Fads in IT

The IT industry is certainly prone to its fads. This is a reflection of the immaturity of the whole industry (as compared to say most branches of engineering. You don’t see civil engineers coming up with cool new ways to build bridges every few years, especially not cool new ways that turn out to be more expensive and less safe than traditional techniques).

Those of us who have been around a while remember the fads. Remember how all data was in flat files but relational databases were coming and they were going to fix everything? We followed “the one true Codd”. Once we had all our data in one place referential problems and inconsistencies would vanish, with SQL all programming would be easy, and we wouldn’t need many programmers anyway because users would write their own queries, in QUEL.

I got my start progamming and teaching 4GLs: the end of COBOL and other crude 3GLs for ever. Once again, the end of programming was nigh as end users could learn to write such simple languages (they said the same thing about COBOL, the business-oriented language, when my Dad learnt it in the 1970s - but this time it was really true).

Then we all built vast corporate data models. Once we got all our definitions in one place, and achieved third normal form across the organisation, then all the answers would just fall out. I worked on one project that had four and a half thousand tables. Boy that really helped those end users write their QUEL. Slowed those 4GLs down, and hardware hadn’t gotten cheap yet – we were still running IBM 370s.

Next, CASE tools were going to transform programming. Once we generated code in one place, end-users would draw pictures and finished applications would burst forth automatically. Twenty years on that one still hasn’t laid down and died.

Structured programming, modular programming, object-oriented programming (once all the methods were defined in one place…), information engineering, repository (once all the meta-data was defined in one place…), RAD, JAD, directory (once all the data was indexed so it looked like it was in one place….), data warehousing (once we had a copy of all the data in one place…), EAI (once we glued it all together automagically so it looked like it was in one place…), MIS and then EIS, CRM (once all the customer interactions were kept in one place…), extreme programming, content management, HTML, ERP (once we had the whole damn business in one place…), Web Services (once all the APIs are dynamically linked, and the UDDI lets us look up everything in one place…), and of course e-commerce [embarrassed silence while we all blush].

PCs, client/server and three-level architectures to decentralise everything; browsers, thin clients, blades and virtual machines to centralise everything (I know, why don’t we call it a “mainframe”?)…

Every one of them has added a little value and a lot of complexity to IT. None has been the silver bullet the vendors and consultants would have us believe. Every one cost more and delivered less than promised. Is it any wonder the business is cynical? Not that they have a right to toss too many stones about. While all this was going on in the datacentre, over in the boardroom we had Quality Circles, BPR, zero based budgets, TQM, 6sigma, MBOs, KM, coaching, the one minute manager, centres of excellence, intellectual capital, ISO9000, outsourcing and offshoring, triple bottom line, e-commerce ….

Every now and then something comes along which really does change the game, disrupt, introduce a new paradigm, create a sea change (even real change is a fad): the computer, the PC, the internet, the virus, email, project management, supply chain management. I think Service Management will prove with the hindsight of coming decades to be one of these, and I doubt many would argue with that.

We will look at Service Management next.

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