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I, Cringely - The Survival of the Nerdiest with Robert X. Cringely
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The Pulpit
Pulpit Comments
May 23, 2008 -- IT Wars
Status: [CLOSED]

That's hardly an IT only phenomenom, most managers in investment banks can't do the jobs of their staff

Nick | May 23, 2008 | 11:04AM

I have seen also that a big issue with IT departments is that they do not see themselves being a service and support group to the people in the company. This is should be the driving goal of IT. In most all situation IT is an overhead expense and it's real ROI comes in the form of making other departments work more efficient or take advantage of situations that otherwise they could not. If IT departments geared towards progressive service and support then there integration into the company would be better and there support by the company would be better. But most IT departments seem to want to cloud what then do in the fog of technology, for the most part to cover there lack of tech knowledge. This in the end make them outsiders in the company and leads to poor funding and poor management.

Tech D | May 23, 2008 | 11:07AM
If we drill down a bit further some real truths start to emerge. Whether IT managers are promoted from within or brought from outside it is clear that they usually aren't hired for their technical prowess, but rather for their ability to get along with THEIR bosses, who are almost inevitably not technical.

Well duh. I mean is this really all that different than management in most departments of most companies? The old saying "it's not what you know, it's who you know" seems to still apply.

And the strange priesthood approach applies to most any field - not just IT. Whether it's accounting, or the law - Jargon seems to be a natural by-product of most forms of specialization. Jargon keeps out outsiders, yes, but it also enables more efficient communication by those with the appropriate knowledge and vocabulary.

And your comments about the typical power structure of corporate IT - should just read: typical power structure of corporations and bureaucracies. They all tend to break down into factions. Even within IT there are factions within factions (as you well know from OS and programming language religions).

There is no doubt that IT has some serious problems. And your original query about the value of consulting firms has solid merit. My understanding of most of those organization is that they employ a lot of business majors - not technologists. They get taken out to lunches and attend company sponsored seminars - where they are wined and dined and sold to. Just like every other major industry from defense to pharmaceuticals. In essence, by-and-large, they are co-opted sales people for companies like Microsoft, Sun, Apple, etc.

Porter | May 23, 2008 | 11:11AM

You wrote an entire column on a cellphone?! Please tell me you weren't in the can whilst you did that. ;-)

Al Wilson | May 23, 2008 | 11:19AM

This will only get worse as managers come up through the ranks having never dealt with an IT department that was not outsourced someplace overseas. The problems inherent with that arrangement will be perceived as normal. That is until 20 years from now Gartner does a study about how much more effective IT is if it is insourced.

Steve Dean | May 23, 2008 | 11:30AM

Mr. Cringely,

What do you think of the platform-as-a-service (PAAS) movement? I see this as the outsourcing most of the coding within a company, replaced with more modular pieces that even a non-coder (such as myself) can weave together into robust, but niche, applications.

Have we not seen this before?

Wasn't the typing pool a comparable specialized department, prior to word processing software?


Ben | May 23, 2008 | 11:39AM

Please remember that management is a totally different job! I've seen a lot of tech people promoted to management. With no training, they often fail miserably.

A tech person with no training misses many key areas. They don't know project management, budgets, how to motivate people, how to 'sell' their division to upper management, an understanding of business, the need for good sales staff, how to interview people, how to get a backbone and fire the poor performers, etc.

Management is hard. It involves a lot more than understanding technology.

pcraven | May 23, 2008 | 11:43AM

I am not sure I agree. You can make the same case when talking about accounting (for example). Accounting touches every area of the business and customers, and, no doubt (in my opinion certainly), has similar bad management and bad practices.

Perhaps the problem is that not everyone knows what to do with IT, and we should get used to that. Whereas for traditional business functions people accept the realities.

IT has already generated enormous business benefits, and there is a price to be paid for that. That price is the intermittent loss of service or IT costs. Moaning about IT costs always smacks of hypocrisy since it reduced head count in most companies by 30% over the last 30 years.

IT costs money, but you have already saved 100 hundred times as much as you will ever pay in the future.

Greg Ferro | May 23, 2008 | 11:48AM

If an IT manager is able to do his employees jobs, then he probably should be doing them, and his skills are being misused in management. Project management requires a different skill set than technical work. IT projects should be managed by professional managers who are familiar with the technology involved, but the people most familiar with it should be the ones doing the actual ground-level work. If your best IT people are wasting their time with project plans, budgets, documentation, and other management concerns, your organization is not utilizing their strengths. So the fact that 97% of IT people could not be replaced by their bosses is a good thing.

Mark | May 23, 2008 | 11:52AM


Let's get real for a minute. The average manager who has been a manager for a year or more will find it hard to fill any subordinates shoes. Take a manager of accounting, if they aren't doing the day to day processes of their accountants, they won't be able to do their job, at least not easily. And let's suppose that the accounting package has gone through a couple of upgrades since the accounting manager used it as an accountant. Now they really are out of the loop.

I'm an IT Director for a small company and I've put together a comprehensive set of instructions to handle the most common day to day procedures for anyone to follow if I am unable to do the job. I still know that my boss (ExecVP) could not do my job, but guess what, he doesn't have to. He knows that he can call on others to accomplish what he needs to including using our outsource consultants.

I do agree that the vast majority of IT tasks should be made easier. An example would be that a new employee should be added to systems by HR. Why does IT really need to be involved? On the other hand there will always be technologies that only someone in IT will be able to handle but that really is no different than accounting or marketing or sales.

Rod | May 23, 2008 | 12:04PM

Oh Bob -

You started with a great idea and wove in too many canards to take this where it needed to go.

First, it's immaterial that IT bosses may or may not program. It's realistic to admit that programmers usually don't make good managers - IT execs have plenty of horror stories of analysts who couldn't make it as PMs, let alone strategic partners with the business. When I started out in the mid-80's I had a wonderful boss who kept a bunch of tools in his desk drawer and lamented the days past when he could take a screwdriver and soldering iron to the back of a machine to fix it. The world moved on, and he knew it.

I loved the PC revolution, but even though we hate the carping of IT departments about the difficulties of support, client-server apps were victims of their own success. Super-users who built marvelous, customer-focused applications got promoted or moved on and when the apps broke (for whatever reason) nobody was left to fix them.

Why would you work on your own car? I used to change my own oil, but the complexity of the innards and resulting time spent, plus the difficulty in disposing of the oil afterward, makes the $19.99 deal at Valvoline worthwhile. Is it there because of regulation? Probably - but regulation came because too many people dumped their oil irresponsibly. Why would I write my own code, as I used to? To make it sufficiently bulletproof against hackers of every stripe isn't worth the time either. I have other things to do, so I'll buy the service off the shelf.

So we're back to block-mode green-screen processing with centralized control, only we get Flash graphics and dropdown boxes instead of the 80x24 3270 grid. Smart IT managers recognize that the technology is and will be commoditized, the artistry of Ajax wizards nothwithstanding. There's a few big scores still of web apps marketing to teenagers and thus with a product life of a mayfly, but the corporate computing you're talking about depends on reliability and consistency where success is measured in fractions of a cent on high transaction volumes.

The IT priests are long gone. The bosses aren't kept in the dark, they willingly stay there because there is no penalty for their ignorance. A VP mobilizes 6 hours of priority 1 support resources because he can't get into the web-based HR tool from home, but when it turns out he wasn't connecting using the VPN there's no hit to his budget.

Rescue agencies are starting to charge hikers who make bad decisions and have to be rescued for the teams and equipment used. If IT could charge for its "rescues" based on misjudgement, how fast do you think the bosses would learn?

This is not to offer unquestioning praise for IT. Many departments contribute to their own demise by not talking to the business, thinking technology should drive the customer experience, and other sins of priesthood. They pay the price, and the company does too when there is no one left who understands how to make a strategic decision on IT.

Even good departments, as you say, disrespect users, often for causes as outlined above. There is a one-sided approach to penalizing IT for user mistakes that encourages that attitude. Machines go down, code has bugs - it has to go both ways when the users are at fault.

Is IT ready to become "invisible" as you put it? Do you consider the electricians from the power company or sewer workers for the DPW to be invisible? Do you, as a customer, truly want your iPhone to stick around as long as a power line or sewer pipe? I thought not... you can't wait to upgrade. Creating your column on your iPhone is a "competitive advantage". But will you get sued if your corporate network is compromised by that iPhone and personal information on 40,000 employees is accessed because the file you queried can be stolen?

IT wrestles with issues nobody else wants to - who pays for your "freedom" to connect? Given that users are (choose one: fickle, reactive, proactive) in demanding change, what is your well-managed IT organization to do?
- prioritize the requests in conjunction with the business
- budget for the request, including maintenance for the duration of the product/process life
- agree on training and education in the product/process
- stick to a Bill of IT materials that has the best chance of delivering functionality and deterring bad guys.

Some say that security is a losing battle. Ultimately I agree - the freedom to act anonymously will be replaced by the responsibility to act accountably. IT in these cases is the canary in the coal mine - too bad the canaries wind up dead . Good IT execs understand this larger context of security, functionality, and business alignment, even when technology trends are forcing them into unpleasant or self-destructive options. Bad ones will fight the turf wars you mentioned. Same old story.

