Of True Believers and Convenient Ends

The passage below is from Gulliver’s Travels, Dean Jonathan Swift, Chapter 4. Amazingly out of copyright. [Shorely shum mishtake? Ed.]

One Morning, about a Fortnight after I had obtained my Liberty, Reldresal, Principal Secretary (as they style him) of private Affairs, came to my House, attended only by one Servant. He ordered his Coach to wait at a distance, and desired I would give him an Hour’s Audience; which I readily consented to, on account of his Quality, and Personal Merits, as well as the many good Offices he had done me during my Sollicitations at Court. I offered to lie down, that he might the more conveniently reach my Ear; but he chose rather to let me hold him in my hand during our Conversation. He began with Compliments on my Liberty; said he might pretend to some Merit in it: but, however, added, that if it had not been for the present Situation of things at Court, perhaps I might not have obtained it so soon. For, said he, as flourishing a Condition as we may appear to be in to Foreigners, we labor under two mighty Evils; a violent Faction at home, and the Danger of an Invasion by a most potent Enemy from abroad. As to the first, you are to understand, that for above seventy Moons past there have been two struggling Parties in this Empire, under the Names of Tramecksan and Slamecksan, from the high and low Heels on their shoes, by which they distinguish themselves. It is alleged indeed, that the high Heels are most agreeable to our ancient Constitution: But however this be, his Majesty has determined to make use of only low Heels in the Administration of the Government, and all Offices in the Gift of the Crown, as you cannot but observe; and particularly, that his Majesty’s Imperial Heels are lower at least by a Drurr than any of his Court; (Drurr is a Measure about the fourteenth Part of an Inch). The Animositys between these two Parties run so high, that they will neither eat nor drink, nor talk with each other. We compute the Tramecksan, or High-Heels, to exceed us in number; but the Power is wholly on our Side. We apprehend his Imperial Highness, the Heir to the Crown, to have some Tendency towards the High-Heels; at least we can plainly discover one of his Heels higher than the other, which gives him a Hobble in his Gait. Now, in the midst of these intestine Disquiets, we are threatened with an Invasion from the Island of Blefuscu, which is the other great Empire of the Universe, almost as large and powerful as this of his Majesty. For as to what we have heard you affirm, that there are other Kingdoms and States in the World inhabited by human Creatures as large as yourself, our Philosophers are in much doubt, and would rather conjecture that you dropt from the Moon, or one of the Stars; because it is certain, that a hundred Mortals of your Bulk would, in a short time, destroy all the Fruits and Cattle of his Majesty’s Dominions. Besides, our Histories of six thousand Moons make no mention of any other Regions, than the two great Empires of Lilliput and Blefuscu. Which two mighty Powers have, as I was going to tell you, been engaged in a most obstinate War for six and thirty Moons past. It began upon the following Occasion. It is allowed on all Hands, that the primitive way of breaking Eggs, before we eat them, was upon the larger End: But his present Majesty’s Grand-father, while he was a Boy, going to eat an Egg, and breaking it according to the ancient Practice, happened to cut one of his Fingers. Whereupon the Emperor his Father published an Edict, commanding all his Subjects, upon great Penaltys, to break the smaller End of their Eggs. The People so highly resented this Law, that our Histories tell us there have been six Rebellions raised on that account; wherein one Emperor lost his Life, and another his Crown. These civil Commotions were constantly fomented by the Monarchs of Blefuscu; and when they were quelled, the Exiles always fled for Refuge to that Empire. It is computed, that eleven thousand Persons have, at several times, suffered Death, rather than submit to break their Eggs at the smaller End. Many hundred large Volumes have been published upon this Controversy: But the books of the Big-Endians have been long forbidden, and the whole Party rendered incapable by Law of holding Employments. During the Course of these Troubles, the Emperors of Blefuscu did frequently expostulate by their Ambassadors, accusing us of making a Schism in Religion, by offending against a fundamental Doctrine of our great Prophet Lustrog, in the fifty-fourth Chapter of the Brundrecal (which is their Alcoran.) This, however, is thought to be a meer Strain upon the Text: For the Words are these: That all true Believers shall break their Eggs at the convenient End: and which is the convenient End, seems, in my humble Opinion, to be left to every Man’s Conscience, or at least in the power of the Chief Magistrate to determine. Now the Big-Endian Exiles have found so much Credit in the Emperor of Blefuscu‘s Court, and so much private Assistance and Encouragement from their Party here at home, that a bloody War has been carried on between the two Empires for six and thirty Moons with various Success; during which time we have lost forty Capital Ships, and a much greater number of smaller Vessels, together with thirty thousand of our best Seamen and Soldiers; and the Damage received by the Enemy is reckon’d to be somewhat greater than Ours. However, they have now equipped a numerous Fleet, and are just preparing to make a Descent upon us; and his Imperial Majesty, placing great Confidence in your Valour and Strength, has commanded me to lay this Account of his affairs before you.

