Thursday, June 19, 2008

I'm a "light bulb" kinda guy

The overwhelming response I received to my previous post has led me to believe that I struck a chord with a good chunk of techies working in CA. This makes me happy. It also makes me sad because that means a large percentage of you are as fed up and dissatisfied as I am, and that sucks. Anyway, onto the post.

I'll probably be accused of constructing a straw man here, but of the folks who disagreed with me, their reasoning went something like this:

Everyone knows techies are notoriously lacking in social skills and therefore do a poor job communicating their ideas to the business. If the techies could just learn how to speak businessese, they would get listened to. If the idea saves the company money, the business will adopt it.

Well, I call bullshit. I've never understood where this notion came from that techies, as a group, lack social skills. Sure, there are a few weirdos like Hans Reiser out there, but he's no more lacking in social skills than O.J. Simpson. We may be a slightly more idiosyncratic bunch, but that doesn't mean we lack social skills. If you don't believe me, spend some time reading the comments section of Hacker News. Trust me, it'll boost your faith in humanity. It's the most erudite, courteous place on the internet. By and large, we're probably a more introspective and thoughtful group, and somehow that gets mistaken for bad social skills. Seems more of an indictment of society than of hackers. Besides, it's always the business guys who are screaming into their cell phones while sitting on the crapper. I don't know how you can get any more poorly socialized than that.

Techies don't speak businessese for the same reason we don't write apps in COBOL anymore: it's a horrible language. Businessese is full of clich├ęs and Orwellian doublespeak. “Problems” became “Issues” which became “Challenges”. I remember sitting in one unspeakably spirit crushing [and mandatory] meeting while some guy from Franklin Covey rambled on for two hours about “Wildly Important Goals” or “WIG's”. I felt like an anthropologist on Mars. How could any normal human being with an IQ above 100 buy into this crap? At the end, some older tech guy stood up and said that he's seen this kind of thing come and go and asked, “Will we still be talking about WIG's a year from now”? “Of course you will,” Willie Loman answered. “Upper management is very committed to this program.” Guess what? In less than 6 months time no one was talking about WIG's any more. I knew it. Every tech guy/gal I talked to knew it. But God forbid you actually say it.

Programmers learn as much about the business as they have to in order to do their job effectively. Can you say the same thing about the business folks? Do they learn as much about computers as they have to in order to do their jobs effectively? Of course not. You'll never find a group who wears their ignorance of technology more proudly than the average business person. “I'm not a computer guy,” they'll say with a big smile on their face. Well gee, the personal computer is only the most significant invention to come along in the past 100 years. You'd think one might be mildly curious about how it works. If you went around saying “I'm not a light bulb guy” people would look at you like you're nuts. You may not be a “light bulb guy”, but you know how to identify one that's broken, right? Presumably, you've mastered the skills necessary to change a light bulb. Granted, computers aren't light bulbs, but I think you get the idea.

The final point, that the business will adopt a change if it's proven to save the company money, is based on a false assumption; namely, that businesses behave in a rational manner. Other than Ayn Rand, I don't know anyone who believes this. I worked at one place that decided to use Siteminder over Sun's SSO solution because Computer Associates gave them a discount on COBOL runtime licenses for the mainframe. Never mind that Sun's solution would have been cheaper in the long run, those mainframe licenses will look great on this quarter's budget! For more evidence, read Some Creep's tale:

I recently watched the tendering process for a fairly simple development project. Maybe 5 pages all said an done, all implemented inside an existing sharepoint solution.

Provider 1 quoted about what it should cost. $6000 - cost of the work involved, and a mark up for the hassle of having to spec and bid for the job, and deal with a bureaucracy on completion.

Provider 2 and 3, having had relationships with the company before, quoted 335,000 and 425,000 respectively.

Provider 1 was excluded. Obviously their quote was so low because they were a mickey mouse company that didn't understand what was required. Provider 2 was questioned closely because they were so much lower then provider 3, and eventually after much reassurance from the sales people of Provider 2, they were selected.

One of the techies from another department saw the quote and asked to see the rest of the spec, assuming there was more to the job then what he was seeing. After the project manager confirmed that no no, that was the spec on which the company had quoted 335,000 - the techie expressed his concerns that the quote was vastly too high. The project manager called back and said 'One of my advisors thinks this price is really too high' - the sales monkey put him on hold, came back about 90 seconds later and knocked the price down to 235,000.

