Bulletin 18 September 2020 - The more that things change, the more they stay the same
I'm worried I don't have imposter syndrome...
What a difference a year makes. This time last year, I remember it well, the feeling of being unable to sustain the weekly newsletter I had been writing. Work had taken an unexpected turn, in that one client had a stream of activity that was growing like topsy. It was all hands to the pumps as we looked to get on top of it all — somewhere along the way, I was given the rather snazzy title of VP of Research.
Nothing has changed. Throughout lockdown, things have stayed as busy as ever. We were very lucky in one way: when the company was relaunched a few years ago, it did so without expensive offices in downtown San Francisco, preferring to focus on delivery. The business is multi-location, multi-timezone and works on the basis of trust, that people aren’t off playing golf when they should be working. Turns out, looking at recent circumstances, that people in general are pretty trustworthy, if you give them half the chance. Every barrel has bad apples, etc, but the point stands.
So, yes, super-busy but nonetheless I’ve had time to reflect. Not least on my area of focus, which is how software is developed and deployed into operational use. There’s a massive irony here. My first job was as a programmer; I later ran tools and infrastructure for development teams; I went on to advise some pretty big organisations on how to develop software, and how to manage data centres, servers, storage, networking, security and all that. I’ve written books about it, for heaven’s sake — so how come, when I came to focus on this area again, I felt so out of my depth?
I’ve been tussling with this question for the last couple of years. Part of the answer is down to the fact that languages (including programming languages), mechanisms and tools change, as do infrastructure targets. Declarative and event-driven approaches are generally beyond me: you can put me in the category of someone who can write Pascal in any language. People change, and so do ways of thinking, of interacting. Which is why I felt even more out of place than usual, when I went to a GitHub Universe conference (they should have a special corner for old farts, with, I don’t know, ink pens to play with or something).
However, I’ve seen patterns emerge, patterns which have both eased my fears, and given me the opportunity to give something back. Back in the Nineties I was working at the forefront of what we might call ‘the agile boom’ — a time in which older, ponderous approaches to software production, with two-year lead times and no guarantees of success — were being reconsidered in the light of the internet boom. The idea was, and remains simple: take too long to deliver something, and the world will have moved on.
I’ve watched as methodologies have evolved, as programmers have been positioned as the kingmakers, as yet more books have been written, each claiming to have discovered some secret of unprecedented success, or a way to avoid inevitable failure. Look at Netflix and Amazon! Look at Blockbuster and Kodak! No doubt, these success and failure stories are real, but need to be tempered with the fact that four fifths of technology startups fail, whatever clever techniques they’re following. And meanwhile, many of the biggest, oldest businesses in the world lumber on.
Aided by online information sharing, the world has become lifestyle-oriented, with new and improved always preferable to whatever was happening before — and the tech industry has not escaped the grasp of faddishness. No wonder I was feeling out of place, as I probably wasn’t the target market. Meanwhile, beneath the surface lies a simple truth, that such short-termism means missing out on fundamental elements such as planning, setting strategy and so on. And the spin-off result of doing lots of things very fast, is to generate a lot of complexity which then needs to be managed.
Ah-ha, I thought to myself. It’s no surprise to me that we’re seeing what we might call ‘a wave of governance’ start to envelop the world of software development, as short-term perspectives are reconsidered in favour of getting things right first time. There’s buzz-phrases for this, of course, such as ‘shift-left’, which is about thinking about quality and security earlier in the process. Looking for governance-related topics to write about, I actively chose to align with the world of Value Stream Management (VSM), which essentially brings business process optimisation to software delivery. I paraphrase but that’s close enough.
Do I think that software should be delivered more slowly, or favour a return to old-fashioned methodologies? Absolutely not. But it is right and proper that current approaches should mature to take longer-term goals into account. I know that even our most darling of cloud-native mega-businesses are now struggling with the complexity of what they have created — good for them for ignoring it while they established their brand, but you can only put good old-fashioned configuration management off for so long.
So, yes, I’ve moved from a state of imposter syndrome to one in which I feel I can contribute some of the older lessons. And the good news is, it’s not just me that can do so. Many older, larger companies I have spoken to feel similarly out of their depth, like they can’t compete with newer organisations. For sure, they can’t suddenly become carefree startups; however they can recognise that many enterprise-y practices (such as aforementioned strategy and planning) are actually a good thing, which can be woven into new ways of delivering software. Put simply, as newer approaches evolve and mature, they become more appropriate for enterprise use.
I’ll leave that thought there, other to say: don’t feel you have to be down with the cool kids, they haven’t got everything right and still have plenty to learn. That’s as true from a corporate, as an individual perspective.
Someone, Somewhere — The Whole Of The World
In other news, I’ve written a song. It was quite cathartic to write and develop - you can hear it here. I’ve entered it in a local music competition if you like it and want to vote - it's song number 34.
All the best, and perhaps see you next year if not before. Thanks for reading,