Thursday, January 03, 2008

Chairman Mao and the problems of IT

Reading the economist over Christmas (oh and seriously get a subscription) there was a great article about how Chairman Mao is an ideal "role model" for the poor quality manager. Reading it however it became clear that 90% of IT also appears to follow the way of Mao when approaching their jobs.

So if you aren't actually any good at IT then here is how to bluff your way using the Mao guide to IT. This applies to Architects, Managers, Vendors and even developers who just don't feel they have the talent to get anywhere

A powerful, mendacious slogan

For Mao it was "Serve the People", given that he "... lived like an emperor, carried on litters by peasants, surrounded by concubines and placated by everyone. this really was an impressive slogan. The point here is that the slogan is an outright lie, but its an outright lie that is talked about honestly and with conviction but doesn't bear any relationship to reality.

In IT things like "Business Focused", "Customer Service" and "Delivering value" can be used to mask what is essentially a continual drive to use new technologies and to avoid talking to the business or customers if at all possible. In fact its a case of business as usual with everything being now justified as "required" by the over arching vision.

Ummm looking at all those vendor slogans makes me think that Chairman Mao's PR department is alive and well in IT. Huge massive friendly slogans backed by software that makes you cry and costs a fortune.

Ruthless media manipulation
Have posters printed, set up a web page, have an award in fact do anything that makes it look like you are doing this while in fact doing nothing of the sort. This tends to be a real management favourite, a new initiative, a new name and the same old behaviours and thinking. A big internal email campaign, possibly even some external press and most of all controlling all of the communication that goes between IT and the business.

Ever had a manager tell you "you can't talk to the business"? Or how about "tell me what you want and I'll find out" and then become convinced that they haven't talked to the business at all? What about architects who claim to "understand the business" and therefore don't let anyone else go direct?

Other bits here are in the creation of fake statistics and successes is another area here. The classic "well it was fine when I left it" and claiming improvements in areas where there aren't any metrics being formally gathered. This is where people claim "we've improved quality/productivity/time to market by X%" when all the evidence seems to show that in fact its got worse. The key is that the person manipulating and broadcasting the stats is the person responsible for them.

In IT departments the media manipulation tends to be internal rather than with the press but its the continual planting of stories and broadcasting of success (and others failures). A few other good ones here are where a project fails but its "all the fault of the vendor" or where a technology turns out to be rubbish and that is "down to the implementation team" the key is spinning and there are lots of people in IT who seem to think that spinning is as important as delivering.

Vendors are truly the best at this in terms of their external marketing. The product might be a bug-riddled piece of crap that won't even install from the CDs but thanks to some smart marketing, demoware and presentations its lauded as being a market leader.

Sacrifice of friends and colleagues
Now here is where IT often moves away from Mao in that I tend to see Cabals and cliques being the dominant factor with competing groups battling for supremacy. But then again isn't this exactly what Mao was about? Basically using different groups within the organisation as the scapegoats? Project fails because in reality the architecture was completely rubbish? Blame the project manager, the development team or India but never, ever allow people to point out that the architecture was unimplementable.
This is something I see over and over again as IT projects fail. The finger pointing starts and the "winner" is the one who gets the least blame and places the most blame elsewhere. Again this isn't actually about reality its about using other people to take the fall for you so you don't have to admit to failure yourself.

With Vendors I guess this would be how they stab each other in the back, but I'm not sure its as good an analogy.

Activity substituting for achievement
Now this is the area where IT, and in particular Architects, come into their own. Those constant internal meetings, those document reviews and those endless process improvement efforts that never improve anything. Its hard to imagine a group of people who create more noise for little achievement that those found in IT. In 2007 I saw people proudly demonstrate how they could use WSDLs in their tools... 2007? That was done in 2001. There are all the various frameworks out there, something IT developer love to do. Don't develop the solution, develop a framework and never get around to the solution.

With vendors this is all about adding new bells and whistles to the products, and to be fair to the vendors this is what the Chairman Mao impersonators in corporate IT and the blog world are asking them to do. Its not about making it better its more like "Pimp my product" with lots of new bling being added on to the same old crap in the mistaken belief that this actually makes it better.

Part of the problem is that the talent gap in IT is ridiculously huge. There really are a huge number of people who are, when all is said and done, just bluffing at their jobs and who follow (unknowingly) Mao's plans for success on a daily basis.

IT and Chairman Mao, maybe the required reading shouldn't be The Mythical Man Month but the mass murders' Little Red Book.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That was well written. There were times when I thought "Been there seen that".