situated. Near enough to civilisation for easy access from the airport, far enough away to put a good distance between you and the rabble. A little quieter and classier than the rest of the Costa, without being showy. But you did dispose of that fat mortgage strikingly quickly.

To completely hammer the point into, through, and out the other side, the dilemma you face is that if you do stop, you are tacitly acknowledging that your entire career has been a sham(***) and that you are in truth a charlatan and a complete failure by any benchmark in all departments be it judgement, vision, leadership or administration. However, if you don’t stop, all of the above is still equally and abundantly obvious with the addition that you clearly haven’t wit enough to know when to give up and go home. What to do ? For you, it is an insoluble problem. Happily though, it isn’t a problem that you have yourself to solve. In the case of maritime disasters, women and children are saved first and the captain goes down with the ship. In techno-catastrophes the timing and ethics are a little different. Once it is abundantly clear that the IT vessel is holed below the waterline, listing to port and shipping water faster than the bilge pumps can get rid of it (****), the very next act is to have the commander thrown overboard. Would that this were to a watery grave in the North Atlantic but, happily for you once more, the honourable traditions of seafaring folk do not apply to the murkier and dodgier backwaters of business computing. The board will not want a fuss, they’ll be desperate to avoid creating an opening for legal action, they’ll be keen to choke off as much bad publicity as they can and they will positively definitely want you out the door quick smart. The vehicle for achieving all of this is the Very Generous Executive Level Compromise Agreement. Kerching, kerching and thrice kerching. Your pension pot will be topped up until it overflows. Your tax-free ex gratia severance payment will be calculated from your already lavish monthly salary using such a huge multiplier than even senior officials in the French Civil Service would find it over-generous. Layer after layer of extra dosh will be lumped on top in lieu of notice, in lieu of lost benefits, in lieu of holidays and in lieu of a bonus that was supposed to be conditional on you having achieved what you said you were going to achieve in the first place and certainly not payable in the event of you slinking out the back door in ignominy and disgrace. A final very juicy and lucrative cherry will be placed on top of your ice cream sundae of money in order to buy both your silence and your compliance. The last thing that anyone wants is leaks to the trade press or claims for constructive dismissal. Documents of great length and windiness will be drawn up to ensure this, with lawyers and HR finding no fault on either side but eager to ensure that a smooth transition from inside to outwith the organisation can be effected in order that you may freely proceed to pursue success elsewhere. The short version of all this legalistic verbiage is that they are paying you a shit load of money to keep your trap shut and fuck off quickly.

Early termination of a large-scale delivery programme in the maritime petro-chemicals space. It would be overstating the case a shade to say that all benefits were realised or that there was little requirement for post-cessation mopping up activity. But sometimes, the relief that it is all over for good is enough.

Early termination of a large-scale delivery programme in the maritime petro-chemicals space. It would be overstating the case a shade to say that all benefits were realised or that there was little requirement for post-cessation mopping up activity. But sometimes, the relief that it is all over for good is enough.

Once you’ve been offed, anyone left standing can breathe a deep sigh of relief. Well maybe a modest murmur rather than a full-throated primal groan of catharsis, as after any sustained bout of intense transformational mayhem there will be a lengthy period of recovery and rehabilitation as everyone feels their way back to sanity and common sense. For starters, you can’t stop the oil tanker on a sixpence and, to make life yet more difficult for your successors, a whole heap of bad wrongness was locked in way back at the beginning.

One of the basic axioms of a mega-bucks IT Transformation Solid-Gold Shambles is that all the decisions and all the contracts and all the buying have to be done right at the start. No-one knows why this is so. You may as well argue the value of the fine-structure constant(*****); it just has to be that way. Something to do with baselining the budget. Or maybe to ensure that the programme mandate is fully evidenced, or that future earned value expectations can be fully projected. Vaguely along those lines, anyway. Another key tenet of the Classical IT Jumbo Modernisation Farce is that you have to buy everything from a very small number of enormous vendors. Ideally just one. Again, this is non-negotiable and the reasons for it are both self-evident and lost in the mists of time. Standardisation, obviously. You buy all the stuff from the same place, it’ll integrate nicely. Like Apple and all them iThings. Stands to reason(******). Simplifying your supplier relations is key, too, as I remember. You apparently only want to have one neck to wring and one set of balls on the line, or some such gutsy macho gubbins in that general vicinity. Thirdly, as has been expounded upon before, BIG = GOOD = QUALITY. You want the Latest and Greatest, you gotta deal with the Big Battalions and be prepared to pay Best Brass. You can’t get caviar from a kebab van, and you don’t buy a Bentley from a back street chop shop.

Terry Leather. Diamond geezer, great deals, but you might want to check the paperwork if he sells you a top end swanky motor.

Terry Leather. Diamond geezer, great deals, but you might want to check the paperwork if he sells you a top end swanky motor.

Taken together, this means that from the outset you were hitched up to expensive contracts based on precious little consideration with a small handful of the largest, slipperiest, greediest and most ruthless technology vendors in the world. The canny approach is to gather up all the unused useless overpriced junk you bought from those slick, charming, handsome IT salesmen all those years ago, shove it in a cupboard in a damp basement somewhere, lock the doors, and never speak of any of it ever again. The accountants can write off the investment with a couple of tidy Misc. – Other – Incidental Umbrella Repairs Etc journal entries, and it can then be slowly forgotten.

The less canny approach is to think, dash it, we paid out a ton of wonga for this stuff, we did all those months of analysis and user profiling and workshopping and capability mapping, surely there has to be some value we can salvage from the wreckage. The Document Management System, for example. It’s world-leading. Best in class. It was on the cover of Enterprise IT Digest twice. C’mon. There’s gotta be something we can retrieve from this calamity. Hasn’t there ?

No, there isn’t. There really isn’t. Value is one thing, but the price of a commodity is simply the amount that people are prepared to pay for it. If those people were idiots, and the spivs that sold them those brightly coloured glass beads for hundreds of thousands of pounds were Olympic-standard conmen, then what remains is still no more than a bag of marbles. Failure to tumble to this harsh reality can only lead to a Son of Shambles. It should be over a lot quicker than its parent, conceived as it has been amidst collapse, despair and recrimination rather than brainless optimism. Once bitten by this point, and weary of Grand Projects with Sky High Ambitions, a lot of players will be looking for any excuse to wield the machete and despatch the bugger early doors. However, in cases of extreme commercial imbecility, there can be multiple re-generations up to and beyond Great Grandson of Shambles. A corporate fool and his money are soon parted, and to be fair this sort of twittery does keep a lot of us in work, though parenthetically Depressed Beyond Tablets at the trackless wastes of human folly.

But eventually the oil tanker will stop, or ground itself, or sink, and life will return to normal. The Enterprise Architecture Scrum will be given their cards, the various Centres of Excellence will be wound up, the Project Management Office will be scaled back to just one bloke from six and limited to three wretched overblown multi-coloured spreadsheets rather than twelve. The Programme Command and Control Suite will become once more a humble meeting room, and its plush leather swivel chairs with built in iPad docks will be shanghaied for his office by whichever of the Execs is quickest off the mark. The inspirational posters, logo-bestrewn stationery, pop-up exhibition stands and video kiosks through which the Transformational Gospel has been so heavily evangelised will be junked or swiped according to desirability. The 6ft by 10ft by 8ft Tactile Interactive Programme Blueprint™ which has been filling Reception for the last two years to the utter bemusement of both visitors and staff will similarly disappear skipwards over a weekend.

The terminal, and in many cases sole, output of your common or garden technology refresh programme: a rusty skip full of discarded office equipment, stationery and propaganda.

The terminal, and in many cases sole, output of your common or garden technology refresh programme: a rusty skip full of discarded office equipment, stationery and propaganda.

Meanwhile, the hated legacy systems that were supposed to be euthanased ages ago will continue to lumber onwards in their unlovely but functional way. They will fall over frequently, and be kicked back into life with patches made of tin foil, bell-wire and bits of cut’n’paste hackery so violently heinous that the engineers responsible have to take travel sickness pills in order to suppress their gag reflex. But useful work will at least be done and some approximation to calm, order and sweet reason will prevail. In fact, life will return to pretty much as it was before the whole heroic expedition toward Digital Eldorado set sail, foundered and finally came to rest at the bottom of a 75 million quid hole in the company’s cash reserves. The one tangible difference will be a few dozen extra racks of kit in the Data Centre. Nobody can quite remember what they were meant to do, if they actually ever started doing it, or, if in the unlikely event that they are doing it, if anybody would really care very much if they stopped. Unfortunately the uncertainty is just sufficient that no one has quite enough nerve to pull the plug on them. So there they will sit for the next decade or two, drawing power and blinking the odd LED in an impotent and even slightly pitiable manner.

And what of you, the formerly visionary CIO ? Well a pleasingly large chunk of that 75 million quid made its way into your bank account from your employer’s, via diverse means both legitimate and otherwise. A sliver of that wedge has paid for the string of piña coladas you’ve been sipping on the sun terrace of the Andalusian villa, which itself consumed a rather larger slice of your ill-gotten gains. Pleasant as it all is, there are only so many plates of tapas one can eat, rounds of golf one can play, big-game sea fishing trips one can take, before a life of ex-pat luxury starts to pall. But very probably after six months or so the phone will ring. City-based executive headhunter. Looking for a heavy hitter to front up a Game-Changing Technology Revivification. Top Dollar for you, eight figure budget for the programme. It’s out with Old and in with the Newest and Biggest and Best – you’ll be replacing an Austin Allegro with a Bentley Continental. Only the very finest will be good enough. You’ve got the track record, you’re a face with form and you’re the perfect fit for values and culture.

Kerching, once more. It’s time to get the old band back together. Fire up the laptop, fish out the old powerpoints, whip out the mobile, pump your contacts. Fill yer boots, it’s Jobs for the Boys again, from your old arse-kissing senior lieutenants right down the line to the greasy code-monkeys, footslogging testers, knuckledragging sys admins, Uncle Tom Cobbley and All. It is an entirely personal choice as to whether one weeps at the limitless repetition of pointless profligate madness, or rejoices instead at the continued and enhanced opportunities for worthless but well-compensated employment.

It does indeed all make work for the working man to do.

– – – Fin – – –

(*) Misquoting W.C. Fields. Drunk, Misanthrope and Great Man.

Hell, I never vote for anybody, I always vote against.

Hell, I never vote for anybody, I always vote against.

(**) Maybe not the Temperance Seven. But they did wield a nifty banjo.

(***) To be precise, a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham

(****) Apologies for extended, hackneyed and mixed metaphors of dubious nautical origin but I got swept away on a briny wave of oceangoing cliché.

(*****) α, the fine-structure constant, is approximately 1/137. If it was a tiny bit more or less than that, there would be no carbon in the universe, and so therefore no rice pudding, income tax, or people.

