Novels of IT, Part 1: Turtles All The Way Down

Novels are harder than most technology-oriented people typically realize. The backbone of a good novel is character development, meaning that the character learns and grows — which makes it easy for especially amateur novelists to start off with a character who is, frankly, little more than a one-dimensional dolt. This is an even more dangerous pitfall when it’s a “novel of IT”: the temptation is almost unavoidable for the author to create as protagonist a stereotypical technology leader, clueless as to what is really important or how to be effective, who is then gradually enlightened by wiser individuals as the novel progresses.

There are three IT-related novels I’m aware of, all relatively recent, that fall essentially along those lines.

All of them are worth reading, but I had majorly different reactions to each. While I’d intended to cover all three in one blog post, the complexities involved in discussing the first, very problematic example have led me to divide this discussion into more than one post.

Not everyone is a fan of fiction, though: why read any of these novels? In my view, the veneer of fiction, of semi-realistic dialog and interaction among the typical players in business-IT situations, promises a degree of engagement and entertainment, as well as the chance to obtain a deeper understanding of how and why the involved parties interact they way they do. Ultimately, I’d want such a book to provide me with insight, in a “show not tell” kind of way, into what motivates the typical players in these business scenarios, and to depict a healthy growth of character and role that lets me understand my own situation and how better to foster collaboration, synergy, and business effectiveness. Beyond the superficial, the events of a novel and the utterances and interactions of its characters can eloquently illustrate various approaches and philosophies, often more forcefully and meaningfully than would a straightforward treatise.

As a CIO, I’d want to be able to hand the novel to my CEO or CFO.

In fact, a fundamental purpose of quality fiction is to enable the reader to live and understand another perspective. So primarily, I would want such a “novel of IT” to help all factions (inside and outside IT) come to see the other side’s perspective and arrive at deeper understandings of common problems and disagreements. Otherwise, it’s sheer polemics. As a CIO, I’d want to be able to hand the novel to my CEO or CFO and have everyone’s reading of it help us find common ground in how we approach our goals.

(One small aside: before I begin, I should note that none of the novels I’m going to cover can compete, as artful fiction per se, with what I consider to be the best IT-related novel: Ellen Ullman’s The Bug. Unlike the three novels I will cover fully, The Bug is intended primarily as art, not as a fictionalized essay designed to make points about how to run IT. Highly recommended.)

Let’s start with FruITion, by Chris D. Potts.

This book, which has been generally praised, depicts itself as essentially contrarian, as describing “what happens when corporate strategists decide to ignore all the IT strategy orthodoxies.” It’s meant to reveal “indispensable messages about the next generation of strategies for information technology,” as one of the blurbs on the back has it. The key distinguishing feature of the book, arguably even underscored by the implications of the photo on the cover, is that it’s intended to turn the conventional view of IT on end.

Well, I’m going to be a contrarian to the contrarian. Simply put, I think the fundamental thrust of the book is wrong-headed, divisive, lofty, unnecessarily diminishing of the importance of the role that IT plays in a business, and ultimately not helping disagreeing factions find common ground, or showing useful ways that IT can truly provide value to business.

As Twain famously said, history may not repeat itself all the time, but it sure does rhyme a lot. Or, as Yogi Berra said, “you can observe a lot just by watching”. Or, in Potts’ own words, “the language you use is taken as evidence of your mindset.” And, just by carefully watching the interactions and language in FruITion, my unavoidable observation is that Potts’ mindset is particularly, astonishingly, and blatantly ill-disposed towards IT.

Ian, the protagonist and first-person narrator and CIO, is a straw-man-stereotype kind of IT person. He’s tentative, focused on technology, set in his ways, reactive, defensive, a bit paranoid. Conversely, the novel presents the non-IT executives (the CEO and her delegates) as wise, fast-thinking, and a bit mysterious in their uncanny insights into what’s not working. They’re a little inscrutable, and more than a little threatening: Ian is constantly fretting about whether he’s about to be sacked, and the strategists are constantly making subtle and not-so-subtle references as to whether or not he’s “getting it” and whether he’ll even be around for the next go-round.

