This 47-Year-Old Classic Will Improve Your IT Skills

There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who know who Fred Brooks was and those who don’t. If you are an IT professional in the second group, you can step up your game dramatically by reading his seminal book “The Mythical Man-Month.”

Fred Brooks managed IBM System/360, the project that produced the first real general-purpose computer back in the 1960s. He distilled his experience from this 5,000-man-year project into the first edition of TMMM in 1975 and the expanded anniversary edition from 1995 stands on my bookshelf. When I meet other experienced IT architects, as at Software Architecture Open Space in Copenhagen this month, people will use phrases like “second-system effect” that originated with Brooks. He passed away yesterday after a long and productive life full of accolades.

To commemorate Fred Brooks, I’m inviting you to join a series of online discussions on IT best practices and what we can still learn from The Mythical Man-Month. We’ll meet on Zoom every Thursday at 5 pm CET = 11 am EST = 8 am PST. We’ll discuss one chapter from the book and how it applies to our work in IT today. I expect each meeting will be 30-60 minutes, and we’ll record it for those who can’t make it. We start next Thursday, November 24. Sign up here:

Eventually, We Will All Work in IT

By 2057, everybody in the U.S. will work in IT. That’s because IT organizations are able to outgrow anything else. The minimum growth rate is 5-7% increased headcount per year for the same work – as every other bureaucracy. But in addition, every 6-12 months brings a new technological fad that necessitates a whole new team with new skills. Since no old code is ever retired, all the old programmers stay on. And every “simplification” initiative simply adds a new integration platform, yet somehow never reduces the existing complexity.

The radical solution by Elon Musk is to simply fire half the employees and all the contractors and see what happens. Twitter is still up as of today, though its long-term viability is still very much up in the air.

All the other tech companies had apparently been waiting for someone to go first because Amazon, Meta, and others have gotten rid of more than 100,000 employees in the last few weeks.

If there is a better way to streamline IT than a Musk-style massacre, please tell me.

Very Few Things are Impossible

You can get anything you want. But you have to ask for it. The U.S. had an election last Tuesday, and they still don’t know the result. We had an election in Denmark on Nov 1st. As usual, our result was ready before midnight on election day.

Now, we actually count paper ballots here in Denmark, and the U.S. uses computers. But that isn’t the whole explanation of why we are so much faster. The main reason is that we have decided that we want a quick result. Thus, we have a cut-off date for advance voting three days before election day, and all the advance votes are ready to count on election day. Vote counting is easily parallelized, and we have enough people counting. The U.S. could do the same, but they have prioritized other factors.

When IT says something can’t be done, it is rarely true. It might indeed be difficult, or expensive, or require you to give up functionality of higher value. If you work in IT, don’t say something is impossible. If you request work from IT, don’t accept the answer of “impossible.”

Are You Aware of the Dangerous Tipping Points in Your Business?

“Gradually, then suddenly.” That’s Mike explaining how he went bankrupt, in Hemmingway’s immortal voice. It’s also how cryptocurrency exchange FTX collapsed. And it’s how usage of your IT systems declines.

It happens all the time that users suddenly defect en masse from a product that used to be popular. For a while, the vendor gets away with offering a slightly worse product and charging a little bit more. Inertia and the inconvenience of switching means that for a long time, users will only slowly trickle away. But unless the vendor changes course, they reach an irreversible tipping point where their product usage crashes.

It can happen to your IT even if you don’t sell your software. When the database gets slower and slower, or the sign-in procedure becomes more and more cumbersome. One day you will realize that your users are running the business with no security and no backup in Smartsheet and Excel…

Using the Power of UX for Good or Bad

You can easily manipulate users. Using design tricks to confuse and deceive users is known as “Dark UX,” and Airbnb has been an enthusiastic practitioner. For example, American users have always been surprised that their great deals look much less great after humongous compulsory “cleaning fees” are added at the last step.

I never saw this trick in Denmark because such shenanigans are illegal here. Airbnb power users know to search for Airbnb rentals in the US on the Australian site because deceptive practices are also illegal there.

