Monday, November 17, 2014

Expectations in a Age of Magic

Sometimes it is rocket science.
One of the funniest social criticism ever made came from comedian Louis CK.  In his discussion with late night host Conan O’Brien, he talks about how fantastic technology has become and no one is happy with it.  I am reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s three laws of predicting the future the most famous being, “Any sufficiently advance technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  This week on the blog I wanted to discuss expectation setting and getting your business partners to have realistic expectations about technology.

I was thinking about this topic this week as I was watching the coverage of the Rosetta space probe and it placing a lander on the comet.  The technical achievement was astounding.  Over ten years and one and a half billion euros we not only got to see the surface of a comet but we actually landed an object the size of a consumer dishwasher on the surface.  What made this more satisfying was how the science press and the main stream media covered the event. Both seem to admit that success or failure, the European Space Agency’s did the best it could do and that whatever happened it was a big achievement.

Wryly, I joked on LinkedIn that I was looking forward to some of my business partners saying, “If we can land something on a comet why can’t we do X with the web site.”   My mild cynicism hit a nerve because people began to comment and tweet me saying they were expecting similar answers.  This is when it hit me.  Numerous people who work with technology really do not understand how that technology works.  They just take it for granted.  It really is “indistinguishable from magic.”  They can get the weather forecast in Toronto, schedule a truck to deliver products to the city and electronically communicate with Canadian customs to avoid the truck being stopped at the border.  They do it with technologies like the internet, EDI, and Java but they really do not understand how these technologies work.  They just take it for granted that they do.

This is when more knowledgeable people need to step in with expectations.  We understand the amount of work which needs to be done and the difficulty of the tasks.  We also understand that most technology problems in a contemporary business are not technology problems.  They are people problems which could be better solved by individuals working better together.  So when someone says, I would love to have “X” on the web site; ask the hard questions and find out if these improvements are necessary.  Ask about technical debt and why the organization tolerates it.

It is the responsibility of technical professionals to act like the engineers we were trained to be rather than magicians carefully guarding our secrets.  Business partners need to understand the trade-offs which are made every day to keep the organization running.  A new feature for the billing system or web site doesn't pop into existence from the mind of the business owner.  It requires work from developers and quality specialists.  It needs to be accepted by the business.  Finally, it has to be accepted by consumers.

This is not an easy road but it is certainly easier than landing a probe on a comet.

Until next time.