(******) It should be a fair assumption, but it isn’t. Most big IT vendors, being as they are about as amorphous, disorganised and acquisitive as the big combines they sell to, are a massive amalgam of products of varying provenance, antiquity and nastiness with little connection between them beyond the logos on the marketing literature. Assuming that they’re all going to integrate nicely sits at the same level of sunny optimism as assuming that a skip load of leftover bits sourced from a single giant scrapyard will click together as neatly as Lego to make a tidy, economical and thoroughly drivable family hatchback.

Complete interoperability from the evergreen Danish construction toy behemoth. Every brick they have produced since 1958 will fit perfectly together with any other such brick, and the possibilities are endless. Would that your world was so joyful, so colourful, so configurable, and so perfectly integrated.

Complete interoperability from the evergreen Danish construction toy behemoth. Every brick they have produced since 1958 will fit perfectly together with any other such brick, and the possibilities are endless. Would that your world was so joyful, so colourful, so configurable, and so perfectly integrated.

 

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In Praise of Stasis(III): If You Don’t Need It, Don’t Bloody Buy It

As you may have gathered from earlier communiqués (see both here and here), almost nothing within a gigantic IT Transformation Programme makes any kind of sense whatsoever. The original vision is a feverish hallucination fed by half-chewed received wisdom and second-hand sound bites. The planning is board-level machismo and ego and willy-waving, without any consideration of the actual work to be done or the poor saps who might have to do it. The execution begins in confusion, rises up through panic and climaxes in paranoid hysteria and fearful misery. All of the big decisions are made by Captain Mainwarings and Rt. Hon. Jim Hackers trying their darnedest to impersonate Churchill.

Clockwise from top: big man; medium-sized man; little man.

Clockwise from top: big man; medium-sized man; little man.

 

But in all of the foolishness, the apex of silliness is reached with the strategic software shopping spree. To be blunt, any time one business buys anything from another, there is always the strong possibility of graft, idiocy and muddle. The Great and the Good who are nominated to decide what to buy or what price it should be are not putting their hands in their own pockets after all; they are signing cheques on behalf of their employer. This can lead to snivelling penny-pinching on the one hand, reckless profligacy on the other, and frequently an odd combination of both at precisely the same time. Where that which is to be bought is competitively supplied, widely available, simple to understand, and used by all and sundry, there is a reasonable chance of a sensible decision being made. The pros and cons of the various sellers will be easy to weigh up, and probably most of them would do a reasonable job in any case. This happy logic applies to the procurement of sandwiches, electricity, toilet cleaning, swivel chairs, post-it notes and dozens of other workaday office supplies. But sadly not to the buying of colossally expensive software solutions of dubious utility. Here, Other People’s Money is being spent on Other People’s Kit which more Other People will have to cobble together and maintain before the fourth set of Other People attempt finally to get some value out of the bloody rubbish that’s been bought for them. And none of those groups of Other People, and still less the floating symposium of architects, managers, directors and random senior stakeholders who actually made the purchasing choice in the beginning, have any terribly concrete idea of what if any real need there is to be filled, whether the junk bought fills it, or if another option might have filled the same hole easier, quicker and/or cheaper. The separation of power from responsibility, of decision from knowledge, and of actions from their hideous consequences is complete and devastating.

Sandwiches, Swivel Chairs, Post-IT notes and Toilet Cleaning. Products which one company can safely buy from another without significant risk of huge financial loss and operational meltdown.

Sandwiches, Swivel Chairs, Post-IT notes and Toilet Cleaning. Products which one company can safely buy from another without significant risk of huge financial loss and operational meltdown.

 

So, Graft, Idiocy and Muddle, then. Idiocy and muddle are the essential and ubiquitous elements of an IT Shambles and we have studied them extensively already. Let us therefore look at graft. It is jingoistically tempting to believe that backhanders, bungs and baksheesh are largely unknown amongst upright upstanding play-the-game-type Britishers. Witless idiots, football hooligans, chinless wonders, snobs, Blimps, drunks, spineless drips and bureaucrats we may be, but corrupt ? No, dang it, Sir, that rot stops at Calais ! Would that it were so, but unfortunately bribery and dodgy dealing are endemic and extend even to this scepter’d isle when fat contracts are in the offing. There is so much money swilling around when Big Company A buys Big Loads of Stuff off Big Company B that scruples and morality are easily and quickly discarded. Sales reps are genetically engineered in giant vats to salivate uncontrollably as soon as the word “bonus” is mentioned and the enormous wedges on offer when a mega software play is going down are so unbearably juicy that even St. Francis of Assisi or one of those eco-organic hippies who live in wigwams in Wales would be sorely tempted. So the desire is overwhelming, there’s a very generous entertainment budget to conjure with, all customers have soft spots and the business development boys have all the latitude they need to exploit those weaknesses in order to land that lucrative big fish.

Even people who live in tents on nothing but mung beans have their price. Typically measured out in ounces of aromatic Red Leb.

Even people who live in tents on nothing but mung beans have their price. Typically measured out in ounces of aromatic Red Leb.

 

The graft starts with your garden variety schmoozing. Meals and a few snorterinos first, then maybe a round of golf, perhaps on the third date an outing to Twickers or Glyndebourne or the O2. This stuff is all plain, simple and legal, more or less. Though to be frank it has never been clear to me how the acquisition of an externally hosted CRM system necessitates a trip by the Purchasing Manager, the IT Director and the Head of Sales at the vendor’s expense to Centre Court for a quarter-final followed by supper at The River Cafe. And that’s just the hors d’oeuvre. The next course will be junket(*). Maybe a few days game shooting in Scotland, or the Rugby Sevens in Hong Kong. Business-class travel, best hotels, top nosh, quality bubbly and, ideally, located in a territory which takes a relaxed, liberal view of sex tourism. Just a bit of fun for the lads. What happens on tour stays on tour. Everyone knows the score. As toes have been dipped into inarguably murky, definitely immoral and probably illegal waters, a bond of shared complicity is formed between salesman and target. Now a line can be crossed into outright criminality. Presents will be provided. Something portable, desirable and costly. Could be a brace of the latest whizzy gadgets, could be case of single malt, could be a snazzy watch and a Mont Blanc pen, could be a pair of handmade shoes and a bit of bespoke tailoring. But what to get the man who has already been bribed with every high-gloss male accessory at least twice ? Keep it simple, classic: a plain manila envelope on the bedside table of his hotel room generously loaded with fifteen grand in used twenties, or equivalent in other freely convertible hard currency.

The Official Business Development Sliding Scale of Bribery and Corruption. We move clockwise from top left beginning with a couple of swift throatwarmers via Wimbledon and Fine Dining through The Glorious Twelfth on to Sophisticated Ladies of Easy Virtue and ultimately to plain old Filthy Lucre. Normally presented as unit three in the first semester of a sales diploma, directly after the introductory modules on Advanced Fibbing and Oily Bonhomie.

The Official Business Development Sliding Scale of Bribery and Corruption. We move clockwise from top left beginning with a couple of swift throatwarmers via Wimbledon and Fine Dining through The Glorious Twelfth on to Sophisticated Ladies of Easy Virtue and ultimately to plain old Filthy Lucre. Normally presented as unit three in the first semester of a sales diploma, directly after the introductory modules on Advanced Fibbing and Oily Bonhomie.

This would be the straight ahead, direct fire, frontal assault approach to corruption – steadily increase the bombardment of enticements until resistance crumbles. It’s well-tried and undeniably effective, but more subtle flanking approaches are possible. Say for example we are dealing with your standard issue six to seven figure RFP(**). There will be a temporary committee of medium-sized nabobs appointed to review the proposals from the rival bidders. The basic gambit would be to nobble a couple of members, but a canny operator might twig that three out of the five bigwigs work for one even-bigger-wig. Why not in that case put the squeeze on the organ-grinder and have him sort out his monkey minions for you ? This has a few nice advantages. It puts the fix in at arms length from its effect, which will come in handy if tedious people like auditors or the Fraud Squad come sniffing around. All the wisebeards reviewing the tenders are clean, none of them having got so much as a Malteser out of making the right choice. They will therefore have convincing, well-documented answers for any nasty queries posed by quizzical cynics with a muckraking agenda. Those answers will be bolstered by the intense discussions they had with their line manager about the importance of selecting the right bid. During that series of hard, subtext-laden, arm-twisting conversations, questions will have been raised about the suitability of one offering against another on the basis of scalability, reliability, domain knowledge, cultural fit or feature match, as appropriate. Simply to ensure that all bases were covered, all risks carefully mitigated and all knowledge potholes filled, so that an ill-advised, less than rigorous decision was not stumbled into. Nobody would want that. Oh no. Job’s a good ‘un.

An Exec level bung will also be cheaper and easier than three a rung or two down the corporate ladder, even if said single bung has to be a little pricier and shinier as befits the elevated station of the one so bunged. And the further up the greasy pole you crawl, the higher the needs and the lower the ethics(***). There’s school fees to be paid, there’s second homes in the Italian Lakes to be maintained, there’s the home-cinema-cum-billiard-room-extension to be built. At these heights, the Smythe-Joneses to be kept up with just damn well keep getting richer and further ahead, the swine. Finally, in the desirable, bijou, exclusive neighbourhoods occupied by Directors of This, Heads of That , Executive Whatevers and Senior Vice Presidents of The Other, folk tend to have outside interests. In fact, they usually have so many sticky fingers in so many other juicy pies that the options for indirect palm-greasing really multiply. There might be some kit which could be purchased from a company the SVP has a large interest in. Might be an actual need for it, or there might not. Maybe the seller will need to hire some temporary staff through that same company, naturally adding a decent agency fee on top. Perhaps a bit of unrelated consultancy business could be put its helpful way. Nothing too taxing. Maybe so non-taxing in fact that it doesn’t actually need doing at all. Could be there’s an idiot son, trophy wife or useless drunk brother-in-law that a kindly supplier will selflessly find a job for. The list of possibilities is limited only by the creativity of the Sales Team. You scratch my back. Nudge nudge. Say no more.

Well, you have the Victorian pile in Buckinghamshire, it’s even got an outdoor pool, but the neighbours’ is indoors, with a whirlpool. And they’ve got _two_ tennis courts behind the arboretum, the gits. Gotta get the wherewithal to level up from _somewhere_ ..

Well, you have the Victorian pile in Buckinghamshire, it’s even got an outdoor pool, but the neighbours’ is indoors, with a whirlpool. And they’ve got _two_ tennis courts behind the arboretum, the gits. Gotta get the wherewithal to level up from _somewhere_ ..

Of course, your particular outfit might be sainted, spotless, upright and honest all the way up from the tea-lady to the MD. It’s deeply unlikely but it could be so. Never mind – if corruption doesn’t get you to the wrong decision, those old IT Shambles workhorses Idiocy and Muddle will do the trick just as well. Stuff will be bought because the chap selling it has a nice tie or tells good jokes. Or maybe because someone read about it in a glossy magazine. Simply everyone is moving to a cloud-based implementation of eMaxiToss3000 including three of your closest competitors. Never underestimate the power of the herd mentality. “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM equipment”, as the old saw has it. I mean to say, if all the other guys have swapped their only cow for a handful of them Magic Beans, there’s gotta be something in ‘em. Hasn’t there ?