GMF | May 23, 2008 | 12:11PM

"If you were hit by a bus tomorrow, could your boss do your job?"

Ever notice that in "Star Trek" the captain does know how to do everybody's job? In the Star Trek universe, Star Fleet is a meritocracy, which is one of the appeals of this utopian science fiction. But it is fiction, after all. The closest you might find today, of this utopian ideal, is perhaps the captain of an aircraft carrier. But even then you'd probably be surprised at how many things s/he would not know how to do.

Good leaders need to understand leadership principles first and foremost, and then understand the technology, but in terms of "the possible" and "the practical", not "the how". Unfortunately your average geek doesn't end up being a good supervisor if promoted, and in a year or two's time, is starting to lose the ability to do their old job. (Been there, done that.)

bc | May 23, 2008 | 12:24PM

If I'm the conductor of the orchestra, do I need to know how to play the tuba, or should I know how to interpret the score and know what the tuba should sound like? Boooooop booop!

Stephen | May 23, 2008 | 12:28PM

"Most of the problems of IT start and end with bad management."

Yes and no. I think the root of the problem is "institutional." Consider how resources - capital and human - are allocated and how decisions are made. It's the rare shop that gives senior technical people a budget or a "veto" in the decision making process. Instead they are instructed to use the power of influence and this, IMO, is a pretty weak lever.

Rob | May 23, 2008 | 12:57PM

Edsger Dijkstra stated, "Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes."

The CIO's office has to be one of the most mis-named positions ever. The CIO is more concerned about computers and software than the company's information.

I agree with Cringely's view. Do we have Chief Pen Officer? Chief Photocopy Officer? No because it's so prevalent that any manager can manage them without knowing how the xerography process works or how gel-based inks are superior to traditional inks. The CIO and IT needs to move beyond pushing out hardware with software installed, to being about the information the company generates. E.g., more concerned with e-mail policy and retention than MS Exchange.

There will still be a need for programmers and technical support (e.g., who fixes the photocopiers?), but it will become just another job in the company. And I suspect companies will move their business processes to industry standard models just so they can use software-as-a-service.

E.g., Payroll is pretty much done in certain, prescribed ways across the country. But it's not entirely because of the law -- it's because of companies like ADP. Payroll was outsourced a long time ago, and a lot of companies have changed their payroll processes to reflect ADP's way. Same thing will happen to a lot of business processes. People will outsource their information processing needs to a 3rd party, and the company will change its process to reflect that company. The first example I think will happen is e-mail.

E-mail is now subject to more legal requirements than business paper. Do you think a company wants to manage the backups, retrieval and up-time + spam prevention?? Of course not! Expect things like Google Mail and Hotmail to become the first real killer app as software as a service. Think about it: hire someone else to worry about Sarbanes-Oxely compliance. That company has to worry about making sure backed up e-mail is still readable 20 years from now. That it can do the searches required for legal cases. With the outsourcing of e-mail, the IT dept's power will begin the wain.

And I don't think it's going to stop there. When the new generation of workers and managers come in, the idea of using Hotmail or GMail is not unthinkable to them -- often it was their only e-mail account. And they'll also get used to the idea of simply having appliance-like software. You buy an MRP package and do some simple configuration. Then you change your business process to support the MRP. I know readers will object, but that is the future.

Travers | May 23, 2008 | 1:00PM

After 30+ years as an IT geek, IT has always had a bad reputation. Usually deserved. We would rather work with machines than people. We start thinking that what we do is important. It is not.

The business of business is business (with apologies to Mal comb Forbes for butchering his quote), not IT (unless you are in one of the few IT only businesses).

IT will always be second fiddle to the core of the business you are supporting. Deal with it. When I worked for an oil company, they cared more about the crude than me. When I worked for a retail bank, the loan officer was more important than me. When I was an IT consultant, someone finally paid attention to me even if I said what the local IT person had been saying for years, because I was 'important' and they paid real dollars for my service.

It boils down that you are never important to a business unless you are in the 'business of the business', and IT typically just supports the business.

I don't trust anyone who is going to 'help me' or 'do it for me' whether it is to keep my money invested or mow my lawn. Not that they don't and don't do a good job, but if they are in the business of keeping me going, they are 'less important to me', and so it is in almost any business.

Back again to Malcolm: The business of business is business, but the business of life is living.

So get over thinking that IT is important, and get onto living. Focus on YOUR CUSTOMERS needs, not yours. Focus on helping them SOLVE THEIR PROBLEMS, not yours. Your life will be more fulfilling and the customer (be it boss, co-worker, or outside) will be happier. Who knows, one day they might even say 'good job, faithful servant', and be proud if they do.

Jack | May 23, 2008 | 1:06PM


You need to re-examine your analogy - it's not that people don't want to work on their own cars, it's that it has become increasingly difficult to do so as cars have evolved. I've no problem rebuilding the master cylinder on my 1980 Jeep. I wouldn't know where to FIND the master cylinder on my 2003 Audi. And if I did get through the layers of shielding and packaging I would find it's cross linked into enough other systems as to present a daunting challenge. And so it was and is with computers. In the 80s we were using DOS and Windows 3.1. If there was a network involved it was probably a small thin-wire ethernet LAN. Today servers and services are ubiquitous and interconnected, frequently by services running behind layer after layer of GUI tool designed to shield us from the mechanics of systems. The specialization hasn't been driven by a lack of interest from users but by the rapidly increasing complexity of the systems. The resulting specialization will only get worse as systems become more complex. And that will continue as complexity continues to grow. Care to troubleshoot throttle linkage on a Toyota Prius?

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"
-Arthur C Clarke, 1968

a9db0 | May 23, 2008 | 1:09PM

The only three organizations I know of that *always* passes the bus test are: the military, fast food restaurants, and wal*mart. The issue in every other industry is that no one is out there training replacements.

Because no one is training replacements, everyone becomes irreplaceable.

Warren | May 23, 2008 | 1:26PM

I change my own oil. I'm replacing the engine in my car. I mow my own lawn. My CIO has no IT experience. My previous CIO had no IT experience. Fortunately, open source software isn't going away.

"Any sufficiently advanced bug is indistinguishable from a feature."

Stephen | May 23, 2008 | 1:34PM

Have you considered that the "fact" that 97%+ of IT managers couldn't do their employees' jobs is because of the generational shift in technology, rather than because they lose their abilities? Once you become a manager, you don't lose the technical knowledge you already had, but you definitely lose most of the time and motivation to continue learning about new technologies. Your focus is on people, politics and budgets. So you fall further and further behind the cutting edge until you no longer understand how your employees do what they do.

Bruce | May 23, 2008 | 1:34PM

No, it's worse than that. Most IT managers never had any IT experience. There was nothing to lose.
I've had enough contracts for a reasonable statistical sample, without using Student's T.

Stephen | May 23, 2008 | 1:38PM

IT grew up trying to squeeze the most out of the hardware that was available at the time. Unfortunately no-one told the IT people that hardware is no longer a real restriction, or, if they did understand that then they never realised that now its possible to deliver what USERS really need.

Whilst we have highly regarded, experienced people who insist that the best way to make the Web useable is to go back and re-write the billions of pages out there and have a standard to which all pages should conform, IT is not going to move forwards. The Semantic Web, taxonomies, ontology - all many hangovers from when hardware was limited and things had to be done in a highly regulated way in order for anything to happen. But don't they remember what a failure Expert Systems were?

IT is in a bad way because its core is made up of dinosaurs who are clinging on to the technologies that they have invested their careers in - no wonder they want to create this mystique around IT. It's time they retired to the museums.

(No I am not a young upstart - just an open minded sixty year old!)

Ken Taylor | May 23, 2008 | 2:03PM

On the subject of bad IT management the UK's NHS integrated medical network is one of the shining examples. In theory it is a necessary step, connecting up GPs, hospitals, patients and their medical records. It would cut out a huge amount of expense in paper records, huge amounts of photocopying multi-volume records when another hospital needs it etc.

Unfortunately the cost is currently at about £12 billion (nearly $24 billion) and despite being started back in 2002 only a few small elements have been implemented with the main records system not due now until 2014.

Liam Slater | May 23, 2008 | 2:05PM

The basic problem is that all IT organizations are Marxist/Stalinist by their very nature.

It starts with senior management, who moved up in their companies before the computer revolution and, thus, don't understand it at all.

Small independent IT departments organically spring up throughout the divisions in service to the business until their cost begins to be noticed by senior management.

Horrified by that cost, senior management centralizes the IT function and gives them their main charge, not to facilitate the business, but "cut costs".

IT centralizes all computing with a "one size fits all" strategy. No longer answering to the business, they central plan IT with the same success that the Soviets rolled out farm policy, and with the same result.

When IT in your company starts to answer only to itself, your company is doomed.

Mark | May 23, 2008 | 2:17PM

Its not bad IT management. Its bad corporate management that doesn't make time for those under them to stay up to date technically. I have been the ace programmer promoted into management. While I tried to keep my hands in the technical side, I wasn't a very good manager. As I began to let go, I got better at my management job (coaching, mentoring, priority setting, budgetting, planning) and lost the ability to stay current on deep aspects of new technology. So no, I could not do their job on day 1 or may day 50. And they could not do mine either.

