Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

IT Matters Because It’s Still Failing

While catching up with one of the more discussed computer-related books in recent years (Nicholas G. Carr’s Does IT Matter?), I realized I had some additional insights to offer. Although his book is about Information Technology (IT), it is also by implication about IT managers.

First, two insights into factors inherent in the job.

One thing I learned very early on in my computing career was the extent to which empire-building was rampant throughout the computing profession. Managers were very adept at expanding their departments. One of the reasons they got away with this was that the technical aspects of computing were hardly understood by upper management. These IT managers were also adept at making upper management think they (the IT managers) had a command of the field.

The other thing I learned was that computing was not only very technical but that it was changing too rapidly for top management to fully comprehend. Hence their dependence on IT managers. I also learned that anyone, IT manager or lowly programmer like myself, could snow upper management by tossing around the latest buzzwords.

Second, two insights into factors inherent in the person.

Those insights were a direct result of years of experience. One was that most IT managers were administrators first, and computer experts a distant second. I know because I was given an opportunity to become an IT manager (at the time, called a Data Processing manager) and I turned it down when I realized it would be the end of my advancement as a computing professional. What I learned about computing in only a few additional years confirmed this decision.

The other thing I learned, again through experience, was that IT managers were often chosen for their academic degrees rather than their practical experience. This was brought home forcefully when I saw a small software firm go out of business because their new IT manager forced changes based on an irrelevant Ph.D. education. It’s easy for upper management to believe in the value of a Ph.D., but not years of practical computing experience—because the latter is highly technical.

These four factors frequently result in poor—sometimes disastrous—IT decisions. Yet, I have seen little progress over the decades to correct these factors. And little likelihood of change, since IT managers can still exploit their superiors’ ignorance. So billions of dollars will continue to be wasted on unnecessary “improvements” and “upgrades” of hardware and software, and countless man-hours will be lost to these and other unproductive IT decisions.


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