2014/08/27

Bureaucracy killed the IT star

This was originally posted over on my LinkedIn profile...
Every now and then I find time to reflect on the state of my chosen industry. And I suppose it is appropriate to do so as my 25th year in IT tails off to its end (along with my existing contract).
When I started out back in 1989 PC's were a novelty, Token ring the rage and mainframes pretty much dominated the playing field. The software we worked with was predominantly developed in house and I still had hair - none of them grey.
I don't believe that there has been any other industry that has been so readily and so rapidly globally adopted. Who would have predicted back then that smart devices in all shapes and sizes would have become so integral to our lives - fridges with screens and internet connectivity were science fiction.
With any rapidly growing industry the peripheral services are quick to spot the opportunity to make a living from it. IT in general and software development more specifically have drawn more than its fair share of attention from all avenues and entire industries have flourished because of it. Software methodologies, project management, audit, sales, pre-sales etc. etc. have all joined the fray, but at what cost to a rather humble, creative endeavour.
I love writing a piece of software. I have written or designed many in my career. Sometimes for fun, mostly to earn a living. And during this time I have noticed a substantial increase in attention from those who wish to have a stake in the final product.
Now more than ever there are architects, business analysts, project managers that want designs, documentation and code reviews - don't get me wrong there is place for all these things - and more than focusing on the quality of such underlying artifacts are more concerned with just having them and being able to tick the boxes.
This bureaucracy is more evident in large business where COBIT, ITIL and other audit processes are the order of the day. And it is these onerous, pen pushing meddlers that are killing the IT star.
I have met a couple of real IT stars. Development gods are few and far between. These are the creatives who can work magic in code. Many of them have forged their own paths outside of corporates for this very reason. Some of the younger, up coming stars have no intention of getting "real" jobs and are forging their own trails - but I think that is a discussion for another post.
Real developers should be cared for and tolerated (they often have interesting idiosyncrasies - like their peers in the ad industry). More now, than ever before, good software (think of all that cool stuff in the App Store) is required and to do this we need great developers, unfettered and unleashed. This is not a real engineering discipline, but a creative and so we need to give a little more - to ultimately get more.