My nightmare was the superuser who built his own 300 GB marketing data base from parts he got at Compusa and got them cheap. Then when it crashed at 11pm on Friday night, I and my team spent most of the weekend trying to recover it from him. When we couldn't do it, he told my boss that his support group was "worthless" and wanted it disbanded immediately. Of course, never mind that he did nothing to back up his date, use products that we knew worked well or even asked our opinion of his hardware and software.

I can pour concrete too, but I would never pass myself off as a Civil Engineer capable of building a highway, or even a good driveway. "Power Users" figure if they can write a few Excel Macros and some Access code that highways out to be easy to build too. And they treat IT accordingly.

Dan | May 23, 2008 | 2:39PM


Normally, we agree on a lot, but I think you're missing some key components here.

Computers are now at the point where people just expect it to "work." End users don't know or care about what happens behind the scenes. They just look at their computer as an information and communication tool, just like a telephone. And just like a phone, they expect that when they turn it on, they get their 'dial tone' and can call whoever they want. They don't want to know anything beyond the interface in front of them. Just like you don't want (or need) to know what happens down at your local phone service provider. The new generation of CEO's wont want to know that either. They will only be more willing to accept the "it's a bit complicated" answer because they know it is more complicated than they understand. But to pretend that they will want to get into the details of complicated issues is naive. They pay ME to do that so they don't have to.

And I'm sorry, but just because you are changing the platform, you aren't changing the complexity of the systems supporting it. Whether mainframe, desktop or handheld, you still have to deal with app problems, network issues, and stupid users. So, my IT staff will transition to supporting more handhelds, but that doesnt change the nature of IT. It simply means we change the widgets USED by IT to deliver the services we use today. The nature of IT as we know it wont change until we change the nature of the services being delivered. We will just need new skills to deliver those services to new platforms.

Special Ed | May 23, 2008 | 2:46PM

My chiefest bitch is neither the hardware nor the software nor the infrastructure have any feedback mechanism whatsoever. The user, and by association, the IT staff, is in the perilous position of those rare genetic freaks who have no sensation of pain. They must live totally consciously, lest they inflict some injurey that disables or kills them.
For instance, what the POP and IMAP mail service standards should have included was have built into the protocol indication of the users' personal storage and CPU costs....and the mail clients should tell them how big mail is going to be before it goes out and, in both cases, the IT infrastructure being loaded should be able to communicate what's appropriate for the fabric and ISP.
The internet and its protocols were developed by mature, thoughtful, clever engineers who naturally assumed it would be used by mature, thoughtful and clever people. As things turned out, of course, the vast majority of users are custard-headed dolts for whom it is all magic that they just use.
If they treated tangible services in the same way, they might stick a first class stamp and address on a refrigerator, prop the fridge against the mailbox and expect it to be delivered to Aunt Sadie in Duluth in a few days times.
Oh and did I mention they designed the Internet to communicate in a nuclear war, but never thought of malign users?

Stewart Dean | May 23, 2008 | 3:01PM

Dogbert commented a long time ago that if you want to get ahead, hide any technical skills you may have.

In Catch-22, a character was described as having all sorts of useful technical skills that would keep him from rising in the corporate world.

Personally, I've seen that in some companies, at least, having computer skills gets you immediately typecast as a person without "people skills" - in short, you show technical expertise at your peril. If you want to get ahead, when someone mentions a new computer, ask how many megahertz the hard drive has and how many gigabytes fast it is, and you'll go far.

David Zatz | May 23, 2008 | 3:28PM

I have been in IT for over 20 years, and this column could have been written when I started. IT has always been seen as belonging in the debit column, and as such has been treated as a cost cutting target. I have read many articles over the years that encourage CIOs to finds ways to move it into the credit column, but have not seen much success there, which is partly due to the resistance from those whose jobs are becoming obsolete.

But step back from the issue and look at it on a personal level. How valuable are computers in your daily life? Are they something that you use for your benefit or are they limited use gagets?

In a car, computers have been expensive sensors that add very little value. Only recently, with GPS, have they improved drivers' efficiency. At home, a desktop or laptop is only as critical as we make it. Again, only relatively recently has access to information, such as cost and product comparisons, and online shopping actually started to return some value from buying a computer.

There is no such thing as Internet Time. The truth is, the IT business is still very young, and even technologists have just barely begun to understand how to incorporate computers into society, beyond mere number crunching applications. Just look at the ways we are still learning to use phones more effectively, and that technology is orders of magnitude less complex than computers--not to mention the head start it has.

Unfortunately for us old fogey geeks, who read about flying cars when we were young, the future of our dreams probably won't happen in our lifetimes. But that doesn't mean that IT has been a failure. It just means that society, as usual, moves a whole lot more slowly than technology.

Later . . . Jim

JJS | May 23, 2008 | 3:35PM

Cringley you and several people on this post are onto something very important and that's the impending culture shift. My neice will graduate highschool next month and last year while marveling as she tested on her cellphone she stated that she thought she could get through college with it instead of a laptop. I gasped, but now I'm beginning to think she was right. As I follow your lead and make this response via my iPhone, I've come to appreciate the power through capability that a mobile personal digital assistant provides. The capability has improved at least 50% since my neice made her statement a year ago, I can't imagine the additional functionality you'll get from ubiquitous high speed connectivity. Making this kind of tech aviailible to the masses in an affordable manner is a huge game changer. I think it will be he bridge over the digital divide, at least in this country. As a practical matter think of the impact that could be made if every phone could be connected to the emergency broadcast network? The network is of little yes to you if the emergency occurs in the dead of night when you're asleep, but a smartphone connected/subscribed to the system can warn you by awakening you. That's worth it.

Qwell | May 23, 2008 | 3:39PM

Cringley you and several people on this post are onto something very important and that's the impending culture shift. My neice will graduate highschool next month and last year while marveling as she tested on her cellphone she stated that she thought she could get through college with it instead of a laptop. I gasped, but now I'm beginning to think she was right. As I follow your lead and make this response via my iPhone, I've come to appreciate the power through capability that a mobile personal digital assistant provides. The capability has improved at least 50% since my neice made her statement a year ago, I can't imagine the additional functionality you'll get from ubiquitous high speed connectivity. Making this kind of tech aviailible to the masses in an affordable manner is a huge game changer. I think it will be he bridge over the digital divide, at least in this country. As a practical matter think of the impact that could be made if every phone could be connected to the emergency broadcast network? The network is of little yes to you if the emergency occurs in the dead of night when you're asleep, but a smartphone connected/subscribed to the system can warn you by awakening you. That's worth it.

Qwell | May 23, 2008 | 3:43PM

Is the reason NerdTV Season 2 isn't out yet a bad IT manager problem, or something more insidious?

Shannon Sivertsen | May 23, 2008 | 4:00PM

Hypocrisy abounds in this column. Bob may have written this article from his iPhone, but I bet he still has his desktop PC. Mobile devices are just more gadgets for geeks, especially geeks on the go. Desktop computing is reaching more people in more places than ever before and I bet all those iPhone users have desktops too.

Moore's Law is still in operation. Hardware hasn't been stagnant, so why should software? That implies IT has to continuously keep up with new stuff. That's not the phase when organizations decline.

BTW: Bob has predicted the decline of Microsoft and the rise of Apple ever since he started writing columns.

John | May 23, 2008 | 4:17PM

Your general points about IT are well taken but I think there is an error in your multi-year survey of IT professionals. I think you could ask any audience in any industry the "if you were hit by a bus tomorrow" question and get the same general response as we would all like to think we're indispensable. But you are asking a leading question. I would guess that if you asked a similarly leading question like, "have you trained your boss sufficiently enough to carry on in your absence" or "is your organization (like your servers) stable enough to work even if you weren't there?"... I think you would get a very different response.

Andy Proehl | May 23, 2008 | 4:29PM

It's all very simple, Bob.

Woody Allen summed up the human condition - especially applicable to IT - in five words:

"Nothing works and nobody cares."

The reality is that the TECHNOLOGY SUCKS! Software sucks! Hardware sucks! The Internet is like dealing with a slow mainframe green screen from thirty years ago! How much time do you spend a day waiting on somebody's slow server or limited bandwidth to serve up a Web page you really need to see? It's insane!

Fix the bloody technology and then we can obsolete incompetent management!

Richard Steven Hack | May 23, 2008 | 4:41PM


Do you know who is hiring on the NHS project?


ah_one, ah_two | May 23, 2008 | 4:53PM

Terrible sound quality, but why?

Nigel | May 23, 2008 | 5:12PM

Where are you these days? You need to put yourself in a cloud (where all the apps are going) or in India where all of IT is outsourced. First, corporate IT sees IT as a commodity and they want it cheap. So they go to India. Second, haven't you noticed that computer science is on the decline in universities? Yes, american youth don't want to study engineering and computer science because it is too hard and it isn't a fast track to wealth... better to study finance or law where they can rip off someone and make a fast million (without creating real value). Thus, the migration to cloud computing and outsourced IT - a pure commodity and utility with dumb people behind it like electric utilities.

ajolie | May 23, 2008 | 6:00PM

the sound quality is so bad i read the column instead...

ken | May 23, 2008 | 6:11PM

Your audio this week sounds as though your not only using the iphone for text,it sounds as like your in a vacuum.When are you doing another sequal to triuph of the nerds Cheers H.

