How Technology Waves have Shaped Legislative IT

Technologies come in waves. Rather than a constant evolution forward, major disruptions to the status quo tend to happen every decade or so. The resulting waves create generations of tools that reflect the times in which they were built.

It seems that every technology wave passes through three distinct periods – each lasting roughly a decade. First, the formative years where the technology is new, bright, and shiny. It is an exciting time, with new things to learn and risks to be taken. Slowly, as the tools mature, the technology becomes mainstream and enjoys a period of relative stability. This is the period of maximum reward for the risks taken earlier. But all good things must come to an end. Eventually, the technology falls out of favor and begins a slow drift into obsolescence. What surprises me is that each of these waves, overlapping with others, can last a very long time – sometimes thirty or more years from the very early rumblings of a wave to the last implementation being switched off.

In legislative technology, there have been at least four distinct waves of technology, each one corresponding to the decade it started in:

  1. In the 1980’s, mainframe technology still ruled – keyboard operators sitting in front of green screens entering the work of the legal staff “into the computer”. The end product — paper!
  2. In the 1990’s, office productivity tools like WordPerfect and Microsoft Word were pressed into service allowing the legal staff to work on computers directly. The end product — still paper (or PDF renditions of that paper)!
  3. In the 2000’s, XML-based tools built around the proprietary Sun/Oracle and Microsoft technology stacks emerged – feeding not only paper, but the web as well.
  4. In the 2010’s, far more standards-based web technology stacks began to change what we do with information – moving beyond the production of documents to the timely delivery of information.

Recently, someone commented to me that the pace of change seems to be accelerating and that it’s difficult to support software when everything is constantly changing. For me, it’s all a matter of perspective. I tend to live in the turmoil that exists at the start of every wave. I must ensure that Xcential’s products are relevant to today’s needs using today’s technologies. However, individual implementations of IT systems can’t possibly be built by riding at the forefront of every wave. Too much time will be spent jumping from one shiny new technology to the next and too little time will be left to build up the system. Instead, a wave must be chosen and ridden for as long as that makes sense. Timing is very important. Jump on a forming wave too early and you must deal with the early churn as some technologies become accepted and others are rejected. But wait too long for everything to settle out and you’ll find that your system is quickly obsolete.

In my next blog, I’m going to explore the four technology waves some more, ending with where we are now.

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