It feels to me like attitudes towards technology are beginning to change at senior levels. There are undoubtedly a fair few senior executives who wear technological unawareness as a badge of honour in exactly the way they wouldn’t if it was finance. But they are becoming rarer; most execs now understand that technology is important to a business; vital, even. They consume more and more technology these days too, although the amount of business technology that is actually in the hands of people at the top of our institutions is fairly low. They’re happy with WhatsApp, though.
But accepting that something is important isn’t quite the same as understanding the implications. In particular, the shift into Cloud-based software as a service applications means that rather than periodic cycles of technology change, it’s now perpetual. This is a big and important thing, but too much senior management thinking is still tied to the world of IT being about expensive capital assets programmes every two, three or more years.
Let’s just unpack that a little bit.
In times of old, we ran a lie. The lie was that software would be (eventually) finished. Writing software was a completable task. Things would get to a fixed state, and at that point would become assets to be sweated.
It wasn’t an intentional lie. IT people really believed it. Software would be an exercise in construction, drawing on the world of building and engineering in its appropriation of terms like “architecture” and techniques like project planning. Maybe that the stem of the slightly odd use of the word “legacy” in IT as a pejorative thing; we thought we we’re building a legacy. It turned out to be a liability.
The reality was that software development is a perpetual process. The world around software continually changes, and in turn the software has to change too or, as is too often the case, people find kludges and workarounds and Excel Spreadsheets laden with macros that allow the big expensive IT system that in reality would never be finished to actually work.
The limiting factor was the cost of distribution. In the age when software resided on either individual personal computers, or even on the servers within enterprises, updating code was time consuming, disruptive and expensive. Physical disks distributed in their millions, installations and updates and reconfiguration and the updating of local code to make sure it still worked in the new versions. Upgrades to software could only happen every few years at most because it was so bloody expensive.
But then came the internet, and the World Wide Web, and Hypertext Transfer Protocol and APIs, and agile methods and connected mobile devices. And over the last twenty years the world of software has become an industry of providing continually changing services that are billed on a subscription basis. Software has gone from Capital Asset to monthly operating cost. We are no longer tied to periodic upgrades, and my goodness the software industry is taking you on that trip whether you like it or not. Software is not a thing that is finished; it’s something that continually changes and adapts.
And because it’s a thing that is never finished, it’s not something that will always work. We need to be able to play with technology, to be its master, to be prepared for many perpetual small failures and to work around them and put up with them and fix them ourselves in exactly the way that your office building doesn’t work. We are no longer building legacies. We are in a process of, to use a very British metaphor, painting the Forth Bridge.
And that requires giving time and patience. And having a spirit of curiosity and exploration and playfulness. And being able to so “For Fuck’s Sake!” a lot in the office when the thing you are trying to do doesn’t work. And experimenting. And all those things that Senior Executives so often seem to have had beaten out of them as they’ve climbed up the greasy pole in the pyramid scheme of corporate power. “I didn’t get to where I am today by dealing with ambiguity and frequent failure and experimentation. Or at least if I did then I can’t afford to let those people below me know that because that might show my weaknesses and frailties. And I must pretend to be omnipotent!”
And that’s the next change that we need to make to people in positions of power. To foster curiosity, and playfulness and experimentation. And humility. And patience.
And that’s going to take some time.