Howard | May 23, 2008 | 7:04PM

Bob said: "Most of the problems of IT start and end with bad management."

I think the issue is a little more basic than that and it cuts across all industries from top to bottom. The real issue is that the primary motivating force of all employees is the fear of losing their job. People are also generally pretty lazy if they are not closely watched.

So you end up with people at all levels of business that are not willing to voice an opinion regarding anything and who are most interested in maintaining the status quo. They're current job may be a crappy job, but it's better than no job at all.

If people were truly fearless and had nothing but the best interest of the business in mind it would be a fairly common occurrence for employees to voluntarily shutdown their own departments if that department were truly not needed due to poor performance, change in technology, outsourcing, etc. But you never hear of this. It's more common to see employees suing the company to save their jobs.

drewby | May 23, 2008 | 9:01PM

Well, I'm not in IT, but telecommunications. I have no doubt that my boss can do my job (although maybe not quite as well as I do for a few weeks while getting back into the swing of things). Of course, prior to becoming the boss, he had my job for about 14 years, and he was trained by a guy who did it for 20 years prior. IT is still evolving as a business division, along with hardware and software development. As it matures, best practices will be developed and become commonplace. It happens in just about every business and division. Think Accounting, HR, marketing, sales, etc. These departments didn't just appear and be structured this way, it took a lot of trial and error over years to get it right (and in many cases, it still isn't right).

It takes time to develop a Porsche after the first wheel.

Eric | May 23, 2008 | 9:33PM

I think you are very right about the tech industry undergoing a shakeup. Some companies will survive, some will die.

But that's not the problem here. The real problem is a lack of understanding of IT at senior corporate levels. The idea of a CEO having no knowledge of basic accounting would shock people. But who cares if the CEO has no knowledge of IT.

Wayne | May 23, 2008 | 11:05PM

Bob, you hit the nail on the head again. I completely agree with the majority of your comments. I am an IT Director, and, nope, my boss, the CEO, couldn't do 10% of my job! Guess that's job security for me. However, I do spend a significant amount of time documenting policies, procedures and troubleshooting practices. I do have a point of disagreement, I disagree that desktop PC's are obsolete. The desktop PC is always there, always on, has high resolution screens. I have three screens at home and two screens at work. Desktop PC's eliminate battery management, small keyboards, scratch pads and small, lower resolution screens. Most workers do not travel, therefore the desktop is the cheapest and most efficient computing device. Sure, I have an iPhone that I use outside the office for email and necessary web browsing. The iPhone is great, but I certainly don't want to type emails or reports, work spreadsheets, do in depth browsing or search databases on a hand-held device. Desktops are the machines of choice and will be for many years.

Jim | May 24, 2008 | 12:14AM

An old Harvard article asked "Does IT Matter?" It essentially addresses the issue of ubiquity. Worth reading.

If your public library has access to periodicals, you can probably pull the article from there.

The author later wrote a book...

Darcy McGee | May 24, 2008 | 12:16AM

Bob, A+ on this one!

In my company (a fortune 100 I will not name) IT is often demonized as a "necessary evil." This is offensive to nearly every architect, developer, engineer- anyone with a technical bone in their body. Why do we need to call it evil? Is IT not simply necessary- period? The internet has become customers' primary channel for doing business. To demonize the enabling technology and its practitioners is nothing short of insane- and frankly- a bit rude.

@Jim, wouldn't your title of IT Director qualify you as part of the hierarchy Bob is attacking? You are very clearly tech savvy- probably much more so than the average manager- and by the mere fact that you read and responded to Bob's column, I assume you to be quite intelligent, but to the extend you say your CEO could not do your job, could you do the job of an architect or developer under you? I'm not meaning to attack you or anyone else by asking this question. I mean only to raise awareness of a persistent pattern of under-appreciation IT management everywhere seems to have for those who actually have their boots on the ground. It seems everyone grudgingly accepts that they need IT, but few calling the shots actually know much about it.

Kent | May 24, 2008 | 12:52AM

Excellent analysis. This is a tub I have been thumping for years. Management and IT speak past each other. IT is technical, management isn't. I've seen many worthy IT proposals fail because they are written in techspeak and management doesn't see any business benefit.

A proposal generated by manufacturing, on the contrary is usually light on technical content, and heavy on cost and business benefit.

In parallel with better and more IT aware management, IT leaders need to become more business aware. And finally, IT strategic planning needs to be integrated with business strategic planning.

That will be a mature IT environment, a seamless part of business, nothing special, just part of the landscape.

Iain Robertson | May 24, 2008 | 1:07AM

The problem with IT and management is that technology tends to move out from under technical people very quickly. When I moved from technical IT into management, I had more than enough to do trying to figure out management and people. I could not keep up with the breadth of technologies that made me valuable to my employer as a "techie". Within a few years, I could not do the tasks of the people I was managing. (I could still learn, but I didn't know.)

There is still a large disconnect when we attach value to IT and information it houses. People NEED that information to do a better job. Competitors WANT that information. Who owns it and how do we control it? Until that gets resolved, IT will always be a problem for people who just want to do a better job. Device proliferation is just escalation in the arms race between people that want the information, and people that want to control the information. Useless motion as far as I am concerned. I treasure the day when employees are trusted to have the tools to do their jobs.

Alma | May 24, 2008 | 1:20AM

We're about 10 years away from shiny new MBA graduates that have had a Computer/Video Game, Internet, and Cell phone their ENTIRE LIVES.

Us old fogeys have NO IDEA what they'll come up with, but they mostly won't need the Paper Clip Department to "enable" it.

Jerry | May 24, 2008 | 6:40AM

There has always been dissonance between management and core-business services.
Management's primary goal is to achieve its company's "mission" which will never include IT. IT's primary mission is to efficiently serve the core-business. Such a "slave-master" relationship will of course cause friction, alienating management from that "pesky helper" while constantly hammering on IT's "ego". An IT manager's (and IT management in general) job is to resolve this conflict.

So, IMO a good manager (IT or otherwise) must possess the following in decreasing order:

1. Emotional intelligence

2. Ability and openness to learn (from subordinates as well)

3. Technical ability

Ran H | May 24, 2008 | 9:28AM

What you say is accurate from the end-user perspective. All they see is cheaper, smaller, faster, easier. But I work in the server room trying to tie disparate data bases into a unified view of the enterprise. Management doesn't think this is necessary (isn't all just spreadsheets), but when you allow each person in the business to work off of a different set of facts, you get Enron.

My world is not becoming an iPhone. My world is becoming more consolidated, bigger databases, bigger iron, and less Microsoft every year. I think MS may have peaked in the data center and if you are right about them peaking at the end user, maybe they really are toast.

Lance | May 24, 2008 | 10:54AM

Is this the reason that Dilbert is so funny?

cowhide | May 24, 2008 | 10:55AM

I have heard this hogwash from a number of sources and must say that I am terribly disappointed to see it here. The idea that my manager should be able to do my job is absurd on the face of it. Furthermore it is a result of that elitist attitude that you speak of in this same article. What Profession is there where a persons boss can do their job? Construction? Law? Perhaps Accounting? No, none of these are cases where a persons boss can do their job effectively. Does my boss understand my job, yes certainly. Is he capable of it, no decidedly not. That is part of why he is now a manager. If he was a skilled and adept programmer he would never have been allowed to go into full time management. At least he would not have been allowed to do that at the company where I currently work. On the other hand he is quick good at a number of skills that are important for a manager. He is willing to work with a great deal of uncertainty. He is excited about the product and customers as well as the technology. He is willing to dig into market projects. He enjoys creating user models and understanding our users.
These are not skills that I find commonly among my fellow programmers. If I had to work with my boss as a programmer It would likely drive me crazy and he is willing to admit that. The skills necessary to be a good, or even great manager are completely different from the skills to be a good programmer.
Again I am sorry to see you repeating this foolishness. I have worked for far too many managers promoted from within. People who were adequate or even good programmers who were "promoted" to management. This was done because that was the only way to pay them more (we wouldn't want to pay programmers too much :-). The results were almost uniformly bad. They tried to stay involved in the technology, meaning that people on the team who's job it was to make technical decisions were not allowed to. They managed the project poorly, meaning that the people on the project had to work horrible hours. They did not know how to motivate people. I could go on. This is not a one time occurrence, as I have been involved in development for a couple of decades now.

Sorry for the diatribe, but I really am sick of hearing this. There are many ways that programmer differs from any other job on Earth, management is not one of them.

Patrick O'Hara | May 24, 2008 | 11:03AM

Bob, thanks for so eloquently wording what I have felt for too many years. Can't wait for these idiots to go out of business - the interesting thing is, it's right in their face, but they don't see it coming!

Entrepreneur | May 24, 2008 | 11:44AM

@Patrick, you make a good point. I've worked for managers that were technical and they tend to be much too in-your-face about minor details that- as managers- they shouldn't be concerned with. But this in itself can be managed. A technical person who becomes a manager can LEARN over time to let go. Working for a manager that isn't technical- either never having been so, or having been so too far in the past to make an appreciable difference- is often far worse. In my org, I consistently see more time spent on requirements gathering than on development. I see more time spent on QA than on development. I see development crunched into the tiniest of windows where developers have to work murderous hours to have even a prayer of delivering on time. You know what this trivialization of the development process tells me? It tells me that whoever is calling the shots has never programmed before and has NO appreciation for what's involved. THAT is a problem. Promoting from among the ranks of your most accomplished developers is decidedly a great means by which to combat this.

