Conventional wisdom that fails for IT

I’ve done several posts featuring what I call “Peterisms”, which are basically aphorisms I’ve adopted that encapsulate hard-earned IT lessons. Let’s turn it around this time, and talk about two sayings that sound equally folksy-sensible, and that I hear again and again, but which I feel are actually dangerous to apply to information technology work. And, of course, I’ll discuss why that’s so.

  • If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it
I know of very few aphorisms that tend to be repeated as smugly as this one, particularly by scared people. The implication is that action is generally to be avoided, that the status quo is probably just fine, and that one should wait for a true crisis before intervening. And, of course, that it’s your fault if you’ve ignored this sage advice and intervened anyway. It’s ironic, then, how IT departments themselves end up complaining endlessly about how they’re always in fire-fighting mode.  This prevailing attitude evolves among (and is a telling symptom of) burned-out sysadmins and developers, especially those who are stuck maintaining systems they didn’t themselves write or engineer. It can be equally summed up as a “don’t touch it, don’t breathe on it” kind of superstition. Or, perhaps, it’s akin to the proud but defensive statement that “we’ve always done it that way.”
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IT, States of Denial, and more Peterisms

Yes, I admit it’s an old and hackneyed play on words, but I’ll repeat it anyway: in the course of my career, I’ve worked in IT positions in the fine States of New York, California, and Washington, but I’d have to say that the most frequent state I’ve encountered in IT matters has been the State of Denial.

It seems to be a common trend, up and down the levels of a company, to engage in a bit of willful self-delusion about IT matters, practices, outcomes.  As I thought about this, I realized that several of my key “Peterisms” (these being sayings that come out of my mouth again and again, as already chronicled here and here) have evolved as a response to this persistent theme of “states of denial”.  So let’s talk about three more of those Peterisms in that light.
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More Peterisms: lessons learned on IT practices

More pithy sayings that (at least in my view) I reuse in an attempt to succinctly express key concepts and lessons. Or, perhaps in many cases, to annoy my staff via tireless repetition. I have several dozen of these sayings, most likely (I haven’t actually counted), and for many of them I can no longer remember their origin. The ones this time around, though, are attributable. You are free to draw conclusions or insights about my cultural values from the breadth of sources represented here. Aside from the theme of wildly disparate cultural derivation, though, these apothegms have another common thread to them: they tend to come to mind as you go through the standard back-and-forth negotiations with business stakeholders about features, projects, workload.

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End-of-year Peterisms for the CTO/CIO

One habit I’ve picked up as a CTO/CIO, a habit that usually comes out in the many meetings that make up my work week, is that of leading through aphorism. Over the years, I’ve accumulated a number of pithy sayings that, like the proverbial picture being worth a thousand words, succinctly express key concepts and lessons that I’ve learned throughout my career. And I pass those on, sometimes repeatedly. My staff in more than a few of my jobs have started to call these sayings “Peterisms”, although I certainly can’t claim that I’ve invented most of them. So for a light-hearted end-of-year blog entry, in what may become a recurring flavor of post, here’s a few of them, with some discussion about what they connote in my personal Darmok-like management code.

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