Escaping a Technology Eddy
Do you need to escape a technology eddy? In fluid dynamics, an eddy is the swirling of a fluid that causes a reverse current against a downstream flow. It often forms behind a major obstacle. The swirling motion of an eddy creates resistance to forward motion by creating a backward force. Eddies are also seen in air and electromagnetic systems.
I see a similar phenomena in my work that I’m going to coin a technology eddy. A technology eddy forms in organisations that are risk adverse, have restricted budgets, or simply are more focused on software maintenance of a major system rather than on software development. Large enterprises, in particular, often find their IT organisations trapped in a technology eddy. Rather than going with the flow of technological change, the organisation drifts into a comfortable period where change is more restricted to the older technologies they are most familiar with.
As time goes by, an organisation trapped in a technology eddy adds to the problem by building more and more systems within the eddy — making it ever more difficult to escape the eddy when the need arises.
I sometimes buy my clothing at Macy’s. It’s no secret that Macy’s, like Sears, is currently struggling against the onslaught of technological change. Recently, when paying for an item, I noticed that their point-of-sale systems still run on Windows 7 (or was that Windows Vista). Last week, on the way to the airport, I realised I had forgotten to pack a tie. So, I stopped in to Macy’s only to find that they had just experienced a 10 minute power outage. Their ancient system, what looked to be an old Visual Basic Active Directory app, was struggling to reboot. I ended up going to another store — for all the other stores in the mall were up and running quite quickly. The mall’s 10 minute power outage cost Macy’s an hour’s worth of sales because of old technology. The technology eddy Macy’s is trapped in is not only costing them sales in the short term, it’s killing them in the grand scheme of things. But I digress…
I come across organisations trapped in technology eddies all the time. IT organisations in government are particularly susceptible to this phenomena. In fact, even Xcential got trapped in a technology eddy. With a small handful of customers and a focus on maintenance over development for a few years, we had become too comfortable with the technologies that we knew and the way in which we built software.
It was shocking to me when I came to realise just how out-of-date we had become. Not only were we unaware of the latest technologies, we were unaware of modern concepts in software development, modern tools, and even modern programming styles. We had become complacent, assuming that technology from the dawn of the Millennium was still relevant.
I hear a lot of excuses for staying in a technology eddy. “It works”, “all our systems are built on this technology”, “it’s what we know how to build”, “newer technologies are too risky”, and so on. But there is a downside. All technologies rise up, have a surprisingly brief heyday, and then slowly fade away. Choosing to continue within a technology eddy using increasingly dated technology ensures that sooner or later, an operating system change or a hardware failure of an irreplaceable part will create an urgent crisis to replace a not-all-that-old system with something more modern. At that point, escaping the eddy will be of paramount importance and you’ll have to paddle at double speed just to catch up. This struggle becomes the time when the price for earlier risk mitigation will be paid — for now the risks will compound.
So how do you avoid the traps of a technology eddy? For me, the need to escape our eddy became most apparent as we got exposed to people, technologies, and ideas that were beyond the comfortable zone in which our company existed. Hearing new ideas from developers beyond our sphere of influence and being exposed to requirements from new customers made us quickly realize that we had become quite old-fashioned in our ways. To stay relevant you must get out and learn — constantly. Go to events that challenge your thinking rather than reinforce it.
Today we are once more a state-of-the-art company. We’ve adopted modern development techniques, upgraded our tools, upgraded our technologies, and upgraded our coding skills. These changes allow us to compete worldwide and build software for multiple customers in a fully distributed way that spans companies, continents, and time zones.
I hope we’ll remember this lesson and focus more on continuous improvement rather than having to endure a crash course of change every few years.