Jack bets the farm on cutting edge GM beanstalk futures. A no-brainer. When Opportunity Knocks, you gotta jump in with both feet.

Jack bets the farm on cutting edge GM beanstalk futures. A no-brainer. When Opportunity Knocks, you gotta jump in with both feet.

(*) Junket as in expenses-funded international jetset jolly. Not this sort of junket:

Junket. The other sort.

Junket. The other sort.

 

Nobody’s touched that stuff since at least 1983

(**) RFP. Request For Proposal. A series of forms (usually a massive multi-dimensional spreadsheet which if it were to be printed out one could comfortably use to wrap up a family of blue whales) to be filled in by prospective sellers which will then provide a thoroughgoing and objective basis of information against which a transparent, unbiased, scientific buying decision can be made. Yeah. Right.

(***) Too harsh ? Maybe, but you don’t have to take my word for it. Better folk than I have made similar points.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Jesus said that. Bloody leftie pinko.

Financial Crisis in The Temple, Jerusalem, 1st Century AD. Some Palestinian anarchist long-haired hippie nut-job on the rampage, banker-bashing and generally getting in the way of the economic regeneration in the Greater Mid-Judea region.

Financial Crisis in The Temple, Jerusalem, 1st Century AD. Some Palestinian anarchist long-haired hippie nut-job on the rampage, banker-bashing and generally getting in the way of the economic regeneration in the Greater Mid-Judea region.

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In Praise of Stasis(II): Why a Change is Nowhere Near as Good as a Rest

So. Where were we ? Ah yes – Big. A modern-day IT Transformation Programme must always be Massive. No-one ever sets off to do a spot of light transforming. Oh no. In Transformation World, everything is Supersize.

Ceausescu's Casa Poporului, Bucharest. This is the sort of thing you want to be shooting for. Sod the expense, who cares if the whole country's going to rack and ruin, look ! Look ! LOOK ! IT'S HUGE !

Ceausescu’s Casa Poporului, Bucharest. This is the sort of thing you want to be shooting for. Sod the expense, who cares if the whole country’s going to rack and ruin, look ! Look ! LOOK ! IT’S HUGE !

Everything must be Big. Market Leading. Top of the Range. Rolls Royce Standard. The software you buy. The wires and boxes. The consultants you hire to munge them all together. The managers you hire to oversee the consultants. The other managers you hire to oversee the first lot because you can’t altogether trust them. But why, precisely ? In a word, Hubris. You and the CFO and the CEO and the COO and the C-any-other-frigging-letter-of-the-alphabet-O and all your other pals / rivals / enemies on the Board self-consciously consider yourselves to be Big Shots. Heavy Hitters. Top Dogs. Made Men. Players. Thought Leaders. Everything and everyone in the organisation reinforces that narcissistic self-description absolutely all of the time. You are referred to in corporate communiqués as the Senior Leadership Team, the High Level Stakeholders, the Corporate Executive Board. You are deferred to cringingly, your opinion and favours are humbly solicited by courtiers, your name and potential for Mighty Wrath are invoked by underlings as bargaining chips. You may start off lowly enough, drinking machine coffee from a polystyrene cup and gassing with blue-collar pals on the shop floor in your old baggy cardy, but you would need oceanic-trench-depths of Gandhiesque humility to avoid monumental head expansion. So even if you didn’t start as a preening self-regarding pompous ninny, that is exactly what you will rapidly become, completely dependent on your daily diet of sycophancy, up-suckery and flattery, laid on with a massive plastering trowel(*) by your myriad minions. Like any dependency, the only way to maintain the kick is to increase the dose. You will find yourself making decisions on appointments, suppliers, kit, systems and pretty much everything else solely upon the basis of how heavily your ego has been massaged by the relevant candidates, vendors and consultants. Lower down the food chain, your henchmen will do the same for you. What would the boss like ? they will ask themselves. What’s going to make him look good ? What most obsequiously underscores his (i.e. your) original witless word-dribble that is now serving as our mission statement ? Which option can I choose that will flannel the old fool in such an obscene and gratuitous fashion that I’ll get noticed, patted on the head and maybe later promoted ?

The ever-growing and still apparently star-spangled transformation programme is seen as the physical, organisational, systematic and financial manifestation of your genius. You are self-evidently Great and All-Encompassing; clearly it must reflect your Magnificence. As your majesty and wisdom flourish, so must its girth, scope, ambition and, above all, monthly burn rate of the old spondulicks.

Burn a fiver, you're an idiot. Burn a million quid, and you're a go-getting maverick iconoclast. Or maybe just a bigger idiot. One of the two.

Burn a fiver, you’re an idiot. Burn a million quid, and you’re a go-getting maverick iconoclast. Or maybe just a bigger idiot. One of the two.

And Lo!, because you believe yourself to be an infallible visionary colossus bestriding the narrow world, and because all your petty minions have to act like they believe that too if they want to get ahead in the diseased hierarchy of arslikhan you have created, and because the corporate PR machine is pumping out non-stop cheerleading nonsense about you and your vision and your blessed now-visible-from-space transformation programme, the only way left is up. More projects, more stages, more people, more time, more spend, more ceaseless revolutionary upheaval. By this point, your IT juggernaut has lumbered well beyond theorising, planning, workshopping and consulting and got stuck into making stuff. Quake, tremble, quiver in your boots, it has entered its Build Phase. The bottom storeys of the first software skyscraper in your streamlined City of the Future are taking shape. It was supposed to be all chrome, brushed aluminium, marble and pristine plate glass but somehow it’s come out as piss-stained lumps of grey concrete with rusting lengths of reinforcing bar protruding out at all angles. If it were an actual building, it would be a 1960s car park in Gdansk. Nothing is slick, nothing is flexible, nothing is fast, nothing quite works. Even at this early juncture the much maligned spaghetti-and-meatballs hodgepodge of legacy systems is looking pretty tasty. None of the old kit is dead yet, but people are already rueing its passing with tearful eyes.

What you imagined you would be building, figuratively speaking.

What you imagined you would be building, figuratively speaking.

What you are actually building, figuratively speaking. Excepting that a desperately ugly 1960s brutalist concrete car park would be functional, in so far as you could (a) park cars in it and (b) get it to look really menacing in an early 70s British gangster film.

What you are actually building, figuratively speaking. Excepting that a desperately ugly 1960s brutalist concrete car park would be functional, in so far as you could (a) park cars in it and (b) get it to look really menacing in an early 70s British gangster film.

No matter. You can’t make an enterprise-scale IT omelette without breaking a few million eggs. There will be teething problems. Early deliverables will have minor quality issues, for sure. Arguably two hours is a long time to spend typing a purchase order into your blue-chip-standard, 24-carat, 3rd-party-consultant-procured ERP package. And it is unfortunate, and one could justifiably be a tad irritated when after those two hours the aforesaid top-drawer diamond-sharp toolkit as used, endorsed and validated by 73% of the Fortune 500 rejects the transaction on the grounds that it will only accept those denominated in Zambian Kwacha.

But only the little people get stopped by little obstacles. With more tuning, more training, more self-belief and above all more spending, potholes will be filled, black spots bypassed and bottlenecks cracked wide open as you drive forward toward Mythical e-Digital Utopia at 110 mph with the top down and Brucie Springsteen blazing away out of your eight-track. Sadly, several more rounds of gung-ho panic-stricken cheque-book hole-filling later and little has improved apart from the bank balances of your preferred suppliers. Your gleaming Fritz Lang Metropolis of a target platform is nowhere in sight outside of a few faded Powerpoint slides from the early weeks of optimism and hope. The old despised legacy systems are still doing all the donkey work while the fabled Next Generation kit has only a parasitic existence on the back of the old. It is the feckless 30-something man-child who has all the new gadgets but hasn’t yet moved out of mum and dad’s or got a job. It’s always there, in the bleeding way, it doesn’t contribute anything but it must always be considered, pandered to and appeased. For example, everyone over the years had become accustomed to submitting weekly timesheets on the old 80 x 24 green screen emulator, albeit with varying degrees of grumbling. The curmudgeonliness will increase markedly when they all have to do that and then repeat the exercise in the Integrated Resource, Task, Budget and Project Planning Suite. Which naturally requires work to be sub-divided down into 15 minute units and each such morsel of work individually allocated, reviewed and approved by a resource pool owner, a practice lead, a project manager, a programme co-ordinator and a domain administrator. Laborious duplication, some might say, but how much effort is too much in the quest for perfect project oversight. Remember, All Governance Is Good Governance (**).

Now you’re really in the shit up to your neck. Any more and you’ll be tasting it, so it’s time for some drastic action: find and offer up scapegoats before the Board come after you. For starters, pick a couple of the more unlikable, truculent and / or useless of your senior lieutenants and strategically reorganise their asses out of the building. For extra points, while offing the first crop of victims, neatly line up the next batch of patsies. The inevitable second round of nuttings will surely be no more than six months down the line. It might even be worthwhile specifically recruiting a minibus load of malleable, upbeat, shiny, gormless idiots into high-falutin’ but ultimately cursed positions, purely to be used as sacrificial lambs as and when the need arises. Given that you’ll be paying top whack for these chumps, there doesn’t even need to be any hard feelings. At the extreme, you could level with them when they sign up – look lads, the job won’t be for ever, you’ll get bashed on the back of the head with a pickaxe handle by HR at some point but it should be good for at least nine months of light duties on 850 quid a day before I have to whack you. Pitched like so, I’d take that job.

By this point you are squarely in Phase Six of the classical Transformation Programme Lifecycle. Terminologies vary but the industry-standard polysyllabic gobbledegook has it more or less as follows:

Nice bit of Powerpoint. Loving the rays of sunshine beaming down from top left. Classy.

Nice bit of Powerpoint. Loving the rays of sunshine beaming down from top left. Classy.

If you’ve worked with Accenture or any other similar posse of five-star shysters, conmen and spivs you’ll instantly recognise these distinct epochs within the overall timeline of a total systems refresh, OK, yah. Without the necessary grounding in high-ticket baloney and bamboozlement, you might find it hard to equate these lofty descriptions with the chaos and misery whirling around you. But I can offer a handy key to assist decryption from sludgy consultantese into brutally plain English:

A bracingly honest PowerPoint slide. A very creature. Flying pink unicorns are ubiquitous by comparison.

A bracingly honest PowerPoint slide. A very rare creature. Flying pink unicorns are ubiquitous by comparison.

So. Purges and Terror it is. You’ll find that once you’ve starting purging, it’s hard to stop. Just like hiccups, popping bubblewrap, Pringles, Maltesers or crystal meth, it’s irresistibly moreish. Having plugged away a few times at your top layer of sidekicks, your trigger finger will start to itch in the direction of troublesome middle-management. Then the shop floor, then, what the hell, why not the cleaners, the security guards and the receptionists as well. No-one is immune, no-one is innocent – the only minion who can be guaranteed not to let you down is an ex-minion. To simultaneously paraphrase and misquote the Godfather of Endless Strategic Purging, “Termination solves all problems – no man, no problem.”(***) You may find in time that the Urge To Purge extends to members of your family, children even. Perhaps we could get rid of the ungrateful, spoilt little beasts and import some leaner, keener, more grateful ones from abroad ? At this point, perhaps best to start having qualms. Have a lie down in a darkened room for a while. If the notion still seems perfectly reasonable to you after half an hour, maybe go see if they need a new top guy in North Korea or the Serbian Mafia.