It’s “us vs. them,” in other words, in spades. Ironically, one character, presented as particularly insightful, is introduced positively as being “fed up with the ‘us and them” and ‘we know best’ attitudes of some IT people towards the rest of the company.”

Yet IT is presented mainly in the negative (indeed, with disdain) at every turn.

Yet IT is presented mainly in the negative (indeed, with disdain) at every turn, characterized repeatedly and triumphantly as “delivering no value on its own”, and it’s emphasized that “no one values what IT does.” Everyone else in the novel sees things clearly except for the IT people, who “execute their strategies at arms length from everyone else rather than by collaborating.” In one characteristically heavy-handed moment in the novel, Ian’s “IT Strategy Manager” views with excitement the chance to participate in a key software vendor’s new beta release: “It could change our whole strategy,” he enthuses, not realizing how narrow that statement shows his notion of strategy to be.

Face it, we’ve all known people in IT that exhibit those small-picture tendencies. But I don’t believe that it’s useful or accurate, in this day and age, to trot out such stereotypes and thereby blast the entire discipline. One “strategic” character in the book even tells Ian, “we want you to break loose, join the gang, help us turn the tables on those bastards in IT.” In the end, Ian escapes (ascends?) into this strategic realm, away from IT, but all the future pesky technical decisions are then relegated to a Technical Services Manager whom they elevate to “CTO,” and whose stated job it is “to get the IT we wanted to use delivered reliably well, economically, at an acceptable level of risk, and with economies of scale and synergies. Nothing else.” Simple, eh? (Note the amusing similarity of this new “CTO” role to what the role of the CIO was also thought to be, way back when. As the old joke has it: from here, it’s “turtles all the way down”).

In essence, it’s “technology bad, strategy good”: this novel presents an overly simplified, frankly offensive, and ultimately detrimental dichotomy. The book seems, quite intentionally, to consider current-day IT as a mere exercise in procurement: “All in all, our people now know enough about IT and how to use it not to need an executive to make those decisions for us. All we really need is someone who can source the IT services we want to use.” Really? We know what we want; IT just needs to get it for us. Order takers. How many years/decades ago did we all collectively figure out that that’s a counterproductive approach?

In short, if there’s any book that actually fosters the “us vs. them” rift that’s too often characteristic of how IT fits into a company, this would be it. It’s simplistic, dismissive, lofty, and ivory-towerish; in the end, despite its contrarian nature, it delivers next to no new practical insights. And one sad aspect of its dismissive nature: those who point out its failings will almost certainly be accused by its proponents of “not getting it.” (Witness this review of Chris Potts’ interview with Claudia Imhoff). I think I “get it” quite clearly, though, and I simply reject it as misguided, naive, and ultimately counterproductive to the needs of a modern organization.

Next up: two more novels of IT that I believe show a (much) more even-handed, useful, and insightful approach.

Lagniappe:

Comments

  1. Dan Bobke says:

    While I haven’t read it, this sounds like a book that does far more damage than good. We don’t need to point out the ongoing problem of business vs. IT – what we need are solutions. I love your comment about IT being seen as “order-takers” – how many places have we worked where this is the highest expectation? Looking forward to reading your next review…sounds like we are getting to some solutions in the rest of the books.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Dan. As you can tell from my post, I don’t disagree. But I’d encourage you to check out the book for yourself: as I noted, it’s been praised elsewhere. That said, I do feel that the other two books (one of which I just reviewed in a followup post) offer considerably more useful insights and fulfill my stated criteria much better than does FruITion.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Traducción de la entrada del blog de Peter Kretzman CTO/CIO Perspectives; Novels of IT, Part 1: Turtles All The Way Down […]

  2. […] Peter Kretzman Last time, I introduced this series by pointing out that reading what I call “novels of IT” could serve a […]

  3. […] and insight into all parties’ motivations and interests. See my earlier posts on Chris Potts’ FruITion and John Hughes’ Haunting the CEO.  Again, my views aside, I should emphasize that all three of […]

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