Bulletin 31 May 2019. The importance of being dumb in tech

Let me tell you a secret…

I’ve been working for 32 years this year. It seems hardly possible: not only do I wonder where the time has gone, I also wonder if anything I have to say can still be relevant. But don’t worry, I have a cunning plan. Simple in execution, planning and indeed, thought.

Across the years and particularly in recent times, I’ve learned a technique that has, and is still, serving me very well. In a nutshell: act dumb. I can’t even claim it was my idea. The original concept came from Denzel Washington’s lawyer character in The Philadelphia Story, as he would ask, “Explain this to me like I was a three-year-old.”

Doing so has several advantages. The first is that it puts the onus onto the person explaining things, without being threatening. The second, without a doubt, is that is a great way of covering up that I really don’t understand what the person is saying. I first learned this when I came back from my period of hiatus as an analyst, where for a good while it appeared that the world had indeed moved on. Infrastructure had become hypercomposable, software was epic-driven and microservices had replaced any notion of stacks.

Perhaps, I wondered, all the issues had been resolved, that IT and the business (and indeed, IT and IT) were having a party oh, and the lion had lain down with the lamb. At the same time, I had a nagging feeling that no progress had been made at all.

The notion of saying “I don’t understand” came quite early in the process of re-acclimatising myself with technology. I tried it first as an admittance of defeat, then (when the world didn’t collapse around me) I tried it again. It helped that I was largely ghost-writing, so I didn’t have to keep up any pretence of expertise.

After a while, it became something I did, and I still do, every time. I’ve found it is more than just a handy trick. In fact, it puts me into the mindset of someone who really doesn’t know what the great and the good are talking about. Which is more people than one might think.

There’s two things you can do wrong as an analyst (that is, on top of the astonishing arrogance, unreasonable travel demands, extortionate  fees and all that). The first is to believe that because something is being talked about, everyone understands it already. In this industry, full of 1984-esque doubleplusgood newspeak, nothing could be further than the truth.

It’s not just the nouns but the philosophical stance. In my current research (watch this space), I have found that a number of vendors have dropped their own terminology in favour of what is being termed Value Stream Management. The trouble is, Google searches (and indeed, their own web sites) often still use the old ‘positioning’; and meanwhile, we’ll always have the “I’m VSM and so’s my wife” charlatans.

Industry analysts act as a proxy to decision makers who don’t have time to work out what the heck is going on. This means, if analysts can’t make sense of something, the people they represent don’t stand a cat’s chance. And let’s not beat about the bush: obfuscation is a useful marketing technique.

I did say two things, didn’t I? The second, then, is to make the assumption that because something has been talked about for a while, everyone  probably already understands it, and indeed is already doing it. Cloud, for example, may be ten years old (at least in the shape of infrastructure as a service) but some organisations may still be dipping their toes in and are looking to understand the basics.

The need for clarity is a lesson that can’t be learned too often. Very recently, I was asked to explain DevOps by a non-technical colleague. As I did so I realised just how much jargon I needed to unwrap and dispense with. The whole notion of DevOps assumes you have already existed as a Dev and come up against the challenges of Ops, for a start; it also takes for granted concepts of agile software development, none of which are intuitive (if they were, everyone would do it by default).

So, yes, there is always room to act dumb. Or perhaps, not to feel dumb when asking the world of tech to explain itself. There’s enough complexity in the world already, without creating more.

Smart Shift: The Quantified Identity

Finally, the next chapter in the series, covering self-surveillance. Who knew big brother was each and every one of us? Oh and a little riff on beacons (the old sort) and Voyager.

Thanks for reading!

Jon

Bulletin 31 May 2019. The importance of being dumb in tech

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