I desired the Secretary to present my humble Duty to the Emperor, and to let him know, that I thought it would not become Me, who was a Foreigner, to interfere with Parties; but I was ready, with the hazard of my Life, to defend his Person and State against all Invaders.

Blefuscu and Lilliput. Two states that waged war on each other, just because they chose to eat their boiled eggs differently.  One started at the Big End, the other at the Little End.

Some of you commented on my “polarisation” piece yesterday, and I thought I’d take that particular aspect of the discussion forward. After all, it’s a bit like Blefuscu and Lilliput.

I think there are three aspects to this:

One, we’re seeing a battle between those who are technically literate and those who aren’t as yet, the dinosaurs versus the newbies.

I have witnessed and experienced many polarised debates in IT over the last 30 years, particularly since opensource became a viable option, and, ever since OSX, even including a couple of Microsoft versus Apple sessions. Yet those debates pass into insignificance when you look at the way people get passionate about the social media tools they use. And I think there’s a reason for it. It’s what Kathy Sierra called the KoolAid Point, if I remember correctly. We’re seeing something new: those who were historically not techno-literate are now finding it easy to use these tools, tools that have themselves been the exclusive domain of the techno-literate. And the newbies will not give in without a fight, they’ve moved past the point of “your system doesn’t work” to that of “my system doesn’t work”. So they’re passionate. Which is a good thing.

Two, we’re seeing a battle between those who “manage stuff” and those who “do stuff”, the management professionals versus the software professionals.

This polarisation first came into my view when I saw the opensource-versus-vendor debates open up; I was expecting the arguments to run on technical and commercial grounds, and wasn’t prepared for the venom I faced when I espoused opensource many years ago. It took me a while to realise just how many people “manage” technical matters, reducing what they do to a variant of contract and purchase order management. They are so keen to become “the business” that they forget their primary role, to advise on, construct and deliver technical solutions to business problems. Rather than outsource operations, or even segments of development, they outsource thinking. Vendors exploit this (who could blame them) and this in turn leads to polarised arguments. This is a bad thing, and needs to be sorted out. Cue VRM.

Three, we’re seeing a battle between the “deliver-fast” versus the ‘deliver-right”. 

I think it was Rupert Murdoch who said: Big won’t beat small any more. Fast will beat slow. This is probably the most contentious of the polarisations. Most people have grown up with the idea that cost, time and quality are variables you need to trade off against each other, and as a result refuse to accept the concept of faster, better, cheaper even as a possibility. Agile techniques, fast iteration and fail-fast principles get them very upset indeed. [I have been flamed more often for this particular set of beliefs than any other beliefs, strangely enough.] Much of what is the Web; much of what is Web 2.0; much of what is Social Media; all these are predicated on internet time, on functional integrity with incremental functionality, on perennial betas, on feedback loops and fix-as-we-go.

All these three polarisations are themselves cutting across the San Andreas fault running through technology (or maybe it should be the Berlin Wall). Whatever it is, the tectonic plates have shifted. The Wall has come down. There is no more a Holy of Holies where the IT industry can hide.