Kent | May 24, 2008 | 11:57AM

Several comments:

1. "Most of the problems of IT start and end with bad management." True, but not a surprise. Robert Glass and Stephen Flowers have entire books on the subject. Peter G. Neumann's "Computer-Related Risks" also touches on the subject.

2. "Whether IT managers are promoted from within or brought from outside it is clear that they usually aren't hired for their technical prowess, but rather for their ability to get along with THEIR bosses, who are almost inevitably not technical." Certainly true, but again not a surprise. Nor is the result, which is that these managers can't get the job done. See the next point.

3. "For the most part they are kept in the dark." This is simply untrue. More correct would be to state, "For the most part, they don't care." As IT becomes ubiquitous and then invisible, managers cease to care about how it works. IT workers are regarded as commodities and "If you can't make it work I'll find someone who can!" Idiocy.

4. "The typical power structure of corporate (which includes government) IT tends to discourage efficiency while encouraging factionalization." Unfortunately true. Overspecialization leads to a structure wherein local optimizations give rise to global deoptimizations.

5. You make reference to a computing environment that is "good enough." Ed Yourdon made reference to this in, I believe, his "Decline & Fall of the American Programmer" from 1992. He was wrong then and you're wrong now. This is the core of what you've got wrong, so allow me to explain...

What the end user of technology regards as "good enough" isn't necessarily "good enough" because the end user isn't cognizant of what constitutes good enough. In other words, they have needs they are unaware of, with good reason. Needs like ACID and OLTP, both of which are foundational and somewhat esoteric. The end user of a web-based banking application is no more aware of these foundational requirements than they are (probably) aware of the the enormous amount of work that goes into their being able to turn on a faucet and get clean water.

This sounds elitist, but it isn't. It's simply an acknowledgment that not everyone can know everything about a complex topic. If you prefer a car analogy, all I know is that I put gas in my car and it starts when I turn the key. I don't know how an internal combustion engine works, and I don't care. I care about getting from point A to point B. I leave the complicated bits, defined as the bits I don't want to care about, to someone whose job it is to worry about them.

The real problem, which you aren't addressing in your column, is that those people whose job it is to worry about the complicated bits aren't being listened to. They are being dismissed as acting like "high priests" when they point out that there's more to making your ATM transaction work than pressing a couple of buttons.

Craig | May 24, 2008 | 1:58PM


While I agree with you about bad management, and upper IT management getting promoted because they get along with corporate upper management (though I do not view that as a bad thing--more on this later), I could not disagree with you more on IT managers being able to do their subordinates' jobs. I have been (and currently am) a programmer and I have been a manager. They are different jobs. Sure, you want an IT manager who is technical but you don't want to promote someone to management just because they're the alpha-geek. You want to promote someone to management because they will be a good manager.

As a manager, I want the smartest people possible reporting to me. If they are all smarter than me, even better. Managing IT IS like herding cats but it can be done. Ask the right questions, make sure the team is headed in the right direction, trust (but verify) the technical decisions of your staff, make sure milestones are being hit, etc. I don't need (or want) the top coder doing that. I want the person doing that who can get the job done and works well with the staff.

As for upper-IT management being promoted because they get along with upper-corporate management, isn't that what we want? I want someone representing IT that gets along with the CEO. What good is a CTO if the CEO doesn't understand or like him (and vice versa)?

Michael Sullivan | May 24, 2008 | 3:02PM

This is how some folks feel about this subject:

Tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Dennis Womack | May 24, 2008 | 6:40PM

As far as workers’ skill set vs. managers’ skill set goes. I believe that workers, be that IT or otherwise need to be deeply knowledgeable in topics of their job's concern. However managers need to know enough about what their subordinates do to plan for it, organize it, make sure it is properly done and ultimately MANAGE it. In my view what IT managers really must have as a skill set is, understanding of IT, open minds, leadership and vision.

I've worked with IT managers who rose from the ranks, IT managers who came from one branch of IT to manage another, and IT managers of no or little knowledge of IT. The most successful I’ve worked with were the ones with little knowledge of IT but had superior leadership and vision.

Unfortunately I haven’t worked with an IT manager who is a seasoned IT veteran and has superior leadership and vision. I am also almost certain that people with these kinds of skills are scarce in IT management because they are probably starting/running their own company.

On a final note, iPhone is a beautifully crafted dumbphone, it resembles to a great extent, the beginning of the Apple II.

Hasan Khan | May 24, 2008 | 7:38PM

I'm surprised that the Enterprise Architects aren't trolling this site. You do offer the best-in-class flamebait ;)
Jokes aside, I do miss NerdTV. Will it ever return?

AG | May 24, 2008 | 10:08PM

Of course my boss didn't understand my job. I used to tell him that if you don't know what I do here, I'm doing it write. When it stops working properly, you will notice.

Maty | May 25, 2008 | 4:00AM

Cringley there's no way you're going to blame management's total lack of technical knowledge on the IT staff. With every non-techie boss I've ever had, if I try to explain something technical, the management glazes over and doesn't want to even try. And- if it's middle management, they see technical skills as being in the realm of the peasants.

They think that the more technical they get, the further down the management chain they go. And the punchline is- they're right. And that's what's wrong.

This is the reason I went independent 6 years ago- not because I wanted to go it along but because it was the only way to have a boss who both a) had any power in the company and b) understood what I was doing.

Bog | May 25, 2008 | 1:39PM

The sad thing I see happening (as an engineer) is that engineering (including IT) is now thought of as labor and bad management likes to think of it as not particularly skilled labor. After all you can get a Chinese PhD for $10/hr so how hard can that job be? I'm 44 and have been in a technical job for over 20 years but I cannot imagine why anyone would want to be in this field today. We're heading in a very dangerous direction for our countries technical competence and bad management is leading the way.

I heard (On NPR) an IBM manager make the statement that his job was to pay people as little as possible while getting them to put in as many hours as he can get them to. If technical people are treated that way we soon won't have any.

James Kimble | May 25, 2008 | 4:39PM

In the organisation I currently work for there is a belief by the executive that managers are completely interchangable and that any (competent) manager can manage any group of staff. Combined with the tendency to reorganise at the drop of a hat, you get most managers knowing little about the work of their staff.
I agree the conductor doesn't need to know how to play the tuba but things go badly if he can't read music at all.

Jenny | May 25, 2008 | 9:12PM

It's a bit funny that the next generation is supposedly going to be the tech one. I thought it was my generation, people who are 40 now, that used computers all their lives. Timonty Leary said we were the computer kids. Of course, we've been pushed aside in IT by Indians and Chinese who are twenty years behind us in terms of young people using computers.

The problem with IT is it is often limited to hardware and basic software. Lots of people comment about email servers, which seems to be the common thing IT handles. This is not computer science. It's basically a modern version of the mail room or file room without even that. I worked in a file room and after awhile you know the whole company, what everyone does, just by reading their memos. (Don't laugh lots of people have risen to the heads of companies from file rooms.) IT people couldn't do anyone else's jobs because they don't understand most of them. You don't need any college education to maintain an email program. This is actually a bit less complicated then the computers in your car that the Mexicans at Pep Boys figure how to deal with. For a small or even midsized company you could pretty much do without IT. Just give everybody a budget to buy their own computer. There must be an email program on the web that saves everything for a company but otherwise works like hotmail. Everybody does this at home so why can't they figure how to do it at work? You might need a dba to handle any important data but this could probably be outsourced to Oracle or someone. People who work in accounting or hr should know how to use their own software and save it on some other site. If everyone uses offsite programs then you don't really need an internal network, which is the other big thing IT does. I think most web developmet is already off site. What IT is now could easily be eliminated.

What IT needs to do is use technology for the business, but that requires understanding a particular business. In that case you're taking your computer skills and applying them to whatever jobs need to be done. This is what IT did back in the 80's before there were OTS solutions. Programers had to come up with accounting programs and so forth. Programers had to understand accounting to write these programs. Even during the dot coms they had to come up with solutions because most of it was new. Now, I think people with special skills that can write their own programs end up doing this. If IT can't do this then there's too way many people working IT. Don't be surprised if you have some big layoffs shortly. You could also eliminate Gartner's group and a whole series of managers, which I think is what happened in the late 80's.

Frank | May 25, 2008 | 10:19PM

The Star Trek analogy is not that far off.

The captain of the ship says "make it so".

Everyone has to scramble to do the impossible with very little time to do it.

They rely heavily on one favoured individual who can speak the jargon filled technobabble.

When something goes wrong it is the unknown extra who gets eliminated.

Andrew | May 26, 2008 | 1:53AM

I had this on my office wall back at Bell Labs in the '70s.

Engineering for Failure

• Value Measurement over Achievement,
• Mistake Precision for Accuracy,
• Choose Theory over Reality,
• Reward Planning over Creativity.