Project Manager thinks he got a bargain. Techie got a round of congratulations. And the company spent 40 times as much on the project as they should have.

That sound rational to you?


Rick said...

Thank you for posting EXACTLY what I was getting at with my (RickD) comment on HN. You said it much more eloquently than I could have.

Your key point has been more obvious to me than a slap in the face having worked in the insurance industry for the last 5 years. I've had to master TONS of insurance information/procedures/calculations while implementing our most recent systems, but the User Acceptance Testers still haven't figured out that you don't DOUBLE CLICK on links in the browser...

Again, you hit the nail right on the head- thanks for the article!

JeffMN57 said...

On the face, it doesn't seem rational, but I think this has more to do with human nature than with business stupidity. People tend to associate quality and price. Wine is a classic example: is that $90 bottle of wine really better than a $3 bottle? Maybe not, but people will buy that $90 bottle anyway just because the price makes it seem better.

The question becomes one of ethics: is it right to charge the company 40 times the value of the job if you know the company will happily pay?

mjb said...

"Techies don't speak businessese for the same reason we don't write apps in COBOL anymore: it's a horrible language"

The fact is, if you don't speak the same language as the decision-maker, you won't get listened to. It's as simple as that.

Complaining about it is just an excuse, not a solution.

Hari Seldon said...

I think that "buinessese" is not about WIGs or "challenges". It is about phrases such as "top line", "bottom line", "EBITDA", "cash flow", "Return on Working Capital", "Discounted Payback Period", or "profit". Particularly this last word, you can bet that management will always care for it, as it has cared for it for almost 300 years since the industrial revolution.

The problem with the notion that people should ONLY learn as much about the business as they need to do their jobs is that, somehow, it constructs the illusion that separate jobs add up to make a business. This is not so. Without a clear business strategy (some call it "vision") that makes business sense, is executable, and people can understand and comitt to it, then there is never going to be any business at all. Business is not about keeping the computers running, or talking on the cell phone. It's not even about sales or keeping the customers happy! It's about making the customer pay for something more than it costs the company to produce it, and that the differential is big enough to pay for all costs. If the customer feels that such state of affairs is beneficial to him (because it would cost him more, in money or time, to do it by himself, or simply because he can trust you), then he will return and buy even more overpriced stuff from your business, which will be able to pay the bills, the salaries, the taxes, the interests and the debt, and the shareholders who risked their money investing in the venture in the first place.

The truth is that you really don't NEED computers to do business (in the strictess sense of the word "need", that is, in the same sense that you don't "need" clothing to survive). Computers make business go faster, easier, and may even reduce costs; but unless you are a web-based company, computers aren't necessary to bring in customers, to charge them money, or to count them and pay the bills.

Sure, I agree that people should become familiar with tools that help them do their jobs more efficiently. But it is important to note that their job, and indeed, everyone in the corporation's job, is to help the company make enough money to pay the bills and make a profit. Fixing a computer is not essential to this, and since the corporation has a department full of IT guys who's job is to make sure the computer is fixed, and since management usually has other important things to do (like court a customer so that they'll agree on a deal, or making him pay).

About what you say that businesses don't behave rationally, this is an interesting issue debated by finance guys everywhere. In order for people to behave rationally, they must be given rational stimuli and complete information. First, the information, because this is the easy one. If the IT department learns a little bit of finance and can prove with numbers to a finance guy (namely, the CFO) that in the long run (and remember, to a CFO, "long run" usually means "3 to 5 years") a particular option will cost less (or produce more profit) than a competing option, then he'll be more inclined to take it. But if all he has is your word, and the salesman is showing him numbers, then he's going to go with what he sees and trusts everyday: the numbers. And this is exactly the mistake of the "techie" in Some Creep's tale. He told management that the cost was too high, but he didn't tell them why, nor did he showed it to them with numbers. Management, particularly upper management, because their job is extremely scrutinized by investors will always prefer a bad deal they can trust than a good deal where they don't know the outcome.

The second problem is more interesting, and this is the "stimuli" problem. In publicly traded corporations, the job of the CEO depends on the happiness of the board members. The board member's job depend on their ability to keep their jobs, which in turn depends on the happiness of the stockholder, which depends on how the stock is doing. Since the price of the stock depends on the results (profit, profit margin, return on working capital, etc.), the leverage (debt), the dividend, the risk, and the opportunities for growth, and since in the US each of these factors is revised by Wall Street quarterly, then it is obvious that people in the corporation who's job depends directly on these results (mainly, management) will have STRONG reasons to make the quarterly results look good, even if it hurts the long run.

