Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Information Technology Life Cycle

From the bad old days of Hulking Giant Mainframes to the era of Grid Computing and Cloud Computing, I've observed a distinct life cycle of Information Techology organisations. This little piece is intended to share my anecdotal observations. No properly controlled study has been conducted to validate these findings; they are merely intended as a framework that might guide future research.

It is critically important to note that no criticism is intended of the hard workers who labour in the IT coal mines. They are no more in control of the forces that drive the IT life cycle than their clients (or their managers). Rather, the life cycle appears to be an inexorable consequence of organisational ecology.

Phase 1. Someone goes out and buys a shiny new computer. The proud owner puts some software on it, and uses it to solve some problems. Life is good, and then...

Phase 2. The owner's colleague realizes that the computer provides an effective solution to a problem that the colleague shares. "Hey, can I borrow your computing resources for my problem too?" asks the colleague. "Sure," replies the owner, because most owners of shiny new computers are eager to help their colleagues (and show off that their shiny new computers weren't a total waste of money and time). Now two people are getting their problems solved. Life is even better. Perhaps even more people join in the fun, until...

Phase 3. The computer becomes too big to handle as a side project. Either enough people are using it that they interfere with the owner's own work, or they are starting to interfere with each other, or there has been a failure and people realize that hey, maybe backups would have been a good thing after all. However it happens, there are two outcomes: either the original owner winds up having his job redefined to comprise mostly the care and feeding of the computer, or else the original owner (or his boss) hires someone to attend to it. An Information Technology organisation is born. The newfound support from management allows even more colleagues to get their problems solved. Life is sublime. Except for the poor IT guy, who finds out that...

Phase 4. More and more users come to the IT organization with more and more problems to be solved. Not all of these users are good friends of the computer owner; now they are people that the boss sent over. The IT guy works really hard to solve their problems, but discovers that it's an uphill battle. Some users want one thing, and some want another. Everyone wants an unreasonable quality of service. Work still gets done, but life is deteriorating, until eventually...

Phase 5. The IT guy eventually, to preserve sanity, begins to realize that the real mission of Information Technology is to protect the computer from the users. Anything new runs the risk of breaking existing functionality, so nothing can be done for the first time, ever. New development becomes forbidden. Management starts buying products to lock down system configurations, lest some user change something. The IT department may be outsourced. Work still gets accomplished, because by now the system is capable of handling most of the business's processes. Nevertheless, businesses continue to grow and change, and the system becomes a progressively worse match to the real needs. Eventually, someone decides that in order to make progress, they have to...

Phase 1.Buy a shiny new computer (which by now has become so cheap that they might even do it on their own nickel). Put some applications on it to do the actual work. Use it happily. The cycle has begun anew.

The turning of the cycle leaves systems and IT organisations in its wake. I've been to sites where there is a Hulking Giant Mainframe running business applications like Payroll; a successor to a Department Minicomputer running things like Sourcing; a Scientific Computer Cluster serving a bunch of Engineering Workstations; a whole lot of Personal Computers running Office Automation applications; Web Servers; Database Servers; Application Servers; maintained by half a dozen different Information Technology organizations - all of them ossified, and none of them speaking to any of the others (or to the users) in anything but a sneering tone.

In the spirit of Departing From The Script, I wonder:

Is there a way to step off this endless cycle? Or is it as inevitable as the Software Upgrade Treadmill, and just another manifestation of the Wheel of Life?

The solution, offered by some organizations, of requiring all new computer purchases to go through the IT Department, attempts to break the cycle. This so-called solution merely breeds stagnation, discontent, and eventual mutiny. The mutiny, if successful, merely has the effect of returning the cycle to Phase 1 for the mutineers.

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