We’re not the first profession to face this, and we won’t be the last. Priests, doctors and lawyers have all faced this before us, and accountants are facing it now. We can all no longer use inconvenient languages and esoteric jargon to separate us and protect our professions; we can all no longer walk around saying “this is complex, you won’t understand it”; and we can all no longer act arrogant about what we do, to the detriment of our customers.

All these three polarisations are about one thing and one thing only: the customer is in control.

You better believe it.

10 thoughts on “Of True Believers and Convenient Ends”

  1. Well some honest debate from another perspective:

    Re “Some of you commented on my “polarisation” piece yesterday” the IT biz is full of people who will take black and white positions on any given topic, their preferred methodology, their preferred tools, their preferred OS, and so on. This was the case 20 or 30 years ago, and it’s the same now. 20 odd years ago folk were getting hired cos they had Jackson Structured Programming on their CV and could bullshit a little about it despite having worked on failed project after failed project. The IT biz is still the same the way the recruitment works folk are hired on buzz words on their CV or who they know rather than the success or failure of the projects they have been part of. This is largely due to the immaturity of the profession. It also to do with the way the sales cycle works, the tool vendors say have to push the methodology that uses their tools cos they need to sell their tools, they push folk who excel at presentation around the industry conference circuit and sell the next best thing since sliced bread. And the IT biz press and the political management layers who inhabit the same circuits buy it. Stuff gets pushed no matter how inappropriate it is for a given programme. Meanwhile the folk who like putting in projects, and are good at it, merrily get on and ignore the BS from above, as much as they can. The reality always was and remains good teams put in good solutions and make them work, and the quality of the staff is a million times more relevant than any technology or methodology choice. Crap teams put in crap solutions by the same token.

    Good tech leadership is not rated as a relevant and valuable skill, many IT prof services organisations have no clue who their best tech leaders are. And many of the tech leaders are contract workers and due to that are forced into a position of not being able to be controversial or rock the boat. The dross PMs who are only really skilled at running con calls hold all the political cards cos the tech leads are i) not in the formal management chain and ii) many of them are contract.

    Companies don’t trust the folk qualified to make the right decisions, run them down cos they are not as presentationally perfect as those who do nothing but inhabit the industry conference circuit, and try to use process to solve design issues that cannot be solved with lowest common denominator processes.

    “we need to be comfortable with letting the customer decide” no we need to be comfortable empowering the people with a track record of success, success at designing systems that work (more than 80% of IT solutions fail), success at coming in on budget, success at delivering success for the end customers business. And sometimes those folk have to tell the “customer” no. “customer”s in the sense you mean get the systems they deserve. Telling the customers they can be “Agile” can just give them a ticket to avoid the decisions they should be making as part of the programme, so often does this happen now that the first time decisions start being made is when the poor young grad has to start writing the low level code to do the job, when the business and functional decisions should have been taken long before then. “hothouses” often end up with young techie grads, or off/on shored junior techies with poor English, over promising to senior business customers, cos the role of the senior IT pro who should be taking the estimates from the junior staff and uplifting them and adding testing time, and contingency, and compensating for over optimism or pessimism in numbers from junior staff, that whole skill set of senior systems leadership is devalued. Junior staff making commitments to senior business customers in hothouses without a chance for critical review from their peers and more senior IT pros is really such an easy mistake to avoid. All cos the organisation is slow to react to changing business needs? and Agile has been hoisted in as the saviour? – well guess what the business is slow to change cos of dross staff nothing to do with the methodology in use!

    And so much bad reporting and hiding of the truth, how many times are projects green, green, green, green, ……. green, green, red and failed… no amber, no early warnings of the bleeding obvious.

    Re “battle between those who “manage stuff” and those who “do stuff”, the management professionals versus the software professionals.” At the moment the IT biz features some of the worst management in the world, it attracts allsorts of nutters, and showmen. There are undoubtedly some issues with some of the sw professionals from time to time, but really good management should sort this. The best software professionals can do little when crap senior and middle management arrive in their organisation.