But even having bemused drones frog-marched off the premises on a bi-monthly basis pales after a while. Thus, weary from the many, long months of pain and suffering, you limp into the final stretches of your transformative journey. Your workforce is demoralised, fearful and confused. The bright sunlit uplands promised a year or two ago turn out to be blasted tracts of peat bog, lashed by wind and endless dirty horizontal drizzle. Some of the new kit works. Most of it doesn’t. Some of it is bought and paid for but has never actually been taken out of the cellophane packaging as nobody could work out why it was shelled out for in the first place. What were we planning to use the retinal scanners for, and why did we pitch in for the whole bloody biometric identification solution as well ? Was it a BOGOF deal from the supplier ? Did we cash-in some nectar points for an upgrade ? Did we get to do a software supermarket sweep ? Or was someone slipped a brown paper bag full of fivers for signing on the dotted line for the whole kit and caboodle ? Strangely, due to the bizarre and unnatural machinations of large-scale IT procurement, it may well be all of the above. Very little makes sense in huge IT projects, but in a shambolic world of utter senselessness, purchasing stands out as the most deranged, contra-logical, tortured and baffling activity of all.

Procurement in the jumbo IT catastrophe is so monumentally insane and destructive that it requires, nay demands, separate and extensive analysis. Suffice it to say that it will always turn a drama into a crisis and extend what might have been six months of pain and a few thousand quid down the hole into years of agony and a multi-million pound haemorrhage.  Let us then close this instalment with a brief public information film outlining the dangers facing the naive and ill-informed when they set out to do some technology shopping.

Caveat emptor. He went in for a gramophone, he’s come out with woofers, tweeters, slimline salad dressing and a bag on his head.

(*) “Everyone likes flattery; and when you come to Royalty you should lay it on with a trowel.” Apocryphally attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, referring to his tried and tested means of playing Old Queen Vic.

Disraeli and Victoria. A masterclass in senior stakeholder management.

Disraeli and Victoria. A masterclass in senior stakeholder management.

(**) In the classical IT Shambles, All Governance Is Always Good Governance. Therefore, trivially, More Governance Is Better Governance. Same applies for Control, Process, Oversight, Bureaucracy, Documentation, Checkpoints, Change Control, Reporting etc etc ad nauseum into the abyss of Project Management Theology. The more the merrier. It’s All Good.

(***) Stalin never actually said “Death solves all problems — no man, no problem” or even “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.” These quotes were attributed to him by critics – without doubt, reactionary running dog lackeys of the capitalist-military-industrial complex. But to be absolutely fair to both the lickspittle bourgeois revisionist scribblers and the lad from Gori himself, these sound just like things he would have said had he thought of them, and both are entirely consistent with many of Uncle Joe’s fully attributed sayings, deeds and worldview.

There are a number of striking, farcical and worrying parallels between political totalitarianism and large-scale technology endeavours of the grandiose and doomed variety. The banal, nonsensical ideology presented as scientific fact. The ludicrously ambitious but arbitrary deadlines, targets and quotas. The hedging, spin and verbal gymnastics which accompany their inevitable failure to be met. The gulf between lofty high-minded rhetoric in public and bitter, self-interested cynicism in private. The Emperor’s-New-Clothes-style blotting out of inconvenient truths which do not accord with the vision or the plan. The paranoiac insistence on the central control and standardisation of absolutely bloody everything down to the finest level of idiotic nitpickery. The rampant neophilia and attendant contempt for anything pre-existing. The vast hierarchies of governance, control, audit and oversight which continually increase, eventually to swamp those few souls still left doing any useful work. The obsession with the mammoth, the large-scale and the gargantuan at the expense of manageability, efficiency, value for money or common sense. The waves of purges and replacements, where in under a year a new broom can complete the trajectory from feted Golden Boy to trusted right hand man to unreliable oldthinker to saboteur and wrecker, and finally to unemployed unperson. There is an MBA dissertation, maybe even a PhD thesis or book to be written on the arresting correspondences between 20th century dictatorships and 21st century shambolic IT disasters. Perhaps another time.

Iosif Vissarionovich enjoys his pipe while signing a few death warrants and approving the enforced relocation of a couple of nationalities to Siberia. A man fully in control of his remit, unphased by the ruthless necessities of power, and never shy of a purge or two. In many ways, The Ultimate Transformation Programme Director.

Iosif Vissarionovich enjoys his pipe while signing a few death warrants and approving the enforced relocation of a couple of nationalities to Siberia. A man fully in control of his remit, unphased by the ruthless necessities of power, and never shy of a purge or two. In many ways, The Ultimate Transformation Programme Director.

 

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In Praise of Stasis (I): Hard Work Might Very Well Pay Off In The End, But Laziness Pays Off Now.

In these Modern Progressive Times, Change is universally held to be a Good Thing. Uplifting slogans abound. “Change or Die !” “He who rejects change is the architect of decay !” “Change that works for you !” “Be the change you wish to see in the world !” “Can’t we just leave the blasted thing alone, for Christ’s sake ?”(*)

Everyone agrees that change is always fantastic; ergo, the simple fact that something will be different from what has gone before is nowadays used on its own to justify the change in its entirety. Again, one-liners proliferate, with the speaker shooting for gutsy machismo seasoned with an attempt at salty, flint-eyed realism “To tread water is to drown slowly” “We cannot go on as we are” “The organisation is not fit for purpose in its current state” “The status quo is not an option.”

The Status Quo. Not an option. Not in my house, anyhow –we do have some standards.

This logic of continual upheaval and contingent pandemonium pertains in all walks of life. People will move into a perfectly serviceable house and declare with a straight face that there’s no way that kitchen is compatible with their modern lifestyle. It’s gotta go. Ditto the arrival of a new head honcho at work. Cronies are hired, long-serving journeymen fired, departments outsourced, functions brought back in-house, hierarchies flattened or erected anew and last year’s strategic goals turned inside out, upside down and arse backwards. And of course in the world of IT Shambles, all of this applies on toast with knobs on right up the wazoo to the power of 97. At the drop of a hat, whole swathes of sturdy and serviceable systems will be declared obsolete and multi-million pound transformation projects commissioned to sweep them into the Dustbin Of History. We Techno-Bolsheviks have embraced the concept of Permanent Revolution with a zeal that would make Trotsky weep.

Lev Davidovich, Vladimir Ilyich and Lev Borisovich discuss an All-Union migration into the Amazon cloud, Moscow, 1920.

Lev Davidovich, Vladimir Ilyich and Lev Borisovich discuss an All-Union migration into the Amazon cloud, Moscow, 1920.

Permanent revolution didn’t produce altogether positive outcomes in Russia. Or in China. Or in Cambodia. Or … well, pretty much anywhere. Even the French gave it up after Waterloo. Trashing all existing institutions, declaring today Day One of Year Zero and sending all the intellectuals out to plant rice in the fields have by now generally been accepted as Bad Ideas and abandoned politically everywhere outside North Korea. But sadly, as common sense, pragmatism and sanity returned to geopolitics in the closing decades of the 20th century, they flew out the bleeding window in the arena of corporate IT. Conceivably, some time in the mid 80s communes full of neo-Marxists shaved their beards off, bought a job lot of double-breasted suits, swapped mung bean curry for nouvelle cuisine and rebranded themselves as Transformation Consultants, Enterprise Architects and Technology Evangelists. The more I muse on it, the more this hypothesis becomes plausible; the ideology has been dumped but the baseless zeal, the ability to ignore the overwhelming evidence of ones senses and the alternation of snappy soundbites with impenetrable jargon has been carried over completely intact.

 “At Waterloo, Napoleon did surrender … The history book … is always repeating itself.” The leading Scandinavian cultural theorists of the 1970s embrace Fabian gradualism and reconfirm the doctrine of Historic Recurrence as delineated by Marx, Hegel and Nietszche.

But why must it be so ? How does yesterday’s strategic target platform become the legacy albatross of today which will be burned to cinders by the incandescent splendour of tomorrow’s virtualised cloud-based enterprise-ready phoenix ? What leads companies to spend gazillions on a best-in-class blue chip solution one year only to spend yet more gazillions the next year replacing it ?

The primary reason is ignorance. Plain, unvarnished, pig-ignorance. Once one gets a few inches above the absolute rock bottom of decision making (i.e. anything more involved than what do you want for lunch ? Or, shall we go to Grimsby for our summer holidays ?), no one has a the faintest glimmer of a foggy half-articulated notion what the hell they want or need or how to go about getting it. So choices are made instead on a melange of blind guesswork, plausible yarns, herd instinct, fear, hubris and the desperate urge to be or pass for or at worst convince the more gullible that one is a Great Thinker, Visionary and Leader of Men. Take those basic facts, lob them into the terrifyingly complex and twisted arena of business computer systems and twenty million quid is already round the U-bend and half way to the Humber Estuary.

The Humber Bridge, impressively but uneconomically spanning the Humber Estuary for the last three decades. Longest single span suspension bridge in the world for most of the 80s and 90s. No, really. Straight up.

The Humber Bridge, impressively but uneconomically spanning the Humber Estuary for the last three decades. Longest single span suspension bridge in the world for most of the 80s and 90s. No, really. Straight up.

Let us perform a brief Thought Experiment. Imagine if you will that you wake up tomorrow morning and find that, through some Kafkaesque clerical error, you have been appointed Chief Technology Officer of Rather Big Bank PLC. After you stop gibbering, shaking and sweating, what do you do next ? Well, you’ll probably get a few months grace to get a rough feel for the Hell you’ve been consigned to, and in those few months you will discover that:

  • There are at least four distinct lumps of software filling any given role. Five for mortgages, seven for savings accounts, and no less than 16 online customer portals. The total count has just tipped over 600 live applications, but still each week your besuited flunkeys discover a couple more.
  • The company operates twelve data centres, with at least one on every permanently inhabited continent. To the best of your knowledge, there are no servers on Antarctica but this cannot be completely verified.
  • You hold sway over 10,000 techno-peasants toiling amidst 178 teams working in 55 buildings spread over 40 cities, 25 countries and 15 working languages worldwide. If the 60 or so souls you have met since you started can be taken as a representative sample, then 30% know what they are doing, 30% can find their arseholes with both hands so long as the procedure to do so is extensively documented, 30% would struggle with a job on the bins and the remaining 10% are irredeemable arse-lickers. It truly is a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-national empire of idiocy – an Austria-Hungary of Business Computing. And can be expected to do as well in any serious test as the Dual Monarchy did during the Great War.
  • Your raggle-taggle polyglot empire speaks a lot of different electronic dialects too. It runs maybe 15,000 machines spread across dozens of different flavours of hardware, operating system, protocol and programming language. These run the historical gamut from COBOL to Clojure with even the odd fag end of Fortran in some particularly dusty corners. And let us not forget the two mission critical bits of kit based on a home-brewed compiler some looney cooked up in the mid 90s cuz it seemed like a good idea at the time.