Dick Haight | May 26, 2008 | 9:25AM

I don't think the reason management doesn't understand technology is because of a somewhat bottom-up attempt to keep upper management in the dark and thus justify headcount. (Although I'll admit historically it was the case, and it's the main reason outsourcing became so popular. Too many CIO's asking "what are all these people doing and what am I paying for?" and never getting a straight answer.)

But in the case of the lack of technical management I think it's much more bottom-down. Because upper management isn't technical they need to justify their positions by hiring only non-technical people. Since they can't speak to technology on an informed level they can only justify their positions by building a culture that asserts technical knowledge is "worker-bee stuff" and that going to meetings and never having a definitive answer to anything above and beyond "let's change the font to Comic Sans!" is somehow "strategic."

So CIOs hire uninformed directors who hire uninformed managers who spend all their days telling their staff that if they have technical knowledge they must be very "tactically-minded" and not ready for management. Because to admit it's possible to build a storage farm and still have the skills to manage a project or a staff would cause their whole house of cards to come crashing down.

In one company I worked that was particularly guilty of this we had a CIO with no IT background whatsoever (he made a lateral move from manufacturing to VP of IT) and this trickled down through his entire management organization. How could he possibly justify his own job if he maintained that you had to know technology to work in IT? Whereas in the same company it was a matter of pride and necessity that the R&D division was a meritocracy, and every new appointment included an announcement of your Ph.D, school, years in research, and years with the company. Both were knowledge-based professions, but somehow in IT knowledge was frowned upon.

Until IT takes technical experience (Hint: "IT" is an acronym and the "T" stands for something) as a given for any management position we'll continue to see management structures that actively and rigidly purge any technical abilities from their ranks.

David Chase | May 26, 2008 | 10:14AM

"Your boss can't do your job." This is not a bad thing. The boss has to be the best at *his* job and hopefully one of the things he did well was hire the right people and delegate efficiently.

I worked at at a high tech start up and the CEO was an MBA who was very good with managing the dollars, he was a decent salesman and public speaker and he knew enough about the company's technology to set general directions and speak at trade shows with a bird's eye view, technology-wise.

We in R&D one day had the realization one day that the upper management didn't how we built our stuff and didn't really understand what we were doing. At first we were resentful, but then and it occurred to us that it didn't really matter. They didn't care if they were selling boxes of corn flakes or boxes of computer parts. To the uppers mgmt, it was boxes of something that had a cost and a profit margin. And that's actually ok. We'll produce the product, they produce the money.

When the company had its problems it was when the upper mgmt would get involved in the design of the product at a low level. With little understanding, they would dictate significant feature changes for silly reasons without suitable understanding of the sweeping implications.

So in the end, the problems occurred when the upper mgmt stopped delegating. They stopped focusing on what they did best, and micro-managed in R&D areas where they had no competency.

The MBAs should stick to dollars, marketing and sales. And they should delegate R&D tasks to those who are experts in that area.

In short, I'm a programmer and my CEO should be leading me not trying to do my job.

boxlight | May 26, 2008 | 1:09PM

Bob, thank you for another interesting entry, again generating comments that are often quite interesting themselves, such as Patrick O'Hara's and others'. I feel inspired by all this wisdom, so here's my own reality check.

1. Life is difficult because we make it so, mainly because we have evolved from primates. It's normal to have difficulties at the management level and at any level. Everywhere in the world, people who have to work to live have difficulties. Wealthy people also have difficulties but these are often self-induced. Their main difficulties are the vicious fights with the other wealthy people. These fights are usually unnecessary but they go on and on, continuous power struggles. This is the nature of human societies today, and it has been so for thousands of years. Work is difficult because people are difficult beings to live and interact with, not because of IT. Our difficulties are very similar to those of our cousins the primates in the wild. The way that very wealthy people (aka. powers that be, ptb) fight for power have been the causes for world wars and much destruction, death, cruelty, savagery, and misery. This behavior could be a sign that our species has a major mental/behavioral problem. Of course, if this theoretical problem is not corrected in time, the laws of nature would eventually correct the situation, and probably with more destruction and death.

2. When one goes back to a life with very little technologies, one begins to understand the role of technologies and why it is important. Science and technology are important to increase our chances of survival on a daily basis, to increase our chances of living longer lives, and to make life more enjoyable.

3. It is a fundamental characteristic of science and technology to get more complicated over time. Science and technology, the products of our little brains, behave like evolving systems, and evolving systems tend to increase in complexity over time, sometimes at exponential rates, until there is a new phase where some of the characteristics are fundamentally different from those of the previous phase. The increases in complexity require more specialized jobs to perform these tasks. Science & Tech. gets more complex but our little brain stays the same (although our mental models also get more complex, of course, requiring more years of training).

4. Software and hardware are fundamentally different. Software is abstract and hardware is physical. Hardware deals with physical properties of matter and electricity. Software deals with non-physical, conceptual constructs: information (i.e., structured data) and algorithms (structured procedures). This may be obvious to most readers but this is a reality check after all. I also need to introduce the next few points.

5. Hardware will improve exponentially for hundreds of years. There are physical limits to hardware but we are still far from reaching them. Soon it is probable that all computing will be using light and primitive quantum computers instead of electrical circuits. And after that we will probably use more advanced sub-particle, quantum physics for hundreds of years.

6. Software will be written by hand for hundreds of years. In the 1950's, we reached the current limit to software: software is not intelligent. We don't know how to make intelligent software and we probably won't know for hundreds of years, if ever. An intelligent software would be able to write a better program than itself. We don't know how to do that, therefore we have to write all new software by hand, in a way very similar to what we used to do 50 years ago. Software has not progressed much over the last 50 years and we do not know how to significantly improve it.

7. Writing good software is relatively difficult and requires a rare set of skills. Even if everyone with a high school degree was capable of writing software, only a small percentage would be good programmers. This is the nature of the beast. Approximately 2 percent of the population have the quirky monk-like capabilities to be very good programmers.

8. IT, as an industry, is a major source of wealth. Many of the problems of IT today are caused by decisions made by the powers that be (ptb), the people who control most of the wealth of the world. Companies like IBM, HP, and Microsoft, are major sources of wealth and are among the many pawns of the ptb. The outsourcing trend, for example, is a result of decisions that were first made in the 1980's. The Gartners and such play the role of communicating, both clarifying parts and obfuscating other parts the strategic decisions and plans of the ptb. They are the IT spin doctors. They mostly create trends, popular ideas that the majority follows. They market certain technical choices, certain memes.

9. IT is also an increasingly important component of strategic military superiority. It's an important part of the defense capabilities of large nations and is being protected, as any strategic entities are. Many of the important decisions in IT are military based but are never presented as such, for obvious reasons. The Gartners and co. play a major role here also.

This was my reality check. Now let's do some speculating:

It is quite possible that the strategic decisions currently in effect are directing our universities to focus on understanding the fundamentals and on creativity, and that computer programming is not viewed as being an important creative activity. Maybe it is fine for computer programming to be relegated to high school. Maybe everyone graduating from high school should have basic programming skills, just as basic math. And maybe anyone with a university degree in computer science or software engineering should be a competent system architect capable of designing complex modern systems for complex large corporations. Why should it take 10 years of hard work to be a system architect? The Google, Yahoo!, MSN, and Amazon architectures should be part of the first year courses, if they are not already. There could be one or more classes on comparing more traditional corporate architectures (e.g., in banking) with the large Internet architectures. In the second and third years, students should learn how to test major changes to large architectures in production; this will ensure that they get well paid jobs. And we should have courses on the design of today's $500 million data smelters, including the eco-friendly sources of power that they require. Such classes should attract the youngsters, as well as the corporations.

The main problem in IT may be the limit to writing good software (points 6 & 7 above). This may be the underlying cause of most of the current problems in IT, not management. Managers and everyone else in IT are the victims of the dichotomy between progress in hardware and the lack of progress in software.

programmer-for-39-years | May 26, 2008 | 6:09PM

The last one was an interesting post that invites comments. I'm not so sure software hasn't changed in 50 years. I learned Fortran first and later Java and they're not very similar other than maybe in the basic units. Java is capable of doing so much more because of the way it's structured. As far as college goes there seems to be two tracks of computer education. One is what IT people think is important and the other computer science. Basically one is useable knowledge but it becomes obsolete too quickly, so instead colleges focus on basic things that don't change. Programming is taught the first few years and then it's algorithms and a sample of everything else. I'm not even sure what "architecture" is. Sometimes they take object orientation too far and it doesn't even make sense. My experience with Java architectures wasn't good because EJB never worked right and it was a big waste of time trying to figure it out. If you have an API combined with whatever the rules for inhieritence are then that's your architecture. They do teach the basics of this along with programming. If they tried to go into details they would again have the problems of it becoming obsolete quickly (like EJB). I think it is true to programs will be written by hand but I don't think it's that difficult, particularly if you use a good language. Java might have some flaws but the bigger problem is all the various issues with generational tensions and all the foreign people and above all the fact that some people don't want it to be easy. Java was supposed to be easy but they made it hard with EJB and what not. The purrpose of that is to make people think that programming requires something special and that you need to spend lots of money on it and bring in people from around the world. Even if some programers are much better the constant increase in hardware cancels out the difference pretty quick. So if your Java program is slow get a new computer. There's always going to be something that needs to be faster but most everything else can be done easily. Likely there will be new tools even easier than Java and there already are, but then the real programming becomes something you can't see. The role of IT is to be the intermediate.

