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Think Beyond - Technology

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In: Columns > The $ & Sense of IT

By Alan K'necht

Published on December 17, 2003

If there is a common theme that runs through my columns—in this and other publications, and my conference presentations—it is the need for IT professionals, whether they are information architects, database administrators, Java developers, front-end Web developers, system administrators or any other person connected to the IT process, to see and think beyond the technology. What does “think beyond” mean and how does it apply to Web development?

The answer to the first part of the question is easy. To think beyond merely means to think beyond what’s staring back at you and think of it from the perspective of the organization as a whole. As to its implication for Web development, let’s look at a few examples of different IT personalities.

Example 1 – The Code Jockey

The Code Jockey simply takes his assignment and starts coding as fast as he can. He doesn’t look at the impact of what he’s coding in the larger scheme of things.

Evidence of this work can be seen in user interfaces that work from a technical perspective, but fail from a user usability perspective.

When a Code Jockey is given the task to code a web page he merely starts coding in good old basic HTML 4.01 (the official company standard). He doesn’t stop to ask himself the question, “Should I do it this way? If I coded it to XHTML 1.0 standards will this benefit the company in the long run? Perhaps I should talk to someone about this idea.” In simplest terms, he doesn’t review his tasks with an eye to the long-term benefit to the organization. A simple code jockey rides the code into production as fast as possible, missing the opportunity to become a code manager, someone who oversees code and makes sure that the code will yield a value, and perform and work properly for the company not just for today, but for the long term.

Example 2 – The Eager Beaver

We all have worked with Eager Beaver IT personnel at one time or another in our careers. These are the people who believe that just because technology is new or the latest trend, it must be better and they immediately start pushing for its implementation without thinking beyond the implementation. Anyone who has lived through the numerous reincarnations of distributed computing, with thin client in vogue one moment and then right back to the fat client the next, can attest to just how much an Eager Beaver can cost a company.

Eager Beavers also tend to be very enthusiastic and persuasive individuals. They catch the ear of senior management with the promise of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

These are the people who build Web sites that only work on the latest browsers despite the fact that a small percentage of their actual users use the latest browser (they should have checked the Web logs). These people leap before they look, as the saying goes. The result is ineffective Web sites which may turn away customers and sites that need to be recoded after the complaints start coming in. In essence, they simply cost companies money.

While many of us owe these people many thanks for showing us what to do and what not to do with new technology, from a corporate perspective, I would prefer that these Eager Beavers work in a Research & Development area and not on mission-critical and sales-oriented applications. Eager Beavers can’t see beyond technology.

To see beyond technology, the Eager Beavers need to slow things down a little and look at the true cost of implementing new technology versus the long-term benefits of it. If their proposal looks too good to be true, it probably is and someone better shake a dose of reality on it.

An Eager Beaver can exist in the world of Web development, but perhaps would need to be developing sites and using technology targeted at other Web developers. We always like seeing what’s possible even if we know we won’t be able to implement it for a year or two on our own sites.

Example 3 – The Rock

The Rock is basically the opposite of the Eager Beaver. This person is so set in his ways, that he can’t—or simply refuses—to see beyond what he knows or is comfortable with. These people may not be as easy to spot as the always-busy Eager Beaver; you need to look a little harder for their handy work. Typical signs include always recommending technology they’ve worked with and know well. They can be spotted saying things like: “I’ve worked with X for years and it can do everything” (Can it? or did you have to figure a work around?), or “In all my years working with Y, I’ve never had a problem” (Hmmm, maybe other people had some problems with it—ever think of that?). The result of this on Web development can be a five-page Web site developed in Java or a 20-page information-based Web site written entirely in Flash, or, even more hideous, the over- or under-engineered Web site.

Rocks have a tendency not to admit that a better solution to something exists beyond their knowledge base. They fear research and the unknown more than bad results. They build a complex database-driven site using ASP and an MS Access database (because they know ASP and Access) when the use of XML and one of the free SQL databases would have been a better solution for the required robustness.

The decisions of Rocks yield very little negative evidence. After all, the solutions work. The alternative, however, would have performed even better; why would you want to drive a go-cart when, for a few dollars more, you could have a sports car?

If the Rocks would open their minds just a little, to see beyond the technology they know and have right in front of them, they might build the same thing a different way, costing the company less, delivering it faster, making it easier to maintain, easier to integrate with 3rd party applications, etc. By not seeing beyond the technology, the Rock costs the organization time and money.

To see beyond what they know, Rocks need to look at what other people and organizations are doing. Just because a Rock doesn’t know the technology doesn’t mean it’s bad. They need to ask more questions and, in some cases, be forced to evaluate or learn new technology. They have to learn to evaluate the business’s needs versus what different technologies can deliver.

Example 4 – The Lemmings

Do I need to say more? These are people who blindly copy what others are doing. Classic signs are people who say, “Look! They’re doing it. We’d better do it, too, or we’re going to lose business!” While it’s always a good idea to examine what your competition is doing, once again you need to see beyond the technology.

While the competition may have just switched from a SQL Server database to an Oracle database for their Web site, that doesn’t mean your company needs to do it. Their business rational for the change might have something to do with integration into their Oracle Financials, while your company doesn’t have Oracle Financials.

By blindly copying what the competition is doing, Lemmings lose more than just the opportunity to be industry leaders; they may be following the competition off a cliff.

To see beyond the technology, the Lemming needs to pause before every decision and ask the most basic question: "Why?" Why are they doing this and why should we follow? Failure to do this most basic homework can lead to disaster.

Consequences

Regardless of which personality you are, or which ones work within your organization, the need to see beyond the technology is critical. From the most basic perspective, it seems like common sense: the fact that so many people simply do their job the best way they know how shows that not enough people are taking time to see beyond the technology.

Each of us needs to see beyond technology and think, not just of the immediate needs, but of the long-term needs and the well-being of the organization. If we don’t do this, companies will simply stop using our services. They’ll start treating the Code Jockey as a commodity and, as with any commodity, business will look for the best price and that includes off-shore developers. Rocks, Eager Beavers and Lemmings will be seen as obstacles on the road to success; business will either drive around the obstacle or, when it’s easier, simply remove the obstacles from the road.

If we are truly professionals, we need to treat those whom we serve the same way good doctors treat their patients. We need to treat them with respect, provide assistance as required and more importantly provide diagnostics and treatments over the long term, to ensure that these patients will be around for a long time.

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Alan K'necht operates K'nechtology Inc., a search engine optimization and marketing and web development company. He is also a freelance writer, project manager, and accomplished speaker at conferences throughout the world. When he’s not busy working, he can be found chasing his small children or trying to catch some wind while windsurfing or ice/snow sailing.

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