There is a reason why the average CEO in a Fortune 500 company doesn't last more than 3 years.

I just want to make clear that I have nothing against techies, nor that I condone the idiocity of management. But if you really want to make a difference in your company, you should really learn to speak the language of management, which isn't Covey crap but Finance, and job security.

habitue01 said...

Perhaps if the techie had explained the phenomenon of Anchoring the manager would have had more reason to completely reevaluate the bids.

joelparkerhenderson said...

Your article says the personal computer is the most significant invention of the past 100 years. I daresay business cares much more about inventions from the 1900's like the assembly line, plastics, transitors, microchips, refrigeration, the electrical grid, photocopiers, credit cards and the internal combustion engine.

George Donnelly said...

Ayn rand NEVER said all businesses act rationally. If you want to smear at least know what you're talking about.

constance eustace said...

The will denial of the importance of IT in modern business is the worst mistake MBAs, business people, and companies make.

Once upon a time, business was fundamentally about financials: accounting, budgeting, and the like. Successful business began and ended with that.

Well guess what runs those functions, plus almost all other parts of every business in the world these days?

Information technology.

No business person gets through MBA school without learning accounting. How can any self-respecting MBA school crank out a manager without a fundamental knowledge of systems implementation management?

Michael Terry said...

It's popular and fun to mischaracterize Ayn Rand's beliefs to make her a paper cutout one can easily knock down. In fact, if you even superficially browse a couple of her novels, you'll see immediately that she doesn't remotely believe businesses to be infallible.

other said...

Thank you for posting this -- I've been trying to explain this very concept for years, but I could never say it as eloquently as this post. It's not acceptable to be clueless about something you use every day for your job, such as lightbulbs, cars, or the various idiosyncrasies of the company's accounting system.
The most effective managers I've worked with over the years are the ones who respect tech's opinions and recommendations. However, they aren't the norm. The worst companies are the ones who listen based on title and politics rather than actual function.

femto said...

Hi, can you use more plain English, I found some word
really seldom to use and
makes me harder to understand
your article, thanks.

Stefan said...

Why do you refer to Ayn Rand when you obviously haven't read any of her books? If your ignorance of Rand's beliefs doesnt stop you from writing about her, then why should we trust you on other matters?

Monkeyget said...

Here is an interesting article about what business people should know about computers :

Needless To say that the opposite is also true : “I don’t understand business” is not an excuse.

LaZyLion said...

Techs are hired to fix computers. Not run numbers. Surely somebody somewhere must have the job to do the research behind proposals? Not just blindly accept what a salesman is telling them.

Nothing To See Here said...

It never ceases to amaze me what people will glom onto. There was one sentence in the entire piece that mentioned Ayn Rand and there's 3 comments about it (so far). First, the statement was said, obviously, tongue firmly placed in cheek. Second, I've read a ton of Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, We The Living, Anthem, Night of Jan. 16th). I've also read 2 bios about her. And listened to Nathaniel Brandon's lecture series on tape. I have a well worn copy of an Objectivist dictionary from when I was a young philosophy student. I'm not an Objectivist because they're a humorless lot. Ayn Rand was a brilliant woman, but she took herself waaaaay to seriously. Her statements on aesthetics and compromise should be enough to drive any well reasoned, sane person from the room screaming.

Heck, where are the Arthur Miller heads? I made a comment about Willie Loman (Death of a Salesman) and no one's laying into me for that. After all, Loman didn't work for Franklin Covey.

Andrew said...

Good article.

Also, you seem to have attracted the attention of the Ayn Rand bots.

For them, this:

Paul Johnson said...

HariSeldon made an intelligent and thoughtful comment worthy of its own blog post. However I only agree partially with what he said.

Learning real business (i.e. financial) language is indeed necessary if you are to get your ideas taken seriously. However it is not sufficient. Senior managers get a lot of people coming to them with bright ideas, and a lot of those people can write a business case with a projected cash flow. But any business that tried to implement all those ideas would go bust very fast, for two reasons:

1: Its very easy to produce a spreadsheet that makes your idea look like a financial winner. Just choose your assumptions carefully. As long as they are not demonstrably false nobody will challenge them because they know that you are the expert, and therefore they will probably lose the argument regardless of the validity of your case. The most a business case can do is demonstrate that your idea could be profitable, not prove that it will be.

