All cultures, industries and groups have myths, stories and idioms that form part of the rich tapestry that binds them (us) together with our families, peers, colleagues and countrymen/women.
I am interested in the second definition of myths, as – widely held but false belief[s] – as they pervade the IT industry. However, sometimes we find the other sort, allegories and lore.
I mention two of these in my previous post about metaphors; Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes and silver bullets.
The first comes as a useful lesson to avoid jargon and communicate clearly and inclusively – but also more cynically it can refer to being sold a pup (idiom), a dummy (sporting metaphor) or vapourware (jargon!)
The meaning of silver bullet is interesting (werewolves are involved) but has also been subtly shifted over time and use. It can either mean, somewhat naively, that there is a simple solution to a problem, or the opposite, that there is no silver bullet. Almost all the examples below suffer from similar doublethink.
Consider the following as either positive optimistic attitudes, or as more negative but realistic, not to say pessimistic, assessments of the way things work.
(Ed. as an aside the English language has a lot of words – 75 in this list – that can have two contradictory meanings, referred to as contronyms)
Top 10 IT myths
(1) People know what they want
This is different from the Customer is always right, but does suggest that the person asking or paying for something knows exactly what they what. This is seldom the case, hence the need for Business Analysts, domain and solution experts to provide guidance on getting the best, or the best possible, outcome.
People not knowing what they want, particularly at the beginning of the process, is one of the main drivers behind the Agile movement, which actively ‘welcomes changing requirements’.
There is a skill and craft to capturing requirements, which may involve advanced questioning, probing, modelling and analytical techniques….all of which are key to understanding needs, resolving conflicts, and moving towards possible solutions.
(2) Things happen if they are on a plan
Erm no they don’t. Project Managers (or similar) capture aspirational tasks, dependencies and targets in plans, but that does not mean that this all happens as expected.
However, there are a lot of things that can prevent a plan being carried out (executed). This is one of the main challenges of projects, to keep everything on course, check on progress, respond to problems, blockers or delays (internal or external).
In fact, referring to (1) above, dispensing with detailed plans and empowering teams and trusting them to do the right things at the right time is another principle of the Agile movement:
Build projects around motivated individuals.
Give them the environment and support they need,
and trust them to get the job done
(3) Nothing goes wrong
Here is more evidence that optimistic human nature can get in the way of pragmatism and realism, as in the truism.
Hope for the best and plan for the worst
A whole discipline in project management is concerned with identifying possible risks – things that could go wrong – and then taking the necessary steps to prevent or otherwise reduce any damaging impact (mitigate). Risk Management and its fire-fighting cousin Issue Management prove that things do go wrong.
(4) People read documents*
(*and emails, progress reports, actions from meetings, and project plans!)
Of course you expect your lovingly crafted document to be read, understood, given appropriate attention with feedback and comments, maybe even some form of acknowledge, acceptance or sign-off?
However, back in the real world, the time available and interest level/motivation of the receiver seldom matches yours as the sender. Also, in my experience, people have less time and inclination to read, not just traditional words-on-paper, but any medium. I’ve written a bit about this recently – about Communication Technologies and Communication Styles – and will do more in the future.
Why? Because effective communication matters in offices, project teams, schools, and online eLearning provision!
(5) Good things are repeatable and scalable
Repeatable; meaning that given the same ingredients and the same recipe, you will always bake the same cake, or even a different but otherwise acceptable/palatable cake?
Unfortunately this can’t be guaranteed or predicted in a lot of cases because;
- No project or endeavour is ever completely the same
- Environmental and uncontrolled factors create uncertainty and variance
- People are involved and people sometimes do irrational and unpredictable things
Why is this important? In two respects managers and practitioners want some degree of certainty. Firstly, estimating, whether formal or informal, is often done on the basis of past similar experiences, used as a benchmark or guide to predict costs, timescales and resources. Secondly, in order to increase production, i.e. doing more of the same (the outputs/final product), assumptions are made about the scalability of the inputs and tasks.
(Ed. can you be a ‘little bit certain’ – that sounds like an oxymoron?)
Producing twice as many widgets is likely to need twice the input raw material for example. However, doubling the size of a project team does not necessarily result in twice the productivity, for example the number of interactions between team members does not double by rises exponentially according to the formula (n x (n-1))/2, where ‘n’ is the number of people.