It’s a shambles. Absolute screaming chaos. Rush hour in Delhi. There is no order or commonality or standardisation or method or sense or rhyme or reason in it at all. Just layer upon layer of kludges, creditable efforts, half-baked brainfarts, hackery-pokery and Ancient Black Magic lashed together with bell wire, tin foil, gaffer tape, string and the electro-digital equivalent of sticky back plastic. Somehow it just about hangs together, but not without long delays, occasional fatal crashes and sickeningly frequent near misses

Rush hour in the sub-continent. It'll probably sort itself out. Most people will get where they need to go eventually, and won't be killed or even seriously injured in the attempt. Looked at holistically, in the round, from 10,000 feet, taking all factors into consideration, it's fine.

Rush hour in the sub-continent. It’ll probably sort itself out. Most people will get where they need to go eventually, and won’t be killed or even seriously injured in the attempt. Looked at holistically, in the round, from 10,000 feet, taking all factors into consideration, it’s fine.

So. What is to be done ? Everyone’s looking to you. You are the last hope for transforming this anarchic shanty town into a Disciplined Glittering Streamlined City of the Future. They think you’re The One. The Man of Destiny. Maybe by now you think so yourself. So whether from a grim sense of duty or due to massive sun-eclipsing ego, you decide to accept the laurels. You are the Big Man: Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Winston Churchill, John Wayne, Steven Seagal, whoever floats your boat. You slip your hand inside the lapel of your jacket, gaze into the middle distance, drop your voice an octave and declaim gruffly to the expectant masses your Grand Utopian Vision. Virtual. Everything’s going to be Virtual. And Outsourced. And In the Cloud, and Packaged, and Open Source. You haven’t quite thought it through. You’d been reading through some back issues of The Economist, Wired and Computer Weekly your predecessor left in your office. It’s all stewed around inside your noggin for a while and has come out as a Lancashire Hot-Pot of received business IT wisdom. No matter. With ironclad self-belief, a bottomless well of laboured metaphors, a smorgasbord of garbled buzzwords, an intimidating stare and the enthusiastic cheerleading of your senior brownnosing yes-men, the concept is sold.

Putin and Seagal. Role Models. Big Men. The kind of blokes who get things done. Mainly by punching folk in the throat or having them poisoned, admittedly, but still.

Putin and Seagal. Role Models. Big Men. The kind of blokes who get things done. Mainly by punching folk in the throat or having them poisoned, admittedly, but still.

Next, the elaboration. Time to turn your off-the-cuff ramblings into the well-padded plausible yarn against which many millions can be flushed away. There will be workshops. Many, many workshops. Not the useful sort of workshops where metal is welded, double-glazing units assembled or watches repaired(**). Oh no. The sort where half-clued people declaim half-baked opinions on capabilities, roadmaps, emergent opportunities, strategic challenges and operational fault lines.

Workshops (I): Good. Note machine tools, Northern blokes in flat hats, tangible physical items being produced.

Workshops (I): Good. Note machine tools, Northern blokes in flat hats, tangible physical items being produced.

Workshops (II): Bad. Note flipchart, excruciatingly well-groomed business-type people, laptops, ostentatious pointing, ineffable aura of failure, boredom and worthlessness.

Workshops (II): Bad. Note flipchart, excruciatingly well-groomed business-type people, laptops, ostentatious pointing, ineffable aura of failure, boredom and worthlessness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At least this stage is painless and for some of those involved, even entertaining. Everybody loves the sound of their own voice and, if there’s an audience of fellow windbags to pontificate at and all agree to pretend that it matters, so much the better. There may even be a trolley brought in with butties and cakes, so that beats working into a cocked hat straightaway. Catering steps up and up as workshopping intensifies and ever more senior staff are involved. When finally the Directors are roped in, the coffee will be artisanal Javanese, the biscuits will be generously draped in Belgian chocolate and there will be dainty pastry latticework canapés a-go-go. Oh Yes. Big League Big Budget Big High-Building consultancy will need to be engaged to advise, facilitate, shape, inform and, above all, submit invoices to the programme of work. Gartner. Accenture. Tata. Atos. Cap Gemini. What the hell, all of the above. By this point, the costs incurred by your embryonic transformation project are moving beyond “substantial” and rapidly toward “eye-watering”. Taking your expensive advisors, staff time and top-drawer confectionary into account you’re already into six figures. Thus it becomes necessary to have a plan to justify the whole damn thing. A Big Plan. nay, a Road Map, a veritable World Atlas of potential, possible, fictional future progress and products. Once drafted, it can be mounted on full colour exhibition displays five yards wide in the foyer of every one of your 55 offices worldwide. For a nice little cherry on top, print up and distribute mouse-mats, mugs, paperweights, post-its and calendars with the edited highlights children’s Ladybird version. Now all your peons wherever they are can be continually reminded of the Big Picture as they toil away at their petty daily desk endeavours.

As you now have a Big Plan with the beginnings of a Big Portfolio of Big Projects, you’re gonna need a Programme Director. He’s gonna have to be a Big Guy. He’s going to need staff. Lots of staff. Some Big Hitters. Guys that can handle Big Problems. Guys that know how to deal with the Big Suppliers. Because you’ll need to get the Big Battalions in. Fujitisu. IBM. Logica. Infosys. CapGemini. All the Big Boys. They’ll need Big Contracts. You’re going to need Big Legal Counsel to advise. Big container lorries full of Big Tin to run it on. And you don’t get anything Big for Small Change. You’ll need a budget. A Big Budget. A Really Big Budget. Tens of Millions, certainly. Hundreds of Millions, maybe. Billions ? One should never be over-awed by scale. They didn’t build The Glory That Was Rome with a few hundred quid, a bag of sand and a pallet full of breeze blocks.

Not built in a day, apparently. And if it had been built under the auspices of a 21st Century technology project, it would likely look a good deal more like Cumbernauld(***).

Not built in a day, apparently. And if it had been built under the auspices of a 21st Century technology project, it would likely look a good deal more like Cumbernauld(***).

Let us pause for breath here, right at the end of what we shall call the Heroic Period of your Transformation Programme. The Ambition is Broad and Deep. The Potential is Limitless. The Dream is Pure, unsullied as yet by any cack-handed attempts to put theory into practice. The vendors are brimming with confidence. Your senior team are pumped up and ready to go. The Board are as keen as mustard. If only we could freeze-frame at the crest of this Big Wave for all time. But all waves must assuredly crash against the rocks, soaking as they do the benches on the promenade, and depositing their briny cargo of empty pop bottles, dead sea-gulls and used contraceptives on the beach in front of the Sea Life Centre. Let us observe how your particular big wave might very well break on the shore next time.

(*) Unknown, Harold Wilson, daft tagline for the 2010 Liberal Democrat manifesto, Gandhi and me respectively.

(**) “Anyone who uses the word ‘workshop’ who isn’t connected with light engineering is a wanker.” Alexei Sayle. Vicious, indiscriminate and unforgiving but entirely fair.

(***) Cumbernauld, North Lanarkshire, Central Scotland. Generously described as “a depressing post-war new town consisting of nothing one would wish ever to see again.”

Cumbernauld. The Tourist Information Centre is rarely troubled by large crowds.

Cumbernauld. The Tourist Information Centre is rarely troubled by large crowds.

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Pictures vs. Words

They say a picture paints a thousand words. Well. Nothing’s ever absolute(*). It kind of hinges on who’s writing and who’s painting the picture. Take this abstract expressionist meisterwork:

Splodge

Splodge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s worth exactly 21 words by my reckoning, and even that feels over-generous. “Two big purple emulsion splodges on a black background; looks a bit like the pause button on an eighties cassette deck.”

Conversely, read this . One could fill a gallery with acres of canvas and not get across a tenth part of the horror conveyed in 220 spare words.

So, by and large, it depends. But in tandem, and in the right hands, the combination of prose and graphics can be bracingly pithy. Take this, which lays out the essential horror of a typical IT shambles on a single page using only six ovals, eight arrows and a few dozen words:

Pathways to Success, no. 97: The WAgile Software Development Life Cycle

Pathways to Success, no. 97: The WAgile Software Development Life Cycle

The original is here. Based on that, the author has a good claim to be the Picasso of software cock-ups, delineating precisely in a few well-chosen strokes what the rest of us would spend hours scrawling, doodling and mumbling about to far less effect.

But of course, for pithy graphical demolitions of the sorry and miserable world of IT failure, the target has been hit with laser-guided accuracy by Mr. Scott Adams most days since 1989. You can pretty much dive in anywhere on the Dilbert archive and come up with a pearl. Take this, from 2002:

Best Practices

Best Practices

I’ve worked on that project. So have you. Probably when the hatchet finally fell and the CEO, his big-ticket lieutenants and their retinue of Accenture / Cap Gemini / McKinsey / PwC / PA / delete-name-of-big-bucks-consultancy-firm-as-applicable left my workplace, they pitched up at yours the following Tuesday wielding the very same weighty, indigestible, content-free Enterprise Strategy PowerPoint presentation. Or this, from way back in the 90s

Decision making in practice

Decision making in practice

I’ve lived through that one as well, several times. I am now, as it goes. Simply replace “Interactive Holograms” with “Service Orientated Architecture” or “Standardising on the Microsoft / IBM / Oracle / Google / Apple / insert-name-of-currently-hip-American-techno-leviathan-here Stack” and kiss goodbye to productivity for the next five years.

The joy and horror of Adams’s creation is that it skewers not only the disasters in our own geeky ghetto but also the grim nonsenses which these days pervade the whole ghastly business realm. For example, the impossibility of getting a tiny bit of cash signed off to do a blindingly obviously necessary job:

Nay, nay and thrice nay

Nay, nay and thrice nay

Or the introduction of the next tranche of theoretically fantastic management consultancy wisdom, whether its effects are painful but localised:

Mediocrity is the new Fantastic

Mediocrity is the new Fantastic

Or all-consuming and countryside-ravaging, as in the dreaded full-scale thermonuclear IT transformation programme:

Change is Good

Change is Good

I could go on and on and on. Every day another boil on the backside of the body corporate is lanced and cauterised, and the correspondences between Dilbert and his co-workers’ miserable fictional lives and our miserable real lives are frequent and jarring. A few years ago I was working for a very large, arrogant and terrifyingly inept financial institution. It was confidently engaged in an expanding series of ever more tenuously justified commercial acquisitions which were accompanied by a similarly expanding series of ever more hateful technology integration deathmarches. All of this was supposed to lift the outfit from its lowly provincial roots Up, Up and Away into the Stratosphere of International Finance, where it would compete and win against the Big Boys from the US of A. Sadly, instead of leading up to the stars, this proved instead to be a perfectly plotted trajectory into the gutter. Specifically: effective bankruptcy, ignominy and having to throw itself onto the mercy of Her Majesty’s Government and the tax revenues of Her loyal subjects i.e. you and me (**). But until hours before this oh-so-well-deserved collapse, hubris was unbounded and each day would bring some new blue-chip brain fart, even within the limited confines of the relatively modest technology integration deathmarch I was working on. After a while, I noticed that my Dilbert Desk Calendar had moved from satire to documentary. Every morning I would rip off the old page to reveal a new one and the strip would resonate precisely with some current local stupidity.