2: The company has finite resources, and if those resources are not already close to 100% committed then the company is likely to go bust. Probably the most critical finite resource is senior management attention (in my experience this is usually run at around 110% of sustainable capacity). So the decision makers know that implementing a bright idea means taking their eye off the ball somewhere else.

Therefore if you want to make senior management implement something you need a stronger message than just a business case with a positive cash flow. A very effective one is the "burning platform". The term comes from the Piper Alpha disaster in which a North Sea oil rig caught fire. The men on board had to choose between staying on board (life expectancy of seconds, no rescue possible) and jumping into the sea (life expectancy of minutes, rescue on its way). Normally jumping into the North Sea is a suicidal thing to do, but when Piper Alpha was on fire it was exactly the right thing to do.

Similarly for a business: implementing your proposal carries costs and risks, and the more you argue about them the less convincing you sound. So instead you must concentrate on the terrible disaster looming ahead if your idea is not adopted. Potential Burning Platform messages include "Our competitors will be able to undercut us / deliver faster", "Cost X is rapidly increasing and will soon exceed 50%" and "Our core product is about to become obsolete".

If you can't find a Burning Platform then look for Senior Management Pain. As I said earlier, senior management attention is a limited resource so they direct it at whatever is currently causing problems. If you can pitch your proposal as solving one of those problems then they will be strongly disposed to implement it.

Greg said...

I think the most important thing you mention in this, and previous articles is the fact that Business and IT do not speak the same language. I could not agree more.

This fact, however, does not, and should not be used to negatively characterize business people: just because we don't understand what drives them, means that they are incompetent.

Any IT organization is first and foremost a support organization. We do not generate revenue - but we give business the tools to do that.

Problems begin when Business thinks they know exactly what tools they need to get the job done.

The issue here is with the fact that IT manages, while Business leads. They SHOULD be defining the "what", while we DICTATE the "how".

Unfortunately very often we see Business doing both - leading and trying to manage processes they do not understand.

They say that systems analysts serve as the liaison between Business and IT; I think that people who can understand both sides are extremely rare.


Admin said...

Wow, the Ayn Rand cultists are out in force! You would have done as well making an offhand remark about Sciento... never mind, or Python.

Mike Kavis said...

I turned in my two weeks and I don't have another job. After 13 years of working hard vs. working smart, I threw in the towel.

My take on the topic you raise is that if the CA has a strong CIO who is a partner with the business, and at the same time runs a decent IT shop that delivers value, then the business will listen to IT. Otherwise, you get the we-they relationship between the two groups and the company loses.

That is why I resigned. I am a member of a management team that is risk adverse and afraid of change. Most recommendations fell on deaf ears and we continued to fight and get rewarded for the same fire fighting exercises year after year.

At some point it becomes time to move on and hope the next place has a better plan.

Matt Joyce said...

IT people talking about IT sounds very geeky to those who aren't familiar with the terminology and in many cases recent internet memes.

Business speak sounds plain creepy to me, full of odd euphemisms and inefficient redundancies (going forward, resulting outcomes).
However to business people, this is all normal.

I doubt this is going to change much.

I would like to agree that tech are not socially dysfunctional. Discussion, conversation and the like are all protocols, and techs can learn that stuff.

Nice post mate, saying what many want to say.

Jacob Proffitt said...

You might actually have a point if the business side and IT side of a company were somehow equal. They aren't and never will be. I'd go further and say they should never be equal. Committees of equal partners simply don't work in the marketplace and never have.

And the fact of the matter is that companies that allow IT to override business managers don't succeed. The dot net bubble of 2001 left evidence smeared all over the landscape of what happens when IT makes business decisions. It ain't pretty.

ingenioso said...

Another problem that arises in companies is that the IT management isn't really made up of real IT people. They are all worried about how to "climb" the ladder. The others are just control hungry. What happens is that the good ideas from us poor engineers with over 15 years experience never get past our own management! This is because the true IT people don't get high enough to make any real changes. The only way to get that high is to be a "Business" person. It is unfortunate because there are some very good ideas that are lost. Ideas that can save money and make the business better. But many people (management) don't care about IT or what is truly best for the business.. they just care about themselves. They thrive on playing the "business game". Lengthy RFP processes, false sense of security in SLAs, outsourcing, "vendor management", contract signing etc. are all things that these "management types" need in order to look like they are doing something. They AREN'T concerned about what the best solution is.

This is the difference between "business people" and IT people. Just because they are IT managers, doesn't mean they are really of the IT mentality.