(6) Obsolete Systems/Products/Practices are Decommissioned
Decommissioning meaning switching-off, removing, or otherwise disposing-of obsolete [legacy] systems, which may have been superseded, or over time become too complex or costly to maintain. Think end-of-life nuclear power stations, but also early generation software systems that can degrade, and stored data that can rot – yes data rot is a real thing!
Unfortunately with software and IT systems it’s normally cheaper and easier, and definitely tempting for the sponsor, to start again with a clean sheet of paper or a green field site.
Old systems are left to gradually die away…until the company no longer exists, is absorbed into another entity, or some brave soul tackles the technical debt in a separate piece of work to refresh or replace old systems. There is also the final solution, switching systems off and hope for the best! It’s high risk, but people normally shout if something important stops working.
(7) Technology is Designed to become Obsolete
We take it for granted in western consumer societies that clothes, cars, mobile ‘phones, almost everything we buy is designed to last only a season or until something better comes along. This is so deeply embedded in our psyche that we seldom challenge it; for everyone complaining about the cost or lack of compatibility, there are another 10 people desperate to buy (or lease) the new and throw out the old, even if it is still perfectly usable.
The accepted wisdom is that the inter-war US car industry picked up the idea of perpetual design and built-in/planned obsolescence from bicycle manufacturing, used to keep the workforce and production lines busy and to stimulate new demand…after all you can only ride in one car or on one bicycle at a time, so how else can you encourage replacement earlier than is necessary? I would suggest that human nature desires novelty and continual improvement, from the first rudimentary tools that cave dwellers used to the animal skins that they wore – probably.
Aside from consumer electronics, software and software developers are the same, always upgrading versions and releases, introducing new must-have features. I’m willing to bet that a 30-year-old word processor, for example, does much of what is needed for the majority of C21st writers? The love of vintage (including retro-gaming), recycling and up-cycling are some of the reactions to the fashion and form over function.
(8) Everyone else knows what they are talking about
We are back int Emperor’s New Clothes territory.
This happens to me a lot as a Business Analyst in the IT industry, the not knowing or not understanding stuff. To ward off paranoia I always assume that all things are knowable and can be understood with questioning, investigation and possibly challenging.
This dichotomy is at the heart of the IT elementary school, which provides a safe place to learn the jargon and debunk unnecessarily technical or obscure terms. This won’t give you all the answers in all scenarios, but at least it may help you to build some confidence and get you to a basecamp from which to scale the more complicated heights!
(9) Technology just works or conversely doesn’t work!
This myth – or rather a frustrated cry – came from a twitter conversation:
…another myth is that software always does what it’s meant to!
Wow, that’s quite a statement, and one that I can’t fully or even concisely answer here. However, here is a list of possible reasons, or different sub-divisions of the problem. And it is a problem that qualifies as a myth because all computer systems, software and technology is meant to work…there is normally an army of analysts, designers, developers, testers/quality assurance specialists and other trying to ensure that it is so.
- Incompatibility or plain technical failure can come in many forms; software, hardware, platform, security/access, connectivity etc.
- The wrong product, incorrect use (user error!) or usability issues
- Poorly-conceived requirements, poor design or faulty development/fabrication; despite what I said in the preamble, given any amount of rigour the product could be plain unusable for its intended purpose
- Lack of training or product knowledge, which in itself might be a design problem.
- Bugs; products can be released or sold with known problems
- Changing circumstances. All the above may be more-or-less manageable, but what happens when the world changes! (user needs or expectations, changes to regulation or other external factors, for example)
(10) Technology makes things easier
I’m sure we have all been subjected to some new technology and have found it annoying and maybe a backwards step, making your life more complicated than it needs to be or that you are used to. And that is the crunch, we all come to rely on familiar technology, even people who work in IT resist change that is viewed as an imposition.
A couple of examples come to mind, self-service tills in shops and online banking; technologies that do (can) offer significantly more and efficient ways to carry out normal everyday tasks.
These technologies are here to stay, and the IT myths will persist, confound and frustrate whether you accept them or not. In the words of the Daleks (Dr. Who), ‘resistance is futile’.
I hope you enjoyed this article. Have you got any favourite IT myths that you can share?
© 2016 The IT elementary school