February 2003

It happened again. A brave crew of seven hardy, well-trained space travellers was lost in the atmosphere. Just like seventeen years ago when the first shuttle disaster occurred, a giant rift within the NASA culture was exposed. And just like seventeen years ago, that rift exists throughout society, not just at NASA.

The rift or chasm exists between management and technical staff. On the one hand, scientists want to make decisions based on what is technically correct, precise, safe, and rigorously tested and proven. On the other hand, management wants a solution that is simple, cost-effective, and quick. Short-term interests in meeting immediate goals dominate the mindset of management, while the deep thinkers want to make sure everything is correct and pure and that all contingencies and all possibilities have been thoroughly examined and taken into account beforehand.

We might sum up the problem like this: If scientists made all the decisions, everything would work perfectly, but the companies would go broke. If managers make all the decisions, companies make money but things break sometimes. The problem with that logic is that when a space shuttle breaks, people die. Space is a very unforgiving place.

In most corporations, decisions about computers and networks are made by managers, not by technical people. Those who know what works best seldom are in a position to choose that which they know is best. Instead, the decision is made by the person in management who holds the checkbook. In a bitter twist of irony, the decision-maker tends to avoid obvious risk by taking the "easy way out" and choosing whatever is cheap, quick, and apparently popular.... which is of course the least likely to be the technically ideal solution. Thus, in seeking to avoid career risk, the manager chooses a product with technical risks -- the exact opposite of what was intended.

This situation results from companies tending to hire as managers those who have so-called "people skills" instead of great technical ability. These "people skills" often include persuasion, bluster, spin, and the use of "happy hour" as a crucible for decision-making sessions. This means that the subtle little details of a technical issue -- the life-or-death details -- are whitewashed, ignored, or simply missed. There is a silent, invisible "silicon ceiling" above which most truly great technical people will never rise, at least in the typical corporate and government office. It is the exceptional environment which gives preference to the brilliant mind over the slickmeister in terms of granting authority and funding.

If such cultural defects exist in the challenging world of space travel, how much more so can the minions of mediocrity thrive in the realm of mere earthbound technical decisions? Is it any wonder that such subtleties as API's, telecom protocols, and file formats are beyond the ability of most upper-level managers to discuss and consider? There are occasional sharpies who manage to negotiate the obstacle course and achieve influence in the modern corporate world, but they are usually outnumbered and outgunned by the rudderless ships who simply "go with the flow" and avoid making bold, innovative queries into the unknown. For them, the easy answer is almost always the best answer, even if it is not the right answer for those who must make it work.

To make a bad choice of software look good, for example, a company may simply keep lowering the bar as to what the software must do. If a portable laptop environment is desired, but the network software does not provide a reliable, secure way to synchronize files from multiple sources, a company may simply deny users the option of multiple access points. Instead of using a home PC or a desktop PC to perform work, the company may simply mandate that the notebook PC is the one-and-only computer that the employee may use. That scenario may work for some employees, but it hamstrings power users -- typically the most productive and innovative employees that a company has!

Such a decision will seldom result in lives lost, but it may lead to poorer work performance, lower productivity, and worker dissatisfaction. All because somebody high up the chain of command makes a decision without bothering to investigate the details or consider the consequences. When the economy resumes a growth pattern, this kind of company often pays a high price in being bypassed by competitors and then wonders where it went wrong.

Most recent revision: February 3, 2003
Copyright © 2003, Tom Nadeau
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