The art of avoiding project compression

This was originally posted over on my LinkedIn Profile...
"Compression" is a noun. It is an act, for example in an engine - "the reduction in volume and increase of pressure of the air or combustible mixture in the cylinder prior to ignition, produced by the motion of the piston toward the cylinder head after intake" (from Dictionary.com).
I use this definition as it is the most appropriate one that describes my experience of most large scale programs in large companies. In this case resulting in an explosion that forces the piston away and turning a drive shaft to drive the vehicle forward. Unfortunately the resultant explosion, in the context of a project, has nowhere to dissipate to and kills all the project team members in the immediate vicinity and often the project or program itself - those that avoid personal injury are usually on another floor - maybe due to their level in the organisation or are protected by Teflon suits (says he tongue in cheek).
Fuel enters the chamber
In most large projects everything starts off rather swimmingly. A project manager is appointed, the project board is established, a general scope is determined and a budget figure magically appears (not to be confused with anything reasonably realistic). A deadline is given (and it is immovable as it has already been written in blood into the execs performance contracts and incentive multiples). And then a "small" team is assembled to flesh out the plan a bit more (I put small in quotes because the bigger the organisation the larger the committee). The plan is then hammered out in earnest. Probably cutting into the first 20% plus of the timeline / budget - because the stakeholder pool is so big and because everyone wants to make sure they are cut in on the deal. And from there on, things just go pear shaped. The budget escalates significantly as the workload is unpacked - while in reality it will only cover about 60% of the project but no one admits it.
First stage Compression
At this point your project resources enter the fray. A loose band of business and systems analysts, testing resources and IT architects traipse in. The first phrase usually uttered is "you want us to do what? And by when? Why did you not consult us when you were setting up this "plan"?".
The management and board step in to explain the consequences (without mentioning their incentives) to allay the fears of said resources and explain why the date is cast in stone - competitive edge etc. etc. And mostly the resources commit to the deadline. They already feel the pressure building but the pep talk (read sword of Damocles) is sufficient to ignore it.
Second stage Compression
The work progresses well. It's all the easy stuff now, the tough stuff and boring bits are left for later - you know, reporting, testing and so on.
Then we hit a snag of sorts. The product owner changes the goal posts a little. Not the deadline silly. The actual product our beavers are building (he no longer wants a dam, it is now a breakwater facing the North Sea.) No fear, say our intrepid resources, lets just relocate the dam - and as things go it seems like a good idea at the time. But it will cost a little more because it needs to be higher and wider to be able to hold back the waves. Only about 40% escalation in costs. The board approves it on condition that the deadline is still met. Our beavers are beginning to sweat blood and it's time for the whips to come out. Just for show of course.
Just in time, the beavers managers re-enter - left stage - and mention the need for a possible phase two (or three or four). They promise to meet the deadline as long as the project manager convinces the board of the need to eject some stuff. It works and relieves the pressure somewhat - phew.
The problem with this is that we now have a small hole in our cylinder. And through this hole, a raft of other "non-critical" deliveries are ejected over time to keep the pressure manageable - often secreted away by the team and often without the knowledge of the project management.
Third stage Compression
At some point, unfortunately, the piston passes the hole in the chamber. Things hot up on the project. There is no escape now. The deadline rapidly approaches and our team has delivered - something anyway - project management tick their boxes. Our testers begin testing. The pressure is almost too much to bear now. The testers may or may not expose inadequacies in the delivered solution but more often than not are encouraged to gloss over minor issues and flaws.
Finally the project is implemented. And...
Ignition
...all hell breaks loose. The clients are unhappy. The product owner livid. The board shocked...those in the immediate vicinity are vaporized - generally our poor little beavers.
Usually, before ignition, the project manager jumps ship because they saw the writing on the wall. A new project manager is brought in to mop up.
In the aftermath, the management and board wipe the dust and ashes from their faces and start thinking about how to keep their precious bonuses intact. Some senior executives may even take other roles in the organisation to avoid the fallout.
The crank shaft turns
The mess ironed over, most organisations initiate a secret remediation project and the dead and wounded are quietly medevaced from the scene. No harm done.
Sadly this is an all too often occurrence on large over-resourced projects - it is increasingly evident in recent years.
There are just too many stakeholders (with too many interests - depending on how the company is structured - think profit centers) and too few leaders who are willing to take accountability for the outcome - because of all the moving parts and fingers in the pie.
Avoiding the inevitable
It is very difficult to avoid this scenario in large projects. We are too familiar and used to the traditional approaches to project management. And sometimes a larger project is unavoidable.
I have worked on very large projects and have always tried - in principle - to follow a more agile approach. So here's my checklist for tackling a big piece of work.
  • Get an exec who knows what needs to be done and is willing to stand by the team who will ultimately deliver the goods
  • Create a team who know their sh*t - too often we accept mediocre resources because they are available. Do not compromise.
  • Be honest - break down your deliverable's into phases - they do and must exist - you don't need everything right now. Also it's easier to get the funding in chunks as you complete stuff and show it working.
  • Apply your backlogs and test continuously against the requirements.
  • Don't fret when things change - that's life.
  • Ask the hard questions at an early stage and throughout the life of the project.
  • Sometimes "No" is a good answer.
  • Keep it real. There will be times when things go wrong and you need to change direction or work longer hours. But if you are properly managing your project you will see the compression happening well before you get smoke in your eyes.
  • Never, ever underestimate the power of the undertone - keep your finger on the pulse of your team members - they know sh*t.
This way everyone has FUN, does great STUFF and the product owner gets what they want - and more - and, of course, the customer is thoroughly tickled.

2014/01/20

Industrial Revolution Revisited...and why the Digital Revolution is still puttering around

The Industrial Revolution brought about significant improvements in manufacturing, But resistance to it was felt throughout the modern world at the time. "Machine Breakers" - usually those endowed with technical skills and / or labour resources - felt threatened by new technology and ran riot, breaking any new technology that threatened their income. These people, generally, were known as "Luddites".

The Industrial Revolution started out in the textile industry in Britain. Previously, to produce fabric, the raw materials were processed by co-operative workers - most likely a family who were given wool or cotton to process into thread or yarn. The yarn could then be taken to another co-operative who were skilled in knitting or weaving to produce the final product.

