Monday, April 29, 2013

IT is a fashion industry

You know when people laugh at the fashion industry for saying that 'blue is the new black' and because of its ridiculous amount of fawning over models, designers and the like?  Is that really different to IT?  We've got our fashion houses - Google, Facebook, Apple.  We've got the big bulk conglomerates IBM, Oracle, SAP, Microsoft and oh hell the fawning that goes around...

I'd say the comparison goes even deeper however.  EAI, Web Services, REST... what are these?  They are all integration approaches.  EAI was going to save the enterprise and create a well managed estate that the business could use and could be changed easily and enable integration with external companies... Web Services were going to save the enterprise by standardising the interfaces enabling a well managed estate the business could use and could be easily... REST was going to save all of IT by enabling interfaces that could be dynamically changed and enable integration...

The point is that the long term challenge is the same, system to system integration, yet we have fad based approaches to solve that challenge.  Its like the fashion industry and dress lengths, it goes up and down, but its still a dress.  The real difference in IT however is that the fashion industry does this better, sure they change the hem, but it still works as a dress.  In IT we concentrate so much on the hem length that we don't even bother with the fact that system to system integration appears to be as hard in 2013 as it was in 1999.  We even know why, the Silver Bullet tells us that technology won't solve the problem on its own.  But do we listen?  No because we are followers of fashion.

This analogy to fashion applies to the age discrimination in IT, we love the young and shiny, and age discrimination against new entrants is wonderfully not present.  However the flip side of that is there is an over emphasis on the new in IT, so we prefer doing things in 'new' ways rather than in 'working' ways, and unlike in the fashion industry we don't actually learn from sales what is successful.  If we've got a fad (hello REST) that works in some places but not in others we'll keep on pushing that fashion even as it fails to set the world on fire.  Its the emperor's new clothes effect, and in IT we do the equivalent of the beauty industry.  In the beauty industry you'll see adverts for 'age defying creams' advertised by 16 year old models.  In IT you'll see enterprise solutions pushed by using Google as an example.  We love the new, we love the young, and we really rather hate facing up to the fact that IT is quite an old industry now and 90%+ of the stuff out there is a long way from new and shiny.

The analysts and vendors are the Vogue and Fashion Houses in this world, the pushing of the new as the 'must have' technology and dire warnings if you dare to actually make the old stuff work.  The concentration on the outfit (the technology product) and little about how it actually works in the real-world (operations).  You know when you see outfits at London, New York, Milan or Paris fashion weeks been shown on the news under the 'what madness do designers think we will wear next' section.  Is that so different from an analyst or vendor pushing a new technology without explaining at all how it will fit into the operations of your current business?  We will see things like people declaring the end to SQL... and then a few years later those same people championing SQL as the approach, now that they've realised people can operate their technology if they do that.

The final place I'll talk about IT and fashion is in the 'rebadging' that we see.  In the fashion industry you see old ideas rehashed and pushed down the catwalk as being 'retro'.  There is at least some honesty in the fashion industry as they talk about it being inspired by an era, when we all know what they mean is 'I didn't have an original idea, so I copied one that was old enough that people will think its original to copy'.

In IT we don't even have the honesty of the fashion industry, what we do is see a new trend and claim that old technologies are actually part of that new trend.  We'll take an old EAI tool and slap on an SOA logo, we'll take a hub and spoke broker and call it an ESB.  This re-badging of technology goes on and on, sometimes you'll be in a meeting and suddenly realise 'hang on, I used that 12 years ago... how the hell is it now new?'. This would be fine if the focus was on building a robust product, but too often its just about how to get on an RFP and shift a few more units with actual investment in new approaches being few and far between.

IT and the fashion industry are miles apart in many ways, but the faddish nature of our industries make us very similar.  The problem is that fashion is allowed to be faddish, its not expected that a business will rely on something made 20 years ago but with IT this faddish behaviour is a big problem.  We are meant to be constructing systems on which a business can rely, not just today but 5 years from now and still be leveraging in 10, 20 or even 30 years time if its well constructed and does the job well.  There are mainframe systems out there doing exactly that, and why haven't they been replaced?  Because the new stuff didn't do the job.

IT needs to stop being like the fashion industry and more like the aircraft manufacturing industry, sure they have 'fads' like an all composite aircraft, but that is based on sound data as well as strategic vision. Its not just based on it being what the cool kids do.   We can do the cool stuff, we can do the new stuff, but we need to recognise that there is lots of stuff out there that needs to change, we can't just use Google or Facebook as references or examples, that would be like Boeing selling a plane technology based on what people did in movies, its just too far removed from the enterprise reality.  We need to stop blindly following IT fashion and start critically appraising it and shouting 'emperor's new clothes' when its bullshit.  Most of all we need to look at enterprise technologies based on how they improve the 'now' not based on 'if only we could replace everything', evolution is the revolution in IT.

Its time for IT to grow up and take responsibility for the mess we've created.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Being a custodian of shiny new technology pays off in enterprise IT. Fashion designers can afford to be more honest because their industry acknowledges them as artists who can create a masterpiece by sewing together pieces of ordinary cloth. Contrast that with how designers are treated by the enterprise.