    Re “the venom I faced when I espoused opensource many years ago” well serves you right for being one side of a black and white spectrum. The open source advocates lost by the way. Mostly unix systems cannot be ported from one version of unix to another easily, so they are not “open”. And Dave Cutler won, his operating systems won the battle, they make more money, and they are more successful for their end customers, partly cos a structured decisive tech decision maker is empowered to coordinate, and the buck stops with one person, rather than the open source nonsense of design by committee which always leads to compromise and challenges.

    Re “a battle between the “deliver-fast” versus the ‘deliver-right”. ” oh dear how little experience of real delivery you show. Leadership of any software configuration or writing endeavour is by its very nature a balancing act. The concept of faster, better, cheaper IS a possibility – but crap management ramming their pet methodology down an organisations throat is not the way to deliver success. Success is rather more than that. Good tech leadership, a much undervalued skill, usually drives success.

    Re “Agile techniques” one of the problems with the word “Agile” is that as a verb it is motherhood and apple pie, it is a very appealing concept, which makes sense to a business manager with little background in the detail of IT methodologies. “Agile” as a methodology can be OK and is good for some programmes, however for many programmes its completely the wrong choice, and the skills in getting that choice right is undervalued by an organisation that preaches one methodology for all known problems. “Agile” will not fix an organisation with poor quality project managers, devalued tech leadership folk, and career emphasis on how you perform in the con call wars rather than actually making the correct decisions of substance!

    Re “fast iteration and fail-fast principles get them very upset indeed” depends, depends so much, folk fighting in the trenches to make their project a success do tend to get cheesed off with political clowns telling them how some half baked methodology ideas will solve the problems with his customers failing to turn up to meetings or make decisions. People can very well see the Emperor has no clothes, even though they may choose not to say it cos their pay-packet depends on towing the party line.

    “flamed” well I hope you don’t consider this a flame

    Re “we can all no longer walk around saying “this is complex, you won’t understand it”;” ah but sometimes that IS they best way to approach it. Crap customer management who cannot verbalise their business and functional requirements, cannot agree on one of many ways of resolving the inevitable priority calls, do not really need to know the inner workings of some complex software design issues. Customers need to be kept focussed on the inputs and outputs from their business and functional perspective. And if the tech leadership knows that a simple change (from the business perspective) is a complex change from the software perspective then no amount of Agile bollocks is going to change that. All that happens is the good tech leadership leaves and you get into an ever worse position.

    Re “and we can all no longer act arrogant about what we do, to the detriment of our customers” there’s more arrogance in bullshit managers telling good IT pros not to be arrogant than in all the good delivery IT pros in the country. The best (judged by delivery, financial success for both the teams and end customers, and other proper metrics which hardly ever get measured really) IT projects are often put in with IT leadership who appear arrogant to the customers, so what, good customers don’t care, they care more about the delivery, and there’s plenty of arrogance from the customer and bullshit political layers above to even it all out.

    Anyways keep smiling, just remember there’s always more than one perspective.

  2. Hey, Anon. Thanks to top-flight communications/interpersonal skills from IT ‘pros’ like you, a schlub like me can put kids through school by advising businesses how to deal with cranky-ass, know-it-all’s like you.

    Guess what, Einstein…all kinds of projects in all kinds of industries stumble along, fall over, get back up, fall over again, etc.

    Every segment of every industry has mostly crap management. [See the Dilbert Principle for more info.]

    Client’s blow off meetings and change requirements because why? Because they’re always right. You may have heard that one before…

    The business of business is a complete and total mess. Why should IT be immune?

