“Stopped animals from starting as drunks”

Genres are interesting things. They represent a strange combination of evolution, stereotype, ego and cultural attractors.

There are genres in film, books, music, games…

Some of these are ones I like, some are ones I hate and some I simply cannot understand.

But these all represent progress, or at least the development of the initial concept.

So where are the genres in IT?

There are some embryonic signs but the bulk of IT systems/applications regardless of purpose look the same, behave the same and to be frank irritate their users much the same.

If we do not have genres in IT then what does that mean? We don’t have genres of tools so are we nothing more than an expensive hammer?

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Still life, with robot

My vacuum cleaner gave up the will to … vacuum recently so I went off to look at replacements. There were lots of fine machines on the market but they all had one basic drawback, you had to push them.

It’s 2008, the flying cars and silver string vests may be but a lost dream but surely we have got beyond pushing machines around?

So I looked around and ended up buying a Roomba. This little machine wanders around the place on its own, so no need to push the cleaner instead it finds its own way around the place.

And I have to say that I am a happy customer, twice a week it sets off on its own and I come back to a nice clean floor.

That’s nice but why the post?

Well I am very conscious of how I have been describing the machine. It has a charging station which it sits in and which it returns to when it is done. This I find myself calling its “house”.

Similarly when it somehow managed to unplug its own charging station I referred to it as a “suicide attempt”.

When it started bumping into the telephone I described it as “having a fight with the telephone”.

My descriptions were automatically anthropomorphic. Fine, I think and speak in metaphor as a default but it is still odd that I treat it as a living thing in how I describe it and in how I assign intention to its actions. Actions which are just simple responses to the environment.

I am not alone in this.

I find myself wondering, as we continue to kill off the natural world, will our relationships with technology become more and more based on the pathetic fallacy? An attempt to recapture those prelapsarian days?

And that is why, oh Board, you are not getting iPhones.

St Thomas Aquinas’s Gantt chart

I was sitting on the bus last night reading an excellent book on theoretical physics. One of the threads of the book is the basic question of the purpose of physics – is it to describe reality or just to be a logically consistent hermetic exercise in scholasticism?

As I looked out the window as we went