The "automation" of the spinning and fabric manufacturing process allowed many more unskilled labour to be used to produce what was previously done by specialists and on top of it this happened in a factory, conveniently located in a central place - where previously the raw material had to be distributed to a number of these small co-operative family businesses - it could now be delivered to one place.

But with the advent of factories and the influx of unskilled labour, came all the associated societal ill's. Unskilled labour were poorly paid, health care and labour law were non existent. Living and work conditions were atrocious - with child labour (some starting in the cotton mills as early as 4 years of age) rife and working hours of between 14-16 hours or more a day.

So how is this so different from the modern Digital Age we find ourselves in (other than the fact that children in most western nations are no longer a source of cheap labour). The work hours for those at the coal face of this digital revolution have not changed. What is starkly different though is the fact that technology - previously the domain of large corporations - is now in the hands of the common man in the street. At the advent of large scale adoption of computers, there were only a few hobbyists that had access to very basic computers that they could program and use to balance their bank account or write a very basic game. Today, however, we all charge around with the omnipresent and omni-connected smart phone, eyes down on the glowing screen with millions of apps to choose from that improve our tooth brushing techniques, balance our cheque book for us and entertain our children while we wait for a table at a restaurant.

What worries me is not the ever present connectivity but more how we really use it - more particularly in the service of our clients and even more so in large corporations to service our clients.

The truth be told. We are still at the beginning of the digital revolution. While some industries have made huge in roads utilising technology to its fullest, these are largely in the entertainment sector. When have you last seen a earth shattering change in the word processor or spreadsheet app? Has your banking app or administration system really changed that dramatically in the last 20 years? Probably not. And what is it you really use your smart phone for? Phone, email, gaming and instant messaging. Yip, that is probably as far as it goes.

So what is wrong?

1) C-Levels are still baffled by technology and the so called technologists behind it. They've been burnt as well too often than they care for.
2) There is a fear and resistance to too much automation - among the work force and management. (And I think a bit of healthy suspicion with regards to too much data - Think Snowden and Assange). This is early stage revolution resistance and was there in the Industrial Revolution too.
3) Hiding stuff in a program (a black box) means that it may open my complex job to less skilled workers thus making me redundant - so keep it complex.

There is a vicious cycle at work here. Computers and the software that run them can bring enormous freedom. Freedom from a desk in an office with filtered air and half dead plants. You can communicate face to face from anywhere in the world with anyone else and most of this is possible now. But the revolution needs to help unwind a number of preconceived and deeply entrenched beliefs that our employers still hold on to.

Sure, the digital revolution holds promise, but it is still puttering along and all of us just need to give it a little more gas.

2013/12/30

Elevated Bicycle Pathways - part 2

It is really cool when you see something on the web that confirms you were onto a good thing. In April this year I wrote about the space above railways and the opportunity to build elevated bike paths over said railway lines.

This morning I came across this article about London who plan to do just that. Build elevated bike paths along the same routes that trains take. London's railways were originally built for steam trains and therefore follow a gentler contour allowing for an easy ride to work.

Now I am not naive enough to think that someone just took my idea. Ideas are a dime a dozen and are often had by two or more people in different places simultaneously. And good on old Boris (or the design companies involved) for not thinking this idea to be too wacky. Because this is how we move ahead.

Now lets if they can implement it. Already a cycling charity is concerned about the wind factor at 30 meters up (jeez, its flattish and a little wind wouldn't do too much harm) as well as concerns about how steep the access ramps will be...don't they get it...this is a public service - you'll have a fitter population - and anyway what is cycling without a little headwind and uphills.

2013/09/17

Honestly, we don't want Pat McQuaid...sorry Pat...

And neither do the UEC that represent the European cycling scene. Just the UEC alone gives Brian Cookson 33% of the vote in the upcoming election on the 27th September. Ooh to be a fly on the wall for that one. Gives me shivers.