Dan | May 27, 2008 | 1:42AM


Considering how much specialised AI is used today to solve all sorts of complex tasks. I think we will see much more of it and eventually general purpose AI. The main challenge is of course input for the AI to learn. With the vast amount of data available on the Internet, I think that can be refined and used to create software without requirering 10 years experience in software development.
A high level of discipline will always be a requirement for a programmer though.

Henrik | May 27, 2008 | 5:21AM


I agree that there are applications in use today that use technologies coming from the domain of AI. I wrote approx. 10 of these in the 1980's and 90's. But this is not what I call true artificial intelligence. True AI, for example, would be capable of writing a new program, or inventing a new programming language. So-called neural networks are used in specialized apps such as pattern recognition but what they essentially do is map input to output, fast. They do not really learn like we do. They have significant and fundamental limitations, unless the real good ones are still classified. We still do not know how to do real AI, even if there are clever programs out there (that's because they were written by clever people). I suspect that our intelligence cannot be modeled by an algorithm and that we will need a new type of machines that has not been realized yet.

programmer-for-39-years | May 27, 2008 | 7:44AM

Lots of people seem to think AI is prevelant but from what I know it's the opposite. I wish these people would give examples or at least state what their experience is (possibly they're working for NSA?). There's some arguments about what AI is but a program designed to do some specific thing isn't really AI. Sometimes they use the term expert systems or intelligent agents. AI is a much higher bar and I'm not aware of any example. The captcha used here is an example of the type of progam artificial intelligence should be able to complete, but if that was the case then Cringley wouldn't bother us with it would he? This is a good example of people not understanding what IT can do and they start talking to you about this and expect you to know what they're talking about.

Frank | May 27, 2008 | 7:48AM

While there are problems with IT's corporate structure placement, and in many cases, with the deployment and tasking of IT staff, the bigger problems that must be addressed, I believe, are adequate investment, security and both a management and user community that have the attention span of a nat.

Too many IT operations are expected to operate 24/7/265 with staffing that, in anyother industry, would work a forty hour week over four or five days. When something goes haywire after hours (and it usually does), those forty hour per week staffers are expected to give up their own time to fix it, no matter how many hours it takes. That is a recipe for low morale and burnout.

There is the belief you can keep computers, networks, servers and the like running with no downtime for maintenance. When something breaks, it becomes a crisis because the end users and management have forgotten how to function without a computer.

Speaking of end users and management, they have just "gotta have" that latest gadget to do their job. All this so they can go into a meeting that was called to accomplish something but fails because everyone is too busy playing on their PDA or Smartphone to pay attention to the discussion at hand.

Sports teams focus on basics to win games and be successful. Business, in general, should do the same thing. It may not be chic and trendy. But, the business and IT will thrive.

Paul | May 27, 2008 | 9:59AM

I think most of Bob's generalizations are accurate, but he misses a key point: Businesses are very poor at articulating their internal processes, and without that understanding, it's impossible to run an efficient, integrated IT shop that aligns with business needs. Where I work, for example, we have twenty something tracking systems for managing work orders, inventory, corrective actions, etc., each with its own software application, database, and server infrastructure. None of them can use information stored on any of the others, and management can't easily query them for decision making information. The IT implementation just mimics the overlying business processes that were never designed to inter operate or be standardized. Until business gets its ducks in a row, it's unreasonable to expect IT to be more of a cost saving part of the business. Automating bad processes just produces waste more quickly.

As far as the goodness of Gartner and similar analyst information, it has to be taken with a grain of salt. It's better than nothing, but just because Gartner says a particular application looks good in a Magic Quadrant doesn't mean it's the right solution for your shop. Gartner does canvas the various technology areas, provides basic information about the players in each one, and serves as a good basis for more detailed analysis.

Scot Marburger | May 27, 2008 | 1:36PM

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

The primary reason management is disconnected from IT is because the managers are managing technology different from what they worked on before they got into management. Further, once in management, they were responsible for more technologies than they had direct involvement with in their non-management roles. As a system administrator, you manage servers. As a manager, you are responsible for the systems, the networks, the databases, backups/restores, the applications, etc.
You can't expect anyone to be able to jump into a position of management overseeing that many different technologies - all of which are rapidly changing - and expect them to do the job of the dozens, hundreds or thousands of people they manage. That's not realistic.

The best managers are the ones that know what they know, know what they don't know and don't confuse the two.

In management, you are responsible for everything and its unrealistic to expect anyone to have their hands in everything. Additionally, as a manager, you have financial responsibilities that individual contributors do not have. Plus personnel management, etc.

The mere volume of information as well as the diversity of technologies is why most managers can't do the jobs of the people they manage. Most managers manage multiple technologies. This is not a corporate culture deficiency, its a fact of diverse, sophisticated environments.

V-O-R | May 27, 2008 | 1:49PM

Bob is correct in his assertion about Gartner and it's impact on the "dumbing down" of the American IT industry. The IT industry is fed a steady diet of BS in the form of studies, whitepapers and blogs all of which crow about the "big guys" - IBM, Oracle, Sun, Microsoft et al. I bet that if you analyze the revenue of Gartner, more than 90% of it's revenue will come from "big iron" IT customers who will continue to invest only with the "big guys". Gartner et al provides plenty of varnish and throws in the FUD with their four quadrant analysis. What a load of hogwash. All the relevance of Gartner is meant for consumption of Fortune 2000 companies and the big vendors who prey on them - all of them are in a cozy buddy-buddy relationship to make money of each other. Have you read one Gartner report that makes sense to the SMB business owner/CEO ?

In the meantime, innovation is passing the US by - Europe and Asian countries are leap-frogging over the US in terms of implementing low cost technologies from relatively unknown companies or even open source. Mobile IT is a case in point - go to India or Europe and you can see the huge investments that have begun to payoff big time in terms of productivity - and we in the US are at least a generation behind in terms of infrastructure and software. The less said about broadband, the better. We all know about the stifling atmosphere that we live with AT &T, Comcast, Verizon and other Internet companies who offer very little bandwidth or service and instead spend M$s in advertising on TV bashing each other with non-existent USPs that no one can understand.

Is it any wonder that you have Indian companies like InfoSys, Wipro and TCS having a stranglehold on the IT outsourcing industry ? The US has already sold of it's manufacturing base to China, IT technology to Taiwan, Japan, Korea and IT resource outsourcing to India - what next ?

When will this nightmare end ?

Go Leez | May 27, 2008 | 6:36PM

BoB this is a horrible muddle of a piece. Managers must be able to do the work of their employees, but we can't change the oil any more because things are too complicated or not worth the effort? Gartner specialists must be more focussed to have any chance at staying sharp and relevant, but iPhone-toting young turks will be able to stay agile enough to revolutionize everything? Take a deep breath, Bob, you're hyperventilating.

You're describing all of IT in all industries and governments with some ridiculous, sweeping and simplistic over-generalizations. How do you think things will be different in 10 or 20 years if we haven't managed to make any progress in the last 20 or 30 years? How do you think this is uniquely an IT problem more than a business or management problem? What is new in this tired screed? All IT managers are not conniving, underhanded, Nixon-worshipping, Machiavelian snakes out to undermine Western civilization. They are normal people doing their best in a difficult industry under increasing pressure from their own companies, competitors, and technology in general. This is not some world of black and white where people are pure technicians or empty-headed managers. And there is much more to IT than either coding or kissing butt. And there are degrees of success and failure within companies that show how to do better and what really shouldn't be done anymore. Consider this: IT's problem is that it no longer gets to live in a glass house. The only way to make IT work is to recognise that it is not a service for business but an integral part of business and that they have to be commingled to succeed. Mixing them is proving to be hard, messy work, but it must happen to get past being a simple cost center and really understanding the work that needs to happen. It's grey work Bob, not black or white.

Cris E | May 27, 2008 | 6:47PM

Bob - I am an IT Director in CHapel Hill NC. I am also an avid reader of your column. I started as most IT people making the regular pay for creating programs and systems. BUT - I rose through the ranks and now am highly compensated in my field for noticing all the things you brought up in this column and making them NOT HAPPEN to me or my department. My department encourages effeciency at every turn throug the use of hourly rates. We take every project and task and charge by the hour to the company for these tasks. So, writing this program, fixing this network bandwidth issue, expanding this DMZ will cost you X hours * $125.00 per hour. This is how we stay lean because we work on tasks that have value every day. Speaking of value - we never do anything in my department for the department. We ALWAYS work for the user - our best friend. We encourage users to 'change their own oil' so we can work on more effecient cars for the future. I wanted to comment this time to let you know that all is not lost on IT management. There is still smart management in IT. It is hard to find - but it is there and we are making a difference in my company every day. You remember me? I am your biggest fan!!!!

Randy Morris | May 28, 2008 | 8:39AM

This is not a problem with IT. It is a problem with this generation of managers. Too many seem to think that management is an end in and of itself.

It is not. It is a means to an end. Leadership is the end we're striving for.