  3. Should I really bother answering this? Its JPs blog after all,mmmmmmmm
    Re “Hey, Anon. Thanks to top-flight communications/interpersonal skills from IT ‘pros’ like you” you know nothing at all about me
    Re “a schlub like me can put kids through school” best of luck
    Re “by advising businesses how to deal with” ah yes the BS consultant types who couldn’t deliver a 3 line program that said “hello world” if they were given a thousand programmers
    Re “cranky-ass, know-it-all’s like you.” mmm abuse and nonsense, I don’t know it all, and like the best senior leaders I openly put my hands up and admit I don’t know rather than bullshit and cover my inadequacies
    Re “Guess what, Einstein…” more abuse
    Re “all kinds of projects in all kinds of industries stumble along, fall over, get back up, fall over again, etc. ” yep but not in the spectacular fashion common in IT and at the same rate
    Re “Every segment of every industry has mostly crap management.” don’t agree at all, I’ve worked with lots of different businesses and the standards of management and leadership in IT is well below average
    Re “Client’s blow off meetings” yep, but letting them do this is far from always being the best approach
    Re “and change requirements” yes but there are good ways of approaching this and bad ways of handling it
    Re “Because they’re always right.” Wrong, wrong, wrong. Clients are paying a professional IT team to provide best advice, and best advice is often not what they are expecting or want to hear. At the end of a very successful programme client leadership will often thank good IT leadership for having battled for what’s best in the earlier days. Blandly telling all client leadership that IT screwed up in the past but now we’re Agile so everything will be OK is laughable, often the reason for past failures is a little more complex.
    IT is not immune, but it is immature, and does have some unique features

  4. As you say, Anon, it’s my blog. So let me see what we do agree on, and see if we can learn both from the differences as well as the agreements.

    Agreements: The quality of the staff is far more important than any specific methodologies, tools and techniques. Good tech leadership is not adequately rated as a desirable skill. Presentation skills are over-emphasised. Overall management quality in IT is poor. Agree with you on all of these. We need to work on changing all of these.

    And we have to learn to say “no” to the customer. Absolutely. But. This has to be done as trusted advisors and partners, and we have to earn that right to be trusted advisors and partners.

    Disagreements: Reasons for project failure: My perception is that scope/requirements creep, poor estimation and poor communications are the commonest reasons for project failure. Where requirements are known and articulated well and stable, Agile techniques are irrelevant. Too often this is not the case, and as a result waterfall techniques fail. I would contend that the number of waterfall/cascade projects that fail greatly exceeds the number of agile projects that fail, possibly by multiple orders of magnitude.

    More importantly, agile is not about Scrum or XP or pair programming or even fast iteration. Agile is about a mindset, about a way of doing business. The IT component of it isn’t trivial, but is overshadowed by the iterative requirements discovery process and the collocated team communications.

    I’m not aware that I called it wrong by selecting opensource, don’t quite get your point.

    We can all be arrogant, and I guess that fulfils one more of your assertions, that our industry is immature. Have I been arrogant in the past? Almost certainly. Am I arrogant now? Well I try not to be.

    There is much that you are right about, but sometimes your chosen form of communication doesn’t always help get your point across. I don’t mean this as a form-versus-substance statement; rather, if your objective is to get a specific message across, it is reasonable to expect that the message is provided in the context of the recipient. Too often, the messages that come from IT people don’t have this quality. We have to get better at this.

    What we are learning is that everyone works better if we have a common perspective, and the simplest available common perspective is that of the customer. As we continue to build trust between the profession and the customer, we will improve our “trusted advisor” position. Rants by any of the parties involved will not get us there.

    I did not see what you wrote as a flame. I did see it as a frustration, and I sensed that some of that frustration was even personally directed at me. Nevertheless I’m glad that you bothered to stop by, and that you spent time on articulating your views.

  5. ah yes the BS consultant types who couldn’t deliver a 3 line program that said “hello world” if they were given a thousand programmers…mmm abuse and nonsense

    ‘Nuff said.

    We can all be arrogant

    Guilty.

    Rants by any of the parties involved will not get us there…Nevertheless I’m glad that you bothered to stop by, and that you spent time on articulating your views.