Say on Monday, Dilbert and Wally were wrestling with Multi-Dimensional Matrix Management. In the real world we were welcoming another Workstream Director to add to the five we already had to report to. Tuesday, the pointy-headed boss had outsourced development to Elbonia as we were upskilling our new partners in Bishkek. Wednesday, PHB was bringing in Six Sigma while we were aligning ourselves to the Zachman Framework. Thursday, Catbert was rolling out the Skills Inventory while our beloved Human Resources Partner was introducing us to the Top Talent Tracker Initiative. Another day, another dose of surpassing feeble-mindedness, another direct parallel with the Dilbert cartooniverse.

It struck me then that the mental health of any workplace could be handily measured by comparing its customs, traditions and practices against a month of Dilbert. Try it for yourself. Run through the last thirty strips and tot up how many chime with your professional life. I suggest the following table for calibration and assessment purposes:

  • Sub 10% / 3 or less: bog-standard unavoidable low-level background idiocy. Kiss your desk, embrace your colleagues, weep tears of joy into your laptop keyboard and rejoice at the relative sanity of your employer.
  • 10-20% / 4 to 6: manageable occupational bullshit. You are clearly not skipping through Elysian Fields, but the BS could be an awful lot deeper.
  • 20-30% / 7 to 9: if it were possible to buy the bits from Maplin and solder together a Dilbertometer, its needle would now be in the Amber warning zone. Weigh up your tolerance for bureaucratic absurdity against current salary and suitably convenient alternative employment providers.
  • Over 30% / 10 and above: get your CV up to date, tart up your Linked In profile, and start tapping up your friends for job leads.
  • Over 50% / every other day or worse: run screaming out of the building.

So, on the bases of consistent precision, breadth of coverage and sheer volume of caustic wit over the years, Scott Adams is The Daddy. But he can be topped. If you need one graphic which condenses all the elemental foolishness of our profession onto a single sheet of paper, then it has to be the legendary tree swing cartoon:

The Legendary Tree Swing Cartoon. Super-concentrated Wisdom.

The Legendary Tree Swing Cartoon. Super-concentrated Wisdom.

This picture stacks up at several dozen kilo-words-equivalent, by my count. Joyously and appropriately, it seems to be an anonymous and unattributed piece of folk art: as it delineates the sufferings of the IT peasantry, so it has been written and rewritten by them over the last four or five decades. This represents to me the heartening modern day continuation of the oral tradition. We may have progressed over the centuries from recitations around the camp fire or in the front parlour through Gestetnered memos, photocopies, email and now to online postings, but the tradition of whinging about work and taking the piss out of the bigwigs persists unbroken.

Some of the Tree Swing’s mysterious history is sketched here, along with a selection of historical variants. There seems to be no certified original, though it appears to be British and dates at least back to the sixties, but could be older. It is not even clear that it began life as a depiction of software, or even IT projects. It may have emerged in the electronics industry or some other branch of engineering; conceivably, there was a pen and ink version with copperplate captions pinned up in James Watt’s office. Given that it took Watt 17 frustrating years from his first experiments with steam power to installing a working engine in a colliery, and that his first business partner was bankrupted in the process, Watt clearly has a stellar position in the pantheon of engineering disasters.

Watt. Not Only a Great Man, But Also The Godfather of Technology Shambles.

Watt. Not Only a Great Man, But Also The Godfather of Technology Shambles.

(*) Never. Period.

(**) Assuming you’re a UK national and / or taxpayer. If not, lucky you, except that you’ve likely had some domestic financial basket cases to support since 2008 or thereabouts.

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Hope (II): Some More Reasons To Be Cheerful.

Harpo, Groucho, Chico.

They say Hope Springs Eternal. Let’s not push it, but there are perhaps a few more steps that can be taken on the sunny side of the software street, and a few more hints worth sharing to lower the chances of sleepwalking into another IT Shambles. Maybe it’s a post-Olympic-summer haze, maybe it’s just been a while since my last catastrophe, but joy seems to be abounding at the moment. A normal service of whinging, moaning and despair will be restored in due course.

Let Us Revise What We Know. Viz, Don’t Bolox It Up On Purpose.

I do not offer any penetrating insight on hitting the Road To Success. There aren’t seven habits, six attributes, ten behaviours or 17 ½ best practices which will ensure you deliver right-first-time, full-scope, on-schedule, within-budget at zero-defect quality. Won’t happen. It’ll always be later, buggier, more expensive and slightly more rubbish than was anticipated at the start. It’s just a question of how much. On balance, the dice fall something like this:

The Pyramid of Project Payoff. Alternatively, the Mountain of Mediocrity or the Slag Heap of Sub-Optimal Outcomes.

The Pyramid of Project Payoff. Alternatively, the Mountain of Mediocrity or the Slag Heap of Sub-Optimal Outcomes.

 

On that basis, “Not bad” is a towering achievement and even “A bit shit” is better than more than half the rubbish that gets kicked off. The aim is therefore to achieve “Alright I suppose” or better and we already have five handy maxims from our earlier work to help make that so. To recap in brief:

1. Don’t Replace Software That Works

2. Don’t Write Software Nobody Needs.

3. Have An Idea Of What You Are Going To Do.

4. Aim Low.

5. One Piece At A Time.

With five anti-Shambles guidelines already in the bag, let’s aim for a dozen overall.

 6. Good People. All In The Same Place.

Yes, assuredly there are many clever chaps in Laos, Bolivia and Rwanda. Undoubtedly, unit resource costs would be lowered markedly via utilisation of a distributed outsourced offshore staffing model. And undeniably modern technology connects us all up in marvellous ways so that inter-continental collaboration is now truly possible.

But Just Say No. The numbers may look great in the CFO’s spreadsheet but it will be carnage incarnate in practice for reasons elaborated extensively elsewhere. The correct staffing model is very, very, very simple: recruit good people and put them all in the same place. Definitely in the same building, ideally in the same room. And that does mean everybody – all the developers, testers, analysts, managers and assorted hangers-on. Oh, and do make sure they can actually do the job they’ve been employed to do. Software is hard and you need clever blokes to work on it. Really clever blokes(*). Proper, brown-anorak-wearing, chess-playing, twitchy, remorselessly logical, awkwardly introverted boffins. They will not be easy to find, wherever in the world you look. How many kids in your year at school designed and built a digital delay unit from scratch out of bits bought from the Maplin catalogue, or spent a half-term knocking up Donkey Kong for the Spectrum ? Not bloody many, but that’s who you want. Those lads used to be the only ones who would tolerate the combination of ridicule, social exclusion, heavy responsibility and middling dosh that were the rewards for following a career in coding. Over the last 15 years the dosh has improved (though the cachet has not) and so prompted a tidal wave of duffers to attempt and in many cases succeed in passing themselves off as software engineers. The talent has been greatly diluted. Go into any IT shop in the country, chuck a half-eaten Lion Bar at random and you are about equally likely to hit a developer who is:

  • Great
  • Good
  • Decent
  • Mediocre
  • Poor
  • or Absolutely ****ing Dreadful.

Crushingly, this drop off in productivity is exponential rather than linear. Each step down cuts it in half. A ninja up at the top end of the ladder will chop out in an hour what one of the landfill guys at the bottom struggles to finish in a month. So recruit carefully, pay well, weed out the blockheads and treat your painstakingly filtered ‘A’ grade nerds nicely so they stay and stay happy. You don’t even have to pay that well; you’ll get a similar distribution of dimwits if you lob the aforementioned confectionary into a struggling start-up where everyone’s paid beans as in the highly compensated cubicle farm of a City bank. In fact, the spods in the bank will be a fair bit worse – sacks of cash to spend, little pressure to spend it wisely, far less clue about technology overall leads to a any-old-bums-on-seat approach to recruitment (**).

If there is a real burning desire at the high level to mobilise a human wave of developers and leverage those ostensibly lipsmacking offshore cost savings, suggest moving the entire company to Kyrgyzstan. The whole damned kit and caboodle – business development, senior stakeholders, human resources, Uncle Tom Cobbley and his corporate brand creatives and all. Let’s roll out those efficiencies vertical- and horizontal-wise, right across the organogram ! Logically, strategically and financially, the board should lap this sort of thing up, especially when you tell them that this initiative must be led by the directors themselves, right from the front. It’s a very sellable proposition. Central Asia could be the next China and the entire region offers real value for money right now both in terms of salary and property overheads.

Kyrgyzstan – perhaps the next Asian Technology Tiger. Bishkek’s outer suburbs are ripe for commercial, retail and residential development.

Kyrgyzstan – perhaps the next Asian Technology Tiger. Bishkek’s outer suburbs are ripe for commercial, retail and residential development.

 

 7. Get On With The Work. Do Not Prat About

When knuckling down to any thorny undertaking, it’s hard to get started. A pot of tea first. Maybe a custard cream. Watch a couple of episodes of The Rockford Files. Then lunch. Even once you’ve started painting the lounge or whatever, it is still difficult to resist the allure of the kettle, the biscuit tin, the telly and the fridge. Bring the internet into play and the opportunities for distraction multiply. Whether it’s The Empire Strikes Back remade in Lego, Facebook, pandas sneezing or Kelly Brook in her undies, it is a miracle that any DIY has been done anywhere in the developed world since the widespread availability of broadband in the home.

Procrastination: standard domestic techniques.

Procrastination: standard domestic techniques.

 

As in normal life, so in software but bigger, stupider, more boring, more worthless, more varied, and with top-down control plus (minus ?) whatever the opposite of an economy of scale is. Time-wasting will in general be imposed upon you from above as well as flourishing in its many natural, self-seeding forms. You may find yourself doing any and all of the following rather than getting down to brass tacks.

  • Drafting, debating, circulating and approving 97 versions of a high-level design document which in its final incarnation is 297 pages long.
  • Installing, reviewing, contrasting and comparing the dozens of available open source packages in a given field with the vague notion of using one to provide a feature of marginal usefulness which in the end nobody is that bothered about having.
  • Producing, challenging, squeezing and validating 97 versions of a project plan which at its culmination is a 9,797 row Gantt chart, each amendment taking it another step further away from reality.
  • Deciding that instead of simply copying files from server A to server B when the need arises, you will instead craft the finest generic framework known to humanity for transferring data from one place to another. It will batch, it will encrypt, it will retry, it will audit, it will translate on the fly into EBCDIC, UTF-8, Braille, Morse and Flag Semaphore and it will use any transport mechanism from carrier pigeon to the Deep Space Network via the pneumatic tube and 1200-baud acoustic coupler. Hell, if you decide you want to fax a pound and a half of Brussels sprouts to the dark side of the Moon, it’ll have a bash.