Too many managers have no idea where their bread is buttered. They're not interested in serving their companies, they're interested in serving themselves first. This is never more true than in IT, where the strange language, the odd technologies, and the pervasiveness in a large organization make it very difficult to lead.

You want to know how healthy a company is? Look at what people think of the IT department. If IT isn't in good shape, chances are that most other things aren't either.

Jake Brodsky | May 28, 2008 | 11:47AM

Amen to that, Bob! IT is so complex and mysterious that even the IT bods in my company don't understand it! :-)

Last year, I had a problem with my desktop PC which indicated that it simply needed a new clock/CMOS battery. I thought I'd just get a replacement battery and solve that little problem. "No, we can't allow users to do such things." Fair enough, I thought. According to company/IT policy, I had to arrange a courier to send the PC back to HQ. I was without a PC for a whole week, and had to be sent home because my office is paperless and couldn't do any work! They then sent me a new PC, as the old one was "obsolete junk" (but worked perfectly well for me). Interestingly, the old PC was returned along with the new PC (the old PC's battery had not been replaced). So I set-up the new PC and then the screen goes blank after 5 minutes. Reboot and the same thing happens. When I finally got a field engineer onsite, he determines the graphics card is faulty. Not having a spare one, he takes the one out of the old PC. BANG! The graphics card goes up in smoke, and I'm left with two dead PCs...

I should have just sneakily replaced the battery myself in the first place...

Keith Wood | May 28, 2008 | 5:49PM

All I can say is... Imagine developers with root on a production system.

If that doesn't make your blood pressure rise, you're not an IT pro.

Unless, of course, you have adequate accountability and controls, and you fire any dev who slams some crap change into production and causes disruptions... But nobody does that.

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater | May 28, 2008 | 9:05PM

I urge every business person and IT person, management or staff, to get hold of a copy of "I.T. Wars: Managing the Business-Technology Weave in the New Millennium." Our project managers are on their second reading. Our vendors are required to read it (they can borrow our copies if they don't want to purchase it). Any agencies that wish to partner with us: We ask that they read it. Do yourself a favor and read this book - then ask your boss to read it - then ask your staff and co-workers to read it.

John Franks | May 28, 2008 | 9:19PM

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said:

"All I can say is... Imagine developers with root on a production system.

If that doesn't make your blood pressure rise, you're not an IT pro.

Unless, of course, you have adequate accountability and controls, and you fire any dev who slams some crap change into production and causes disruptions... But nobody does that."

I worked as one of half a dozen developers with root on a production system for a decent-sized university press warehouse when I was in high school... and you're exactly right about the need for accountability and controls.

Thanks for another great article, Bob.

Steve McKisic | May 29, 2008 | 10:34PM

My business is absolutely and totally reliant on the delivery of a steady flow of electricity into my building, yet I don't have the local power company sitting on my executive board. I pay them a fee to deliver an agreed level of service - I don't really care how they do it so long as they perform to contract.

Why should my IT delivery be any different ?

Mark | May 30, 2008 | 1:16AM

You want the CEO to make IT decisions? What the hell have you been smoking? Have you ever SEEN the mess that results when that happens? I have (before I abandoned humanity to be a hermit in a cave), and it's ugly. The IT person not only has to wipe up the mess without pissing off the CEO, she has to take the blame for the mess she tried to prevent.

You think the CEO started out long ago as an electrical engineer? You must be dropping acid, too! Here's the way business works, Bob: the CEO started out long ago as a young, greedy A$$ HOLE, and today he's a rich, lazy A$$ HOLE.

There ARE exceptions. I worked for a business run by a NASA electrical engineer who quit after helping investigate the Apollo 1 fire. You know what he said when I told him he needs to buy a tape backup unit for his ancient server which has never been backed up in YEARS? Quote "I only pay you to give advice I ask for".

When the whole thing crashed a few months later, taking all the company records with it, he blamed ME for sabotaging it to prove my point (I didn't.)

CEOs making IT decisions?

No wonder you miss .429 of your predictions!

Faye Kane, Homeless Brain | May 30, 2008 | 4:20PM

You want the CEO to make IT decisions? What the hell have you been smoking? Have you ever SEEN the mess that results when that happens? I have (before I abandoned humanity to be a hermit in a cave), and it's ugly. The IT person not only has to wipe up the mess without pissing off the CEO, she has to take the blame for the mess she tried to prevent.

You think the CEO started out long ago as an electrical engineer? You must be dropping acid, too! Here's the way business works, Bob: the CEO started out long ago as a young, greedy A$$ HOLE, and today he's a rich, lazy A$$ HOLE.

There ARE exceptions. I worked for a business run by a NASA electrical engineer who quit after helping investigate the Apollo 1 fire. You know what he said when I repeatedly begged him to buy a tape backup unit for his ancient server which has never been backed up in YEARS? Quote "I only pay you to give advice I ask for".

When the whole thing crashed a few months later, taking all the company records with it, he blamed ME for sabotaging it to prove my point (I didn't.)

CEOs making IT decisions?

No wonder you miss .429 of your predictions!

Faye Kane, Homeless Brain | May 30, 2008 | 4:24PM

You want the CEO to make IT decisions? What the hell have you been smoking? Have you ever SEEN the mess that results when that happens? I have (before I abandoned humanity to be a hermit in a cave), and it's ugly. The IT person not only has to wipe up the mess without pissing off the CEO, she has to take the blame for the mess she tried to prevent.

You think the CEO started out long ago as an electrical engineer? You must be dropping acid, too! Here's the way business works, Bob: the CEO started out long ago as a young, greedy A$$ HOLE, and today he's a rich, lazy A$$ HOLE.

There ARE exceptions. I worked for a business run by a NASA electrical engineer who quit after helping investigate the Apollo 1 fire. You know what he said when I repeatedly begged him to buy a tape backup unit for his ancient server which has never been backed up in YEARS? Quote "I only pay you to give advice I ask for".

When the whole thing crashed a few months later, taking all the company records with it, he blamed ME for sabotaging it to prove my point (I didn't.)

CEOs making IT decisions?

No wonder you miss .429 of your predictions!

Faye Kane, Homeless Brain | May 30, 2008 | 4:25PM

You want the CEO to make IT decisions? What the hell have you been smoking? Have you ever SEEN the mess that results when that happens? I have (before I abandoned humanity to be a hermit in a cave), and it's ugly. The IT person not only has to wipe up the mess without pissing off the CEO, she has to take the blame for the mess she tried to prevent.

You think the CEO started out long ago as an electrical engineer? You must be dropping acid, too! Here's the way business works, Bob: the CEO started out long ago as a young, greedy A$$ HOLE, and today he's a rich, lazy A$$ HOLE.

There ARE exceptions. I worked for a business run by a NASA electrical engineer who quit after helping investigate the Apollo 1 fire. You know what he said when I repeatedly begged him to buy a tape backup unit for his ancient server which has never been backed up in YEARS? Quote "I only pay you to give advice I ask for".

When the whole thing crashed a few months later, taking all the company records with it, he blamed ME for sabotaging it to prove my point (I didn't.)

CEOs making IT decisions?

No wonder you miss .429 of your predictions!

Faye Kane, Homeless Brain | May 30, 2008 | 4:26PM

"In time this will end through the expedient of a generational change. Old IT and old users will go away to be replaced by new IT and new users, each coming from a new place. This is the same challenging effect I wrote about a few weeks ago for education. A generational change will completely alter our cultural approach to information technology. And it can't happen soon enough for me."

What's your point?

Time changes our cultural approach to all successful technologies. My grandfather regarded the telephone as a novelty and regarded air travel, until his death, as the province of the wealthy. My father grew up with the telephone, considered air travel as a specific tool for a specific purpose, and generally avoided IT. I take the telephone for granted, grew up with air travel, and consider IT as a specific tool for a specific purpose. My children take air travel for granted, and grew up with IT. There's probably a technology that is foreign to me, that my children will view with some trepidation,and that their children will grow up with. Genetic engineering, maybe?

So it takes a true Master of the Obvious to suggest that IT will undergo the same type of generationally-induced cultural change as a host of other technologies. Ditto the observation that "the desktop PC is its absolute past." Apropos of last week's diatribe, you'll doubtless be thrilled to know that Gartner has been making the same claim for years ;-).

The trends variously described as SaaS or Cloud Computing may change the *nature* of the IT organization, but they don't affect the *role* of the IT organization as much as it might appear. You seem to believe that these utility-based models represent a threat to IT organizations. As a working CIO who sees 5 - 10% budget cuts yearly, I see these utility models as necessary to preserving the corporate bottom line. Your statement that "IT is shrinking in traditional terms" may be true, but who cares? My job is to provide a portfolio of services to the organization's business units. If I do that more cost-effectively by outsourcing our mail system to Google, isn't that the point?

Just how many CIOs do you actually know, Bob?

CIO | May 30, 2008 | 6:12PM

I urge every business person and IT person, management or staff, to get hold of a copy of "I.T. Wars: Managing the Business-Technology Weave in the New Millennium." Our project managers are on their second reading. Our vendors are required to read it (they can borrow our copies if they don't want to purchase it). Any agencies that wish to partner with us: We ask that they read it. Do yourself a favor and read this book - then ask your boss to read it - then ask your staff and co-workers to read it.

John Franks | May 31, 2008 | 8:15AM