On a recent cross-country flight, I had a revealing conversation with a network field engineer for one of the largest transcontinental carriers in the United States. He was a small cog in a big machine, but he had a unique perspective on what is wrong with IT workers in America.
He'd just spent a week in a new office complex, waiting for router authorization codes and minor pieces of equipment so he could bring the new office into his corporate network. The equipment arrived, a little late. The security codes never did. His mission had failed because his management's chain of command had failed. He said it was not unusual.
"IT management in the U.S. today doesn't scale," he said. "Our corporations use management techniques that are completely bottlenecked. You can't build IT from the top down! And we're failing because management thinks it can!"
Top-Down IT Management
"American IT management," he said, "is winning the war of e-business automation the same way that the U.S. Department of Defense is currently winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. It's not!
"It's the same hierarchical management technique that transformed public education in this country. We've moved from a system that was the envy of the world to one of the worst education systems of all developed nations," he continued. "Now, we're implementing these same hierarchies of command and control in IT. IT management is very good at ruining a good user community.
"And, like in the schools," he continued, "when the management system fails, they blame the teachers and the kids! It's the same in IT."
Productivity as a Personal Imperative
"It's a personal thing!" he said. "I can give you the fastest computer, the fastest network, the most productive software package money can buy. But unless you can see the benefit to your personal productivity, it's just one more thing to complicate your day! You'll only use the part that makes your work easier.
"Management," he said, "has different priorities. They see a larger picture, and of course the bottom line is an important part of that. But they're not getting their message down to the person on the PC. Without it, no amount of new technology is going to deliver what they want."
Management Prerequisites Slipping
"Part of management's job is to make people more productive. That's productivity with a small 'p.' Incremental productivity! But IT management has bought into a big corporate technology picture. That's technology with a big 'T.' WebSphere technology, .NET technology, Oracle technology, whatever! Big technologies that require complete re-tooling, re-training, and re-education!
"But to do what? That's the question that the people in the field, in front of the PC, never get answered. And it never gets answered coming through IT departments either! To them, it's just another IT project! And, consequently, management's message is divided up, parsed, quantified, measured, and distorted in committee meetings. So ...."
"So?" I asked.
"So people who aren't vested in the process create a tremendous drag. And the entire structure of the command chain falters. Workers become so concerned with the details--how the project is mapping to corporate or technology standards--that little things slip. Like the authentication codes that I needed to complete this job. Five days wasted!"
A Management Culture Problem
"Yes!" he said. "And no! Part of this is how American management views its mission, but a large part of it is the American management culture itself. Take India, as a comparison. Twenty percent of our company's IT resource has been outsourced to India, but they have a very different ethic, when it comes to IT management."
"How's that?" I asked.
Ad Hoc Systems over Architecture
"First," he said, "I called the home office supervisor and was told that my router authorization codes were sent through the internal validation system. But they didn't work, so the new office remained dead. So then I IMed my colleague in India. He immediately sends me a URL. I click on it and get sent to an undocumented bogus Web site. He tells me to key in a special code. Presto! I'm in! I have the codes! So I change the code in the router, and the entire system comes up! Everything is running! Cheers in the hallway, and I'm the hero!" He smiled.
"So your mission didn't fail after all," I say.
"Oh, but it did!" he corrected. "Because what I used were test authorization codes! According to corporate policy, they can only be used for testing, not for the office itself. Not only that, but if the word leaked out that we were using them in the field, we'd all get fired. The codes were created using an interesting but totally inappropriate program that somebody in India patched together. So, after completing this illicit 'test,' I had to pull the entire system down and wait. I waited for five days! No codes ever came from the home office. So my mission was a failure."
Cultural Differences in How IT Is Managed
"The point is, in India my management doesn't care what's going on under the covers. If it works, the job is done. How it works is not so important. No documentation! No architecture! No trace! Nothing can be duplicated. My colleagues in India are just a bunch of geeks who are told to make it work! And they do! They're very motivated to do it because good jobs are difficult to get. They've got the education and the skills. But most importantly, they've also got a management culture that was fostered under 90 years of the British Raj!"
"The British Raj? What do you mean?" I asked.
"Just that, in that environment, the British didn't really bother about the mess under the covers either. As long as things worked, that's what the British cared about. And so you have an entirely different management culture in India, growing into maturity in an ad hoc environment! Things get patched together, work for a while, break down, and get patched again, over and over."
IT Future in the U.S.
"That's why, eventually, IT will return to America!" He sighed. "IT will return to America because the Americans are the inventors! It's the culture that invented the technologies of information systems to begin with. I love America! I am now a citizen! India is a wonderful nation! But we don't dream the same dreams. For us, getting it to work and keeping it going is first! We don't worry about how foolish it looks getting there."
Nothing Wrong with American IT
"There's nothing wrong with IT in America!" he said, pulling down his bag from the overhead. "Some people think American programmers are lazy, and that's why IT is leaving. Big pay for lazy programmers! But it's not true! It's your management system! It's broken! It doesn't scale to your dreams and inventions. And your management is too lazy to fix it. So now they're bringing us in: the foreign troops! But we will only patch it together. In the end, we will cost your management much more money. But by then, your management team will have moved on."
As he was about to depart down the aisle, I thanked him for sharing his perspective. "Always remember," he said, "in India, women used straight pins to fasten their saris for 2,000 years." And he pantomimed the outline of a shapely woman, suddenly pulling his hand away and sucking his index finger in mock pain. Then, he raised his eyebrows and smiled. "But it took an American to invent the safety pin!" With that, he gave me the thumbs up and left.
Thomas M. Stockwell is Editor in Chief of MC Press Online, LP.