Scene: I was CTO at a high-traffic social networking site, circa ten years ago. It was one of those times when our site got crushed by unexpected sudden volume, due to being mentioned in an article in a prominent newspaper. My infrastructure manager walked into my office the next morning, ashen-faced. “We’re gonna get killed tomorrow unless we add ten front-end servers to our prod environment,” he proclaimed. A fairly common IT reaction: absolute, adamant, ominous.

Ten new servers? That was a nice round pulled-from-thin-air number, obviously, and by the time we talked through it, we actually found other, more practical, more feasible ways first to estimate and then handle the increased load. But to the infrastructure guy as he walked in, the situation was both dire and absolute, and he saw only one solution that should even be considered.

So now let’s look at another data point on IT psychology. Take the latest iPhone brouhaha: the quick “cracking” of the iPhone 5s Touch ID fingerprint scanning technology.  Amazingly, Touch ID has turned out to be less than perfect. Someone with $1,000 of equipment, plus lots of time, motivation, and patience, could conceivably fool the scanner. Meanwhile, what gets lost in the outrage over this turn of events is the notion that the technology might indeed be “good enough”, or “better than the alternative”. We forget the simple fact that the technology is primarily oriented to people who currently don’t use passcodes at all, and that it vastly improves general security for those sorts of users.  As one article pointed out, “The point of any security system isn’t to be unbreakable – there’s no such thing – but to be fit for purpose.”

My larger point: if there’s a problem or a difficulty or even a nuance to a particular approach’s applicability, a common IT practitioner’s instant reaction is that the approach or practice is absolute junk and should be completely avoided.

Similarly, we often reject fundamental improvements to a situation, simply because they are not perfect. We let “best get in the way of better.” On this general theme, an amusing tweet crossed my screen the other day. @rands wrote, “I find when an engineer says, ‘Less than ideal’, they often mean ‘Complete fucking catastrophe.’”  I laughed at this, of course, but partly because I’ve more often experienced that scenario in reverse: an engineer deciding, and then loudly and profanely proclaiming, that a situation was nothing short of a complete disaster, simply because it was less than ideal.

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Much as in any field, IT executives constantly have to seek a balance between idealism and pragmatism. Given a particular problem and the range of possible solutions, do we insist on “doing it right”, or do we buckle down and “just get it done”, even with gaps?

There’s obviously no single right answer, which is what makes IT consistently so fun and frustrating at the same time. Over time, though, my own approach has typically been to focus on the continuous improvement aspect of “doing it right”: whenever possible, get something going as a start, then hone it over time as you learn more about the problem and your situation.

Using spreadsheets as a management tool definitely falls on the “just get it done” side of this spectrum of approaches. Spreadsheets are seductively easy, omnipresent, and usable by people with a variety of skill sets and technical savvy.

But there’s a host of downsides: spreadsheets are frail creatures. Errors can creep in fairly easily, even for experienced users, as data and circumstances change, and spreadsheets are especially prone to the incursion of silent errors and omissions when undergoing revision.  And once implemented, in all their imperfection, spreadsheet-based solutions can broaden and become large-scale, long-term systems (I’ve seen this happen again and again).

Yet, I feel that every technology executive should be maximally fluent in spreadsheeting: simple tracking, analyzing, modeling alternatives, understanding costs and risks. The technology provides a readily available, easy way to knock out quick and dirty models that can clarify one’s thinking and approach enormously. They work well, as long as you keep in mind that the spreadsheet is usually a stop-gap, for those times when you are faced with a glaring need and you don’t have time, budget, or staff to implement anything deeper right away.

In an early blog post, I listed the seven areas where a quantitative approach is especially necessary for the technology executive:

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CMOs outspending CIOs on technology: “so what?” Here’s what.

Tweet Rarely do I write targeted responses to specific blog posts, but last week, an article crossed my screen that I think is both representative of many people’s attitudes, and enormously flawed in its assumptions, logic, and conclusions. Esmeralda Swartz, writing for ReadWrite.com, titularly opines the following: “So What If Chief Marketing Officers Outspend CIOs […]

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IT conferences for the CIO: microcosms of industry trends

Tweet I’m back from attending ServiceNow’s Knowledge13 conference last month in Las Vegas, and have a grab bag of random thoughts and reactions to share as a result. As usual, these thoughts reach beyond any particular vendor or product niche. For anyone not familiar with this company, ServiceNow is slowly and steadily developing a generalized […]

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CDO: The Chief Déjà Vu Officer

Tweet Whac-a-mole. It’s my favorite of all metaphors, at least when it comes to applicability to IT. For those who don’t know the background: Whac-a-mole  is a commonly seen arcade game, where plastic moles pop up at random through holes in the game panel. The job of the player, of course, is to pound them […]

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Book review: The CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership

Tweet It’s a universal trait, it seems: we all want to be understood, want the world to see things through our eyes, want to watch the “aha” light go on when people finally realize just how tough we have it and how magnificently we still prevail. IT people, and senior technology executives in particular, are […]

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Novels of IT: The Phoenix Project

Tweet Nerd alert: it’s an exciting day for me when someone releases a new “novel of IT”. I’ve made it my mission to find and review several of these (now four) over the past couple of years, and I may be one of the few people out there who has read and reviewed all of […]

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The One True Way syndrome exemplified: the overstated case against code comments

Tweet I write frequently, and not without some exasperation, about the perennial search for the “silver bullet” in IT: the holy grail, the end-all, be-all solution to preventing IT failure. The silver bullet has a very close and similarly pernicious internal twin cousin: the One True Way. That’s a technique or practice that is (usually) […]

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