Now, Pat is not one to lie down either. His legacy is littered with clashes with ASO (who own the Tour de France amongst others), his association with Lance Armstrong as well as attempts to change the UCI constitution without consent of the management committee. And he was, to be honest, in his day a reasonable bike rider. Sadly, the dictatorial approach does not sit well with the electorate - we hope - and 27 September may just be a good time to say goodbye - again - we hope. Thankfully his home union also have not promised him a vote - Umm Pat, I think it is time to say goodbye too.

Cycling over the last few years has managed to regroup itself to a certain extent. And we'd all like to believe it - I think.

But then again I thought that maybe the majority of South Africans would have seen the light in the last election and vote Jacob Zuma out, but that did not happen either. But it's coming and so I believe that we may finally see the back of dear old Pat.

Short and sweet.

The other important day is tomorrows release of IOS7. Then I will start worrying about the election.

2013/09/11

If only Zimbabwe had oil...

I know that someone, somewhere has had the same thoughts and put them down. Not that Peter delved too deeply into the analogy, but simply suggested that the world - particularly the US - make take a different line if old Bob had some of the black stuff.

So why then did the US take on Afghanistan? Because there was a perceived Muslim threat and the fact that it was thought that they were harboring our favorite terrorist poster boy Osama Bin Laden.

And Iraq - ah, the black stuff. Sudan: perceived terrorist threat. Etc. etc.

So if Bob had some gas - and I am sure he does considering he is an old fella now - then I am sure this travesty would not have lasted this long. Sadly I don't believe, at this stage, that there is an alternative government in the wings. It is difficult to find anyone with the experience or those that do, are unlikely to be unsullied by 33 years of Bob's rule. And those who have tried before the formation of the MDC did not last long.

But if Bob had oil, there would also be a danger that his buddies in close geographical proximity would probably also defend him more readily which could pose a problem for any invading force - if only a temporary set back. Diplomatically this support would be a disaster for international relations.

But you know what, it sucks. It just shows how politics and "international relations" are so toothless, useless and utterly void of true character. The problem is that a hard line suits nobody. Because the reverse could apply if the UK or France or even the US did something the international community did not like. So they all pussy foot around the "minor" felonies that small dictators commit and rather rage against the others where there is a semblance of support from the majority of other countries - majority rules...no risk...

If SADC and my own dear president would do anything to put Bob on the right track it would be a start. But dear Jacob has yet to take his hand out his pants and foot out his mouth.

Sad, so sad.

2013/09/04

Information Technology Sucks - admit it

Sure you have cool applications on your iPhone, iPad and your Galaxy Tab and they allow you to do mundane things like tweet, write a document and send an email, but that is really where the state of technology is at present. I have spent 20 years or more in the industry and my opinion is that we have gone backwards.

Why? Because there are fewer "real" technologists out there. Or in simpler economic terms the demand has outstripped supply.

In a number of recent discussions - with people I consider to be knowledgeable  - the consensus was that there are probably only 3000 real techies in Cape Town. Now that may seem a lot, but when you consider that the big financial services companies employ probably 3000 IT folks between the 3 of them you can see that we have a problem. And that is just in Cape Town with a population close to 4 million people. How does anyone else get anything done? How the heck do systems keep running? Mostly because those 3000 "real" IT folks are spread thin across commercial, non-governmental and educational institutions.

This means that most corporate institutions have less than 10% "real" IT people in their ranks. Sure that is only a guess because some may be privileged to have a whole lot more if they pay well and present the appropriate challenges we were all destined for.

Funny thing though...companies and other IT consumers (government etc) spend an inordinate amount of money on IT. Why? Because they think it will make things better, more efficient, without having a cooking clue what they are buying.

Because your business analysts are straight out of college (or wherever the hell they come from) there is absolutely no understanding of the business you're in never mind what a business requires.

Then there is the fact that as business we believe that in order to compete with our peers that our technology has to be sexy. The fact that sexy does not exactly equate to being better hardly makes a difference, but the fact that it has more fancy widgets does. And widgets take time (I have spent a week just trying to get CSS to present a link - with fancy fading - over a background image - and I think I know a thing or two about CSS).

What scares me more is that C-levels are dumping huge amounts of cash into IT for no return...

Really!!! How much real work did you get from IT last year? How much governance krap did you have to deal with? Compare the two and see how much real value you got. As I guessed... Not too much.