    Perspective. Wisdom. This is why we’re here. Thanks, JP. Thanks, Anon. Thanks, AY, for the laugh. Hopin’ my lo-rent HTML tags render…

  6. Thanks for the agreements.
    Re “Disagreements: Reasons for project failure: My perception is that scope/requirements creep, poor estimation and poor communications are the commonest reasons for project failure.”
    These are common reasons for failure yes, however mostly the senior tech staff know their project is failing long before it ever appears in a management status report, and they know why a lot better than any post project review will reveal, here a good community of senior tech folk can be worth their weight in gold, when they are supported as equals against PMs etc. Cross fertilisation of ideas, and bouncing ideas off each other, and taking on the PM and business community when necessary for the common good. This is part of communication. Also basic failings of leadership are probably the top reason of all.
    “Poor estimation” absolutely, but often the estimates are not based on numbers from the folk best able to judge. In a traditional professional services selling to a client scenario there is always tension between sales and delivery with sales always wanting to drop the estimates, few companies get the balance right here regularly. With internal IT depts the dynamics of who gets to lead the estimation are generally the problem.
    Re “Where requirements are known and articulated well and stable, Agile techniques are irrelevant.” funnily enough I disagree with this. All businesses change through time, and some of the learning’s from Agile can always be part of the tool bag for dealing with this.
    There is a spectrum of more technical projects with little user interface, or which have large machine-to-machine interface components, for example, where really the whole user centric approach of Agile is questionable. There are COTS configuration projects, which really should use the techniques developed by the COTS vendor. As simple examples where a religious adherence to agile is wrong.
    Re “waterfall techniques fail” yep waterfall like agile is not the answer to all programmes. Indeed large programmes often need to leverage the best of multiple methodologies.
    Re “I would contend that the number of waterfall/cascade projects that fail greatly exceeds the number of agile projects that fail, possibly by multiple orders of magnitude.” nope don’t agree at all. And I observe that agile projects are much more guilty of misreporting their status and outcome.
    Re “Agile is about a mindset, about a way of doing business. The IT component of it isn’t trivial, but is overshadowed by the iterative requirements discovery process and the collocated team communications.” well how Agile is defined changes far too frequently. Good team comms, iterative discovery, Agile does not have a monopoly of these.
    Re “I’m not aware that I called it wrong by selecting opensource, don’t quite get your point.” many subtle points there, I’ve followed opensource from the beginnings of the concept, my sympathies lie with the folk who were most critical, and on the whole these folk have been proven right in my view in many detailed multi dimensional ways.
    Re “There is much that you are right about, but sometimes your chosen form of communication doesn’t always help get your point across.” I know, just letting off steam really
    Re “I don’t mean this as a form-versus-substance statement; rather, if your objective is to get a specific message across, it is reasonable to expect that the message is provided in the context of the recipient. Too often, the messages that come from IT people don’t have this quality. We have to get better at this.” agree, IT folk can be very poor at communication, don’t pretend anything I have said here has been professional quality at all, but you understand enough of what I said to make it worthwhile use of the short time it took me to type out as a consciousness stream
    Re “What we are learning is that everyone works better if we have a common perspective, and the simplest available common perspective is that of the customer.” Oh I empathise with the real customers, they are my motivation for getting out of bed in the morning.
    Re “As we continue to build trust between the profession and the customer, we will improve our “trusted advisor” position.” not sure the profession as a whole is making any progress at all here, there are islands of progress and excellence but they remain islands.
    Re “Rants by any of the parties involved will not get us there.” not necessarily, I’m old enough to have seen a few heated rants – and often these have cleared the air and helped everyone
    Re “I did see it as a frustration” yep
    Re “and I sensed that some of that frustration was even personally directed at me.” not really, I wouldn’t have bothered if I had a personal issue with you, however some of the stuff you support and endorse is wrong by the time it filters through the multiple layers to the troops on the ground, some of it is frankly evil by the time it gets to the troops
    Anyways good luck

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