Digital Economy Dispatch #079

13th March 2022

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What Lessons are Driving Your Digital Future?

History is doomed to repeat itself.
First as tragedy, then as farce.
Karl Marx

 

I have spent a lot of time recently asking myself a simple question: Do we ever learn? It is hard not to look out across the world and wonder whether the experiences of the recent past are too easily lost, manipulated, or misremembered. With the harrowing scenes of conflict continuing, it is impossible to see actions being taken by those in decision making positions without feeling like we have been here all to often. How quickly time causes memory to fade.

Such thinking has led me to reflect on what I have experienced in my digital technology journey over the last few decades. Perhaps this is a good time to remind ourselves of the lessons that we should be taking with us from the steps we’ve taken along the way.

It was Long Ago and it was Far Away

Following a degree in computer science, my first job writing software for a living had me working on accounting and stock control systems in the BASIC-PLUS-2 programming language on a beast of a computer called a VAX 11/750. It was about the size of a large chest freezer and had to be housed in a specially airconditioned room that I was not allowed to enter without permission.

After weeks poring over binders filled with data definitions and printouts of the code, I was eventually allowed to start making changes to it, run test scripts, and update data structures. Within a year I understood everything about those systems, familiar with every data definition, every line of code, every comment about its history. I began to consider myself a proficient software developer. But, was this it?

Fast forward a few years and my situation was very different. Following a PhD in computer science, I had spent several years tracking the growing use of software in some of the largest organizations in the world. I became fascinated by the opportunities and challenges that rapid widescale deployment of smaller and more powerful computers had opened up. The 1990s had seen a swift uptake of increasingly sophisticated digital technology in every domain. Computers had moved from being the tools of scientists in white lab coats to ubiquitous machines in the basement of every office block, factory, and campus. Then to the desktop and workstation of every worker.

Down the Rabbit Hole

Then my world changed. I started working at the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. The first major task I was given was to work with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on the ongoing software upgrade to the en route air traffic control system manging all aircraft traversing United States airspace. This was a software-based system that was being implemented by a staff of over 1,000 people that was already 10 years late delivering its capabilities and was believed to be more than $1 Billon over budget. Though in truth, no one seemed quite sure how much had been spent on it.

Our role was to find out what was going on and report back to the US government’s funding agencies and governance teams to bring this back under control. Starting with the feasibility of the system’s design, we soon expanded our review to include the viability of system’s development, adoption, and maintenance approach, and then the usability of the proposed solution alongside the high-pressure tasks being carried out by air traffic controllers. You can see the approach we took to execute this task written up and used as the basis for a repeatable assessment approach for large, complex systems analysis.

Over the next year, this experience acted as a major wake up call for how I viewed the task of software delivery. It changed my focus, my interests, and my subsequent career. I became obsessed by a key observation from this situation:

Success in largescale software delivery demands a clear understanding of the software architecture that acts as the blueprint for the solution. The structure and characteristics of the software architecture determine the strengths and weaknesses of the deployed system, guides the shape of the organization required to construct it, and dictates many of the subsequent operational decisions that affect the quality, efficacy, and pace of delivery. It is the interplay, balance, and alignment between the feasibility, viability, and usability of the system determine its success.

This change of perspective brought new challenges and areas of investigation into focus for me by expanding the boundaries of concern beyond the technical capabilities that had dominated much of my thinking, and toward the questions that occupy much of the energy and investment in such efforts: What value is created through this solution? What are the key risks to be managed in realizing it? How can we best organize to deliver it in an effective and efficient way?

Almost everything I have done since is based on this reflection. Creating libraries of software architecture patterns suitable for different operating environments. Using models to reason about behaviour and create high-fidelity “digital twins” of real systems. Formally describing the software architecture of large complex solutions. Model-based software engineering schemes aimed at reducing the gap between design and solution by accurately describing the structure and interactions that occur in software-based systems. Generation of code and test scripts aimed at creating robust, resilient implementations.

When I consider the way forward in digital transformation, these are the lessons that I take with me on my journey. They shape my perspectives on the issues that must be addressed, and guide my decisions about where I focus my time.

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Sometimes looking back can be an essential part of how we face the future. It reminds us about what excited us, shocked us, and changed how we see the world. In my case, the key step was to move into the environment of enterprise software-based solution delivery. This step started my journey toward appreciating the challenges of digital transformation and the scale of opportunity this brings.

In “The History Boys”, one of Alan Bennett characters remarks that history really is no more than just “one thing after another”. I disagree. Recalling my previous experiences of designing, building, and analyzing software-based systems has reminded me that hard won lessons from the past remain important. They shape our lives and inform the choices we make. What are the lessons driving your digital future?

Digital Economy Tidbits

BT’s Digital Transformation: How BT aims to move beyond telecoms. Link.

While a lot of what is happening at BT involves digitizing existing ways of working to drive efficiency, it is also interesting to see their work to bring new ideas into the organization. This new initiative to work with tech startups is aimed at bringing new ideas into the company beyond its original Telco roots.

 

Is the Internet on the verge of a Breakup? Link.

The terrible conflict in Ukraine has highlighted the role of digital technologies and put further pressure on the moves toward the break-up of the Internet. As has been pointed out in Dame Wendy Hall’s new book, “The Four Internets”, there is now no single model of the Internet. It has become both a geopolitical tool and a victim of geopolitics. What the Internet means to you and what services you can access depends on where you live.

The internet itself is changing for Russian users – with Twitter and Facebook blocked, TikTok not allowing Russian users to post, and the police reportedly stopping people in the streets to look at what they are viewing on their phones. Now there are questions about whether the conflict may not just alter the world’s geography, but fundamentally change the nature of the global internet.

 

Big Ed. Link.

A wonderful “laugh out loud” paragraph from Scott Galloway:

Our elite private schools have become enamored with satellite campuses, but they’re mostly fond of the checks autocratic regimes are willing to write to wrap themselves in the comfortable blanket of academic credibility. Building a satellite campus in Abu Dhabi (my employer’s innovation) is arbitraging the brand, not expanding the franchise. Same goes for most executive education, where a mid-level manager gets her company to pay $30,000 for six days across two on-campus “immersions” during a “multi-modal” experience so she can post a Chief Digital Officer certification from Kellogg/Penn/Columbia on her LinkedIn profile. Big Ed(ucation) is beginning to make Big Tech seem noble.

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