Under pressure from users and regulators, Airbnb has stalled for years, implausibly claiming technical challenges in displaying the total price. However, it seems like the pressure has now grown too big to ignore, and even Americans should shortly be able to see the actual price.

User Experience knowledge is meant to help users, not trick them. You don’t want your company to become a byword for deception like Airbnb has become.

Denmark is Dangerously Unprepared – Are You?

Denmark is not prepared for IT disasters and attacks. The state auditors have chosen 13 out of the approx. 4,200 public IT systems and looked at their recovery plans and procedures. A few were fairly well prepared, most were not, and one system was completely unprepared for anything to go wrong.

None of the recovery plans were adequately tested, and five systems had not tested their recovery plan at all in the last three years. For outsourced systems, half of the contracts did not require testing the recovery plan (!).

But at least the Danish state has an office that examines these things and issues a report. Who is responsible for evaluating the disaster recovery plans for critical systems in your organization? You cannot leave that to the individual system owners.

How Do You Make Sure You Keep Up?

Did you learn anything this week? Every industry is changing rapidly, and the IT industry more than most. Those who keep their noses to the grindstone every day will miss important trends. There are new technologies, new tools, and new ways of working.

I was discussing the future of IT with some of the sharpest minds in Denmark at the Software Architecture Open Space in Copenhagen yesterday and came away with new insights and provocative rebuttals to some of my entrenched notions about how organizations can be successful with IT.

If you are in a leadership position in IT, how do you ensure that your key players take time out from their day-to-day tasks to learn what is happening in the industry?

Handing Off Your Problems to Someone Else

Today is the day when up to 300,000 Danes can no longer access their online banking. They also cannot use any of the gazillion public services that require a login. That’s because the old public ID system in Denmark has been retired, and everyone has to use the insecure and shoddily built new one.

The reason thousands of people are left behind is the cumbersome signup process that – among other things – involves scanning the chip in your passport with a modern smartphone. It turns out many people can’t figure out how to do that. But that is not a problem for the organization behind the ID system. They simply tell users to show up at the local service point in their town for help.

It is, however, a problem for the overworked local service center employees. They are staffed to (barely) manage their usual work. Dumping 500,000 IT support tasks on them has predictably led to huge waiting times for an appointment for anything.

Don’t allow your IT systems to dump their problem somewhere else and declare themselves a success.

Are You Sure Your Backup System Works?

Why did all the trains in Denmark stop on Saturday? Russian hackers may or may not have been involved, but Danish incompetence was.

The Danish State Railways (DSB) has digitized all the paper that a train driver used to carry. That’s temporary speed restrictions, track works, and deviations from the standard schedule. They have also outsourced their digital solution to an amateurish vendor, and neither the vendor nor DSB had a backup solution. So when the vendor shut down the system due to an unspecified “security issue,” the trains stood still.

I’ve boarded a Delta Airlines flight with a hand-written boarding card on a scrap of paper. A professional organization continues to run, though slower, without its computers. An unprofessional organization like DSB is paralyzed. Are you like Delta Airlines or like the Danish State Railways?

Have You Earned the Right to do Away With Estimates?

Trust is the crucial precondition for healthy cooperation between IT and the business. I’ve been discussing #NoEstimates quite a bit with various people since my post yesterday, and everywhere this approach works, there is high trust. This is something that IT builds over the years by delivering as promised. When you have that trust, you can spend less time on estimates.

A Hollywood instructor managed to create quite advanced and artful movies inside one of the major commercial studios. He was asked how he got away with it when every other instructor at that studio was grinding out bland standard fare. He explained that his secret was to start shooting at 8 am sharp every morning. When the producer showed up mid-morning, he could see that the first two scenes were already done and dusted, so he left the instructor alone to do his thing.

The origin story of #NoEstimates on Woody Zuill’s blog is very similar: The team started by proving they could provide the most desired value quickly, thus creating a seed of trust. But unfortunately, in many organizations, IT has a track record of over-promising and under-delivering, built up over many years. That’s why the business demands detailed estimates.

To do away with estimates, you first need to build trust.