What happened to the "Nudist on the late shift"? Po Bronsons part documentary on the evolution of IT in the dot bomb era perfectly described real IT folks.

My feeling is...

lets return to the heyday of technology...without the doctors who think they can start an IT company...
write code like it was meant to last a lifetime...and stop chasing the latest version (look how long the combustion engine lasted)...
technology is not a silver bullet to increasing profit and reducing cost...unless of course it is written into your corporate culture...
find the geeks, the hard to manage but genius techno's...who understand...code and piss in the wash basin...

I love IT, but just hate the way that every maverick, lazy MF has made a place for himself in what is essentially a creative endeavor...

2013/08/08

CSA vs PPA. Now here's the rub...

I just read the Pedal Power Associations affidavit in respect of the tussle between CSA and the PPA. I think that we are missing something here though. The affidavit largely concerns itself with the failing relationship between the two parties. PPA arguing that they wish to retain jurisdiction over their events without the necessary sanction of CSA and to carry on as they have long before I even got my first bicycle. And I kind of agree with that sentiment. But...times have changed, the sport and South Africa have changed considerably since 1976.

Back in the good old days as I was just discovering the joys and freedom of riding a bicycle at speed with Lawrence Whittaker (our then esteemed leader), Lloyd Wright, the Simpson brothers, Paul Dalton, Jon Doig, Vernon Davis and Matthew Ferguson - among others, racing around a haphazard "criterium" circuit in Constantia or doing time trials up Constantia Nek, we were blissfully unaware of the development of EPO or its impact on professional cycling. In fact, watching a final sprint in one Rapport Tour, we innocently believed in "Pan y aqua" of our own cycling legends - even though in retrospect amphetamines were already in prolific (and of source secretive) use in the local pelaton.

The Pedal Power Association, formed around 1977, and then know as the Western Province Pedal Power Assocation or WPPPA for short (hardly) was our local club and also organised the Argus Cycle Tour  which now is called the Pick n Pay Argus Tour.

I entered my first "Argus" in 1982 and as testament to the PPA my results are still available online:


Although unspectacular, I survived twice in 3 years totally smitten with the biggest race you could participate in anywhere and thanks to the PPA and the Cycle Tour Trust the race is still here just with 35 times more competitors.

The PPA has grown over the years and is the largest (I stand corrected) representative of cycling interests in the country with a membership of over 18,000 cyclists.

Cycling South Africa is, however, the official government sponsored (via SASCOC - the SA Olympic committee) vessel and so represents the interests of the country and is also answerable to the UCI and WADA in its various capacities as upholder of the UCI constitution, organiser of UCI sanctioned events (that may or may not include UCI points) and as policeman for anti-doping (along with SAIDs).

Now here's the rub as I see it.

CSA need to fulfil their obligations to the UCI and WADA. The UCI has made it clear that licensed riders may not participate in non-sanctioned events - most likely as of next year. Call it governance, call it whatever, but the need to stop licensed riders from racing in non-sanctioned events is a question of money. That's just it. Non-sanctioned events essentially would not contribute to the federation at all. Non-sanctioned events could also not apply the basic public liability insurance requirements and would possibly not apply the requisite anti-doping regimes. And not pay calendar fees or license fees either.

But, the PPA do pay over license fees to CSA every year for their members and by implication you - as a PPA member - become a licensed rider and must therefore adhere to the CSA constitution and rules.

The money problem is exacerbated by the fact that PPA run at least 5 lucrative events during the racing season and a host of other smaller "fun rides". However, and where I see CSA champing at the bit to get their hands on some, is that the PPA have full discretion where and to what to allocate the returns from these events. And I guess CSA want some. Which is why they persist in threatening the continuation of - in particular - these 5 events.

I don't think that the intent is particularly insidious, but if the financial failure of ASA is anything to go by, a little more cash flow would hardly be a bad thing for CSA in the long run. Whether or not, the Argus or Double Century would continue to be successful under CSA's tenure is certainly something for debate.

I like William Newman, I have known him for quite some time and have no doubt that he wants to do the right thing for South African cycling. But for now I hope that PPA succeed with the court action.