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

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) adopted by its IT aficionados as the key to overall success, with the important insistence that it will work as long as you follow it to the letter, in all cases, no matter what.

So this post will seemingly be about a specific (and low-level) development issue, but it’s only to serve as an example to illustrate this One True Way syndrome that is so prevalent in IT. At core, my takeaway boils down to the same old message I usually have when it comes to IT matters: be wary of something promising to fix all your problems. Be wary of absolutes. And be especially wary of the combination.

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IT entropy in reverse: ITSM and integrated software

Why am I an IT professional? Here’s one major compelling reason: you simply can’t rest on your laurels. You can’t stop learning and growing and examining and improving, in all aspects, or you stagnate and die. The best IT professionals, I’m convinced, work energetically and on an ongoing basis, actively striving to push the scales from their own eyes at every juncture. It’s part of the job.

Last week I had the opportunity to attend what was my first industry conference in almost 8 years, Knowledge12, put on by ServiceNow, a software-as-a-service (SaaS) provider of IT service management (ITSM) software. (See my post explaining why I’ve tended to avoid industry conferences in recent years). And to my surprise and delight, I discovered that it was well worth the time. Let me share my thoughts on why.

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IT anti-patterns: reverse behavior lessons from Steve Jobs

I’ve written before about how I value Twitter’s ability to fine-tune one’s personal information gathering, selecting people to follow who, over time, prove to be the most useful, interesting, and stimulating. I commonly refer to the people I follow as my “personal Algonquin Round Table,” in homage to the well-known literary group of the 1920s.

More simply put, though: I value Twitter because I fundamentally believe in consulting others, picking their brains, observing what they find useful or funny, enjoying their (often differing) perspectives, and learning as much as I can from them.

To my frequent surprise, however, this basic belief in the value of consulting others turns out not to be universally shared. In fact, it can even be scoffed at. That disconnect came glaringly to light recently in the aftermath of the death of Steve Jobs. Basically put, the burgeoning legend of Steve Jobs rests in large part on how, in his path to multiple successes, he fundamentally rejected the value of consulting others.

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A CIO’s skeptical look at the QR code phenomenon

I had the good fortune last month to be invited to participate as a guest CIO on ITSM Weekly, a great IT-related podcast with the amusing ongoing tagline, “What happens when a CIO, a Service Desk Manager and an industry junkie chat weekly?!”

Amidst the discussion and banter, Chris Dancy of ITSM Weekly gave me a bit of a ribbing about what he perceived as my all-too-common anti-QR-code rants on Twitter. And yes, I have tweeted more than once with outright skepticism about the usefulness and likely impact of QR codes.  Chris’ good-natured needling made me step back and think about why: what exactly makes me so resistant to the notion of QR codes?

And the answer runs deeper than just QR codes per se.  It turns out, as I thought about it, that the story surrounding QR codes represents, for the modern CIO or CTO, kind of a horrible blend: the worst aspects of technology advocacy, combined with the worst aspects of marketing.  This post is an attempt to explain those broader implications.

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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.

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Countering a disturbing bandwagon: rich vs. poor IT organizations

It’s time for me to speak up.  Not that I haven’t before, here and here. But sometimes I just have to shake my head. I read certain IT-related articles on the web, or tweets by some colleagues, and they’re so out of sync with IT reality that I feel like it’s Opposite Day.

Here’s what I mean.  Let’s look closely at the latest item of this ilk that has spurred my head to swivel: this rather stunning recent Forbes interview with Mark McDonald, group vice president and head of research at Gartner Executive Programs. At core, McDonald is touting and praising, and with much reasonable-sounding eloquence and assurance, an abandonment of common long-standing lessons in IT.  In fact, such an abandonment is being presented as the only path to goodness, success, and truth; traditional areas of focus for IT are deprecated as being either of lesser importance, or even as the veritable hallmark of a clearly backward CIO who just doesn’t get the new order.

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No silver bullets. Really!

Fred Brooks wrote a seminal essay in 1986, “No Silver Bullet — Essence and Accidents of Software Engineering“, a model of clear and cogent thinking that I consider to be required regular reading for anyone involved in information technology.  Despite the essay’s brilliance, and despite its wide promulgation and deserved fame, the phenomenon it describes seems to have only broadened in the last twenty-three years.  Brooks argues as follows (with bolding added):

The familiar software project, at least as seen by the nontechnical manager, has something of this character; it is usually innocent and straightforward, but is capable of becoming a monster of missed schedules, blown budgets, and flawed products. So we hear desperate cries for a silver bullet—something to make software costs drop as rapidly as computer hardware costs do.

There is no single development, in either technology or in management technique, that by itself promises even one order of- magnitude improvement in productivity, in reliability, in simplicity.”

So this basic tenet has been convincingly articulated by a leading IT thinker for almost a quarter century. Yet, the trend continues: new technologies pop up every couple of years and the hype cycle begins. Evidently, hope springs eternal.
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Cloud computing: misunderstood, but really not that complicated a concept

Consider these statements:

  • Baseball is a game where the pitcher throws to the catcher.
  • An iPhone is a device that lets you call anywhere in the world.
  • The Grand Canyon is a tourist attraction in Arizona

You’ll have noticed that these statements aren’t wrong, per se. But they still take you aback, don’t they? They miss the point, miss the magic, neglect the important differentiators. By explaining too little, defining the subject too narrowly, they explain nothing that’s really useful.

Here’s another:

  • Cloud computing is where you have a lot of intelligence in the network and it’s available from wherever you need to get to it

A distressing portion of mainstream media covering cloud computing has decided that the best way to explain the phenomenon is first to make hand-waving general statements such as the above example from BusinessWeek, and then cite a few consumer-understandable examples such as in this piece from NPR: “Do you have a Yahoo e-mail account? Maybe a Gmail account? Do you put up pictures on Flickr? Perhaps you’ve started keeping your schedule online. If so, then you are using cloud computing — that’s what tech companies call it when people work and store information on the Internet.”

Flickr, Gmail, and Facebook are great services, but declaring that they represent the burgeoning trend of cloud computing is as incomplete and unsatisfying as explaining the Grand Canyon as just a tourist attraction in Arizona.

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