The clever trick is of course not to do any of the above: simply avoid pratting about and get on with the damn thing you were supposed to be doing in the first place. There’s no magic bullet. Just don’t be a bloody fool.

 8. Beware of Salesmen Bearing Best of Breed Enterprise-Class Solutions

As a general rule, anytime anyone expends a great deal of effort trying to flog you something, it is virtually certain that the product on offer is a crock of shite. If it was fine to start with, if it offered great value for money, if it was going to do you some good, then it would sell itself directly on those merits without a load of high-gloss singing dancing multi-coloured flapdoodle.

It’s just a fizzy drink. Carbonated caffeinated treacle. It’ll rot your teeth. You’ll end up the size of a house. But hey, those 3D jitterbugging cartoon critters look fantastic.

No commercial organisation ever ran a 30 second TV spot for brisk walks, carrots, or getting up early to finish off tiling the bathroom.

What goes for gut-rot soda pop, greasy fast food and perfumed mineral oil applies just as categorically to software. If, in order to truly grasp the massive efficiency gains possible via the purchase of a comprehensive document management solution, it is necessary for a minibus full of senior VPs to be taken to Twickenham, The Royal Opera House and Stringfellows, then you’re probably about to buy and install a turd in a bag.

9. Get Hold of A User Who Can Find His Backside With Both Hands

In a modern self-important big high-building-type company, you will find any number of spivs purporting to represent “The Business”, whatever that is. They may introduce themselves to you as Business Project Manager, Strategic Data Analyst, Market Vertical Product Owner, Customer / End User Advocate, Propositional Subject Matter Expert or any other combination of lofty verbiage. These are the guys who are ostensibly tuned in to the commercial zeitgeist, who can envision(***) the forward motion of the enterprise, who will prioritise and define the Road Map into the Future. They are supposed to be the people who proxy for real customers in telling you what to do: what software to write, how it is meant to behave and which bits are more important than which other bits. Not more than three in twenty of them have in fact the slightest clue how to discharge that responsibility for which they are being paid so handsomely.

Notwithstanding the preceding vitriol, you will occasionally bump into someone who does understand what the outfit that employs you all does. And above and beyond that, is capable of translating its ambitions into a plainly worded shopping list of changes which can be easily coded up. This is gold dust and when you come across such a person you should cling tightly to their legs and never let them leave your project. Ply them with cake, drink, pills, dope, bimbos, himbos, neck massages or whatever it takes to keep them smiling on the squad. If you do have this bit of luck, you will suddenly be able to answer previously intractable questions like:

  • What are we meant to be doing ?
  • Is this bit important or not ?
  • What do we do next ?
  • Now that we’ve coded it, is it right ?
  • Have we forgotten anything ?
  • This bit’s still a bit crap. Shall we fix it, or is there something else more useful we could be doing ?

And in each case receive an intelligible response which you can act on, rather than some waffle about supporting leading-edge capabilities for an inspirational 21st Century offering.

It cannot be overstated how useful having a sharp user or client representative is, someone who can make genuinely sensible calls on priorities and requirements and quality. So much less time will be wasted, and the end product will be far far more useful and well-behaved. He will be able to decide whether supporting diacritics is more important than jazzing up the offline client, or whether we should worry about Checkpoint, or if it is worthwhile the team spending a month tarting up user-generated resources or what the hell have you.

If you belong to the documentation-up-the-wazoo / everything-nailed-down-at-the-start / waterfall-old-skool tendency, this may strike you as startlingly unsophisticated and childish. Naive. Jejune. You think we need to ask someone what to do when we’re already half way through doing it ? With superlative documentation signed-off, fully validated requirements locked down since June and the design ratified for over six months ?

Given time, I could probably muster a thorough, reasoned, evidence-based response to those concerns but the following clip conveys the nub of my argument with a degree of clarity and force it would be difficult to match.

With the greatest of respect, and with due consideration given to all the issues raised, I find that I must, indeed, fart in your general direction.

10. For Pity’s Sake, Test The Damn Thing

Testing is a fag. The test boxes are cheap, nasty and unreliable. Setting the code and the config and the data and the bleeding firewalls up so the wretched thing will run takes weeks. And often the poor sap doing the testing has so little grasp of the technology you might as well have engaged your 85 year grandmother. Despite her cataracts and early-stage Alzheimer’s she’d be quicker on the uptake than the Chuckle Brother you’ve been landed with. For him, the technological advances of the last 100 years, down to and including the ballpoint pen, are baffling mysteries.

If he tries to sharpen this, eat it, or can’t figure out which end makes the colourful marks on the paper, probably time to give your Nana a ring.

If he tries to sharpen this, eat it, or can’t figure out which end makes the colourful marks on the paper, probably time to give your Nana a ring.

 

But notwithstanding a scrapheap challenge of a test environment comprised of Amstrads lashed together with bell wire and crocodile clips, and even if your Test Consultant is Father Dougal, it still is vital that you test the stuff you’ve written before you release it onto innocent users. Somehow the act of installing the blasted thing from scratch and getting a second person to give it the once over will flush out serious crud that no developer would ever themselves have noticed. Two heads always turn out to be better than one, even if the second one is a sheep’s head, even if that sheep has scrapie, or even if it’s the more gormless half of South Yorkshire’s most venerated light entertainment institution.

Barry and Paul Chuckle. Rotherham's Finest.

Barry and Paul Chuckle. Rotherham’s Finest.

Summary: That’s Enough Breezy Confidence For Now

My aim at the start was twelve points; I got to ten and ran out of steam. It’s not quite there, it’s not even nearly there if we’re honest but, like the airport you arrive at when you fly with Ryanair, it’s in more or less the same region. That is very much in the spirit of the limited optimism I am offering here, and it’s also in the spirit of agile development – better to do something vaguely useful and fall a bit short rather than spend 18 months pissing cash up the wall with requirements workshops, project tollgates, entity-relationship diagrams, customer journeys and high-level data visualisations.

I am slightly uneasy coming out as a fully liberated Orthodox Agilist partisan. The ludicrous fervour and zealotry surrounding Agile is inappropriate and off-putting to start with. What sane person would care that much ? It’s only work, we’re not saving the Rainforest with Sting, introducing the Word of the Lord to the Heathen or billeting the Red Militia at the Ritz. Chunks of the terminology are pretty noxious too. Scrums and sprints have an unseemly whiff of competitive machismo about them. Let’s not forget we were the kids who got picked last for team games at school. I don’t want reminding of that, or of communal showers, or the sweaty jockstraps of the bigger lads. And when it’s not getting all testosterone-heavy, beefy and ostentatiously butch, Agile seems to head right for the other end of the spectrum and become unforgivably twee, folksy and infantile. Stories ? Show and Tell ? Have we returned to kindergarten ? Shall we fish out the acoustic guitar and ethnic percussion, sit in a circle on the carpet and sing “Kum By Ah” ? It’s not right, and even an eight-year old boy would smell a rat.

Out of the mouth of babes, sucklings, and foul-mouthed sociopathic cartoon elementary schoolboys.

Out of the mouth of babes, sucklings, and foul-mouthed sociopathic cartoon elementary schoolboys.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But despite my reservations, in the main Agile does go with the grain of how software projects pan out in actual, dreary reality, and it fills most of the gaps that normally get left. Requirements are going to change – don’t try to etch them in virtual stone tablets at the start. Endless questions arise on what the code should do – shove the business geezer who claims to “own” the “product” in front of the developers every morning at half past nine. Impossible to predict when the project will finish – take down the eight by two by A0 five-year programme plan of record from the wall and concentrate instead on what you are doing right now. And so on.

Agile is not a panacea. Agile will not get two years worth of work done in six months. Agile will not transform a bunch of thicko engineers into genii. Agile will not stop your sales force asking you to do stupid, value-free, dangerous and complex pieces of development by a week next Tuesday. Agile will not put a tiger in your tank, make you look five pounds thinner, or give your mouth sex appeal. Sometimes, you might head off down a garden path, refactor some code that could have been lived with, or spend a month titivating a piece of work that was doomed to start with. But on the whole, it makes a reasonable finish more probable and excruciating, wasteful disasters a good deal less so.

So – there it is. Limited Optimism. Hurrah. Whoop Dee Doo. Hallelujah. But don’t get too carried away. Your next endeavour could still be absolutely irredeemably god-awful, now matter how cunning you are in its execution. You might get hired to put together the back end for the next Cones Hotline.

Sir John Major, KG, CH, PC, ACIB. Prophet, Statesman, Visionary.

Sir John Major, KG, CH, PC, ACIB. Prophet, Statesman, Visionary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(*) I am extending the words “bloke” and “chap” here into universal, gender-neutral descriptions of stand-up, reliable and thoroughly sound human beings of either genital group. You only ever meet good blokes and decent chaps. A bad bloke or a horrible chap is simply inconceivable.

(**) For once, I can back this assertion up with facts, evidence and statistics. I have seen the CVs and I have interviewed the morons in their dozens and can confidently state there are thousands of guys earning hundreds of quid a day in The Square Mile who could not code up a bubble sort without having to Google it.

(***) I know. It’s not a proper word.

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Hope (I): Accentuating The Positive, For Once

Bing and The Andrews Sisters. The acme of Hollywood Golden Age Über-cheeriness.

Take a look at the modern world and it’s many wonders. You needn’t search far. Gathering dust on a bookshelf or buried under a pile of magazines on the floor in your living room is undoubtedly a discarded mobile phone, cast aside for something sexier, smarter and more app-tastic. I can see two such from where I’m sat now. One, the year before last’s model, will do the internet and has a slide-out keyboard. The other one, a year or two older, now seems pretty basic: the camera boasts a measly two megapixels, for example. You could buy something rather better from Tescos for less then 15 quid today. Now. Despite being a museum piece that would be sniggered at by teenagers across the western world, it is in point of fact a genuinely magical device. You could be hiking, half way up Pen-y-ghent, and take it into your head to give your mate in California a ring. Your pal, with a similarly antiquated bit of consumer electronics in his back pocket might be at home, cruising the mall or skiing above Lake Tahoe. He could even be sunning himself in Hawaii or away for work in Sydney. Regardless, your call will find him in seconds and you can talk almost as easily as if he were in the next town. The fairly modest signal delay is the one clue that he isn’t.

This device claims not only to be a miniature portable telephone, wireless and camera, but also to be able to send moving pictures through the ether to ones chums on the other side of the world. Witchcraft !

This device claims not only to be a miniature portable telephone, wireless and camera, but also to be able to send moving pictures through the ether to ones chums on the other side of the world. Witchcraft !

If you stop to consider how many bits of code, kit and wiring have to work in order to get this to happen it is breathtaking. The phone itself has to make the connection, digitise the audio signal and ship it off in packets to the base station. The base station has to handle traffic for scores of active phones, agreeing on frequency pairs for each one and handing over connections to neighbouring cells as callers move. Beyond that your call is switched and multiplexed up the wazoo across national and international telecoms networks along with a gazillion others and at some point travels 2,500 miles under the Atlantic Ocean in a little glass tube encoded as pulses of light. It is quite, quite unbelievable. Even more unbelievable is that the devices that allow you to do all this weigh less than four ounces, that they and all of the bits in-between work reliably all of the time, that the call will cost you just a few pence (*) and that all this wizardry happens for the tapping of a dozen or so numbered keys.

The point I am going three times round the houses to make here is that there certifiably are technology projects that do succeed. All of ’em include substantial chunks of hand-crafted software; some of them are almost entirely code. Beyond telecommunications, think of the Amazon site. Garageband. Google Earth. Google Translate. Google Maps. Google Bloody Anything. Type “Vietnamese restaurant in Copenhagen” into Google and within three clicks you can be virtually standing outside any one of the dozen available peering in through the window. Another click and you’ve got walking directions from the central station. Another handful and you’ve bought train tickets all the way there. It’s insanely fantastic. Ergo, a dismal software shambles is not preordained. In a break from the established pattern of moaning, wailing and gnashing of teeth, I can reveal that there is Hope.

We had Bing at the top, so here’s Bob. Much underrated.

We had Bing at the top, so here’s Bob. Much underrated.

First Do No Harm; or, Don’t Bolox It Up On Purpose.

Outside the exotic climes of your Googles and your Apples, in the lower rent / social housing / borderline slum IT neighbourhoods the rest of us inhabit, things still can go OK on occasion. Even bits of code with my grubby fingerprints on have eventually wobbled into production and run without too much pain for numbers of years. What distinguishes these humble successes from the never-ending motorway pile-ups ? My own personal Great Insight on this point is that the good projects don’t deliberately set out to make an arse of it. But what specific arse-ups should one strive to avoid ? I offer the following handy checklist of Dos and Don’ts.

 1. Do Not Replace Stuff That Is Working.

Working, useful software is a rarity. All the more so if the job it is doing is complicated, runs 24 hours a day and handles thousands of transactions and users. If a system has chugged along carrying some such heavy burden reliably and without fuss for decades, it really should be treated with the respect due a venerated national treasure. This is a Ford Transit Van, a London Tube Map, a Fox’s Biscuit, a veritable David Attenborough amidst a throng of nasty programmatic Austin Allegros, Amstrad Midi Systems and Bastard Bleeding Useless Ever Ready Bike Lights(**). This longevity should be borne carefully in mind when considering its replacement. Endurance ought to be respected in all things, but doubly so with code. Code doesn’t wear out. It is not noticeably subject to subsidence, metal fatigue, dry rot or termite infestation. Quite the opposite: bugs are fixed, nifty features added, and wobbly, unreliable, grindingly slow or just plain nasty areas are over time tidied up and rewritten. The system you end up with after 10 years of incremental development will be 10 times more resilient, flexible and capable than the version you started out with. Software, like George Clooney, only improves with age

As you gain weight and lose hair (except in the ears and nose), George just gets better looking and more charming. The sod.

As you gain weight and lose hair (except in the ears and nose), George just gets better looking and more charming. The sod.

All of which means that the antiquated legacy bag of spanners which your Enterprise Architects are now sneering at is going to be very, very difficult to match and replace. Those painstakingly tuned algorithms. The hundreds of ad hoc business rules analysed, coded and refined over the years. The thousands of special cases requiring irregular, non-standard treatment. The endless tweaks for robustness, speed and reliability. Be very wary. If it ain’t broke …

2. Do Not Write or Install Software That Nobody Needs.

Best illustrated with examples. Think several times before getting mixed up with any of the following types of racket:

1. Integrated enterprise project portfolio management solutions. There are already too many of them. They are all terrible. They do not and will never do anything of worth. Anyone who has ever been forced to use one of the buggers will froth at the mouth merely at the name of the wretched thing. Better the users carry on muddling along with Excel and email(***).

2. Integrated enterprise management information and reporting solutions. Again, far too many already. Not objectively nasty per se, but overdone. Just write some queries, give ‘em the CSV files and have them muck about with the data themselves in Excel(***).

3. Homebrewed bespoke frameworks for logging, encryption, single sign on, message handling, content management or any one of the dozens of other areas which are by now 100% fully solved software problems. Yeah yeah needs are highly specific, blah blah special circumstances, rhubarb rhubarb unique environment. Pull the other one. Just download the bog standard gubbins every other chump uses off of the internet and have done with it.

4. Meta-software. Software that doesn’t do anything you can put your finger on as such, but which claims to deliver a foundation on which you can build to enable something fantastic to happen somewhere in the ill-defined but undoubtedly rosy future. Business Process Management suites. Enterprise Resource Planning toolkits. Governance Risk & Compliance platforms. Bluntly, any TLA-described software suite of mysterious and elusive benefit marketed by and to Big High Building-type Companies should be given a very wide berth. Most of these offerings boil down to a six figure long con in which a small gap that could be filled cheaply and easily with Excel and email(***) becomes a vast canyon only partially pluggable by oil tanker loads of eye-wateringly expensive hardware, customisation, licence fees and consultants.

The list above is not exhaustive. But what Dr. Spock said about parenting applies equally to IT projects: you know more than you think you do. If it feels pointless, it probably is.

3. Have Some Idea Of What You Are Going To Do Before You Start.

If you have followed maxims 1 and 2 above, this should drop out. If

(a) there is a tangible need, and;

(b) there isn’t kit already available which does the business reasonably well

then that is a clearly defined hole that you can fill up. But if on the other hand your business requirements drone on about capabilities and market segments and Web 2.0 and effective customer journeys and an enhanced 21st Century user experience to the exclusion of anything concrete you could actually code from, just stop dead right there. Go and fix some bugs in a system that is being used for real. In the absence of bugs, just go down the pub.

A pub, earlier today.  Always a quality end to a fully effective customer journey

A pub, earlier today. Always a quality end to a fully effective customer journey

4. Aim Low. It Is Going To Be Much Harder Than You Think

To paraphrase a Great Man(****), in software development, to be negative is to be right, 90% of the time. Bits of library code your were relying on turn out to be woeful and bug-ridden. Fully signed-off specs are completely junked and rehashed twice in the first month. Quick surgical tweaks become open-heart quintuple bypass operations. Extensively tested code drops are rolled in and immediately backed out amid a welter of ghastly, showstopping, blindingly obvious, (but somehow strangely elusive during QA) bugs. Even the report you thought you could knock off before lunch elongates into a whole week’s work.

Pessimism in this instance, as always, is your friend. Think of everything conceivable that could go wrong. Then think of everything inconceivable that couldn’t possibly go wrong. Think of the worst ways all of these incipient disasters could play out and double them. That, in a nutshell, is about as well as it can possibly pan out, and even that level of success will require a good dollop of luck. Let that rich blend of fear, cynicism, naysaying and doom-mongering (or pragmatic, scientific, evidence-based realism, as I prefer to term it) be your guide as you keep your goals simple and make your commitments as tiny and late as possible. At the highest level of Shambles-conscious maturity, commit to absolutely nothing until you know for sure that the code requested has already been written, tested and bug-fixed. I consider any promise made to a stakeholder outside these conditions to be indicative of weakness of moral fibre. An exception to this precept can be made if the Programme Director has threatened to taser you, and has the weapon visible in his hand.

The X26 Taser gun. An effective compliance tool in the armoury of any Senior Stakeholder. Instant respect in a handy, pocket-sized blue and yellow package.

The X26 Taser gun. An effective compliance tool in the armoury of any Senior Stakeholder. Instant respect in a handy, pocket-sized blue and yellow package.

5. Bite Off What You Can Chew, One Piece At A Time.

Even if you’ve dodged grandiose requirements and steadfastly resisted making foolish promises at an early stage, you’ve probably still been landed with a project that is frighteningly large. Fear not. Simply chop the thing into its component parts, as small as you can manage. Any elements which are still big, ugly, ill-defined, silly or difficult, slide off into a corner somewhere, ideally under a thick shag-pile carpet. If you can by effort of will forget about them for long enough, they might well go away. What you are left with then are the pieces which are clear, relatively straightforward to do and have some purpose. Line these up in order. If no particularly sensible priority is given to you, put the easiest ones first. Pick the top half-dozen, write them, test them and put them live. Have a customer or two use them for real. Once they’ve finished moaning about how crap the system is and you’ve fixed it to their satisfaction, repeat the exercise. Carry on until you run out of painless jobs and all that’s left is the mound of crap under the carpet.

Various scenarios are possible at this juncture but normally the pile does not now look half so intractable as it did when you started. You now have a team of people who have experience of the project and what it is meant to be doing. You can all study the remaining requirements with more educated eyes. Some of the grot may now be self-evidently pointless and thus quickly bin-able. Other chunks will now make more sense and so be amenable to being chopped up themselves into dainty, neatly codeable morsels. You can therefore extract them from under the shag-pile and bring them back into play. You may also have realised along the way that there are a couple of dozen other features that are essential but which nobody thought of at the beginning. Probably best to include these, rather than wade through miserably undefinable rubbish.

Keep plodding round these loops for a while and you will in a few months have a quite reasonable piece of kit in active use doing what the people using it genuinely want. It might not be what they said they wanted at the beginning, but then at the beginning they didn’t know their backsides from a hole in the ground, speaking frankly.

The above approximates to a lumpen D.P. Gumby version of the much vaunted Agile Approach. For all the philosophising bandied around about it, Agile is more applied common sense than science; it is simply the distillation of many gallons of bitter experience, hard earned by generations of humble software artisans. Based as it is on the accumulated sufferings of the IT peasantry, it can be well summarised by a series of artless, rustic proverbs. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Half a loaf is better than no bread. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Mighty oaks from little acorns grow. One day at a time, Sweet Jesus.

The ideal way to express this super-concentrated folk wisdom is of course through the transcendent Musical Medium of the Common People: Country and Western.

Johnny Cash, One Piece at A Time. Cash was an early advocate of agile methodologies though in the automobile industry rather than IT. As Cash notes, “One piece at a time and it didn’t cost me a dime”, indicating the marvellous budget efficiency of the iterative approach

Further atypically sunny optimism next time …

(*) If you shop around. Terms and conditions apply. Other network providers are available.

(**) Ever Ready Bike Lights of late 70s vintage.

Exhibits A and B.

Exhibits A and B.

Battery life circa 20 minutes. The slightest knock or drop of rain would bend, break or rust the contact strips and they would never work again. Clunky grey plastic lumps of super-concentrated awfulness. If you have ever wondered how it came to pass that nothing at all is now made in Britain, this is why.

(***) Excel and email. 80% of your business computing needs can be served by judicious use of these two humble software pack mules. When presented with an incipient IT Shambles, perform this Thought Experiment: rather than tip skips full of fivers into the pockets of strategic supplier-partners and coding worthlessly during an 18 month Deathmarch, could you instead get more or less the same result from a combination of:

  • Spreadsheets
  • Email
  • A word processor, a cheap’n’cheerful database or a.n. other bit of free / readily available software.
  • A handful of fileservers
  • Almost no coding
  • A couple of competent admin people
  • Some common sense

A tenner says you could.

(****) John Cooper Clarke. Clarke was talking about Salford rather than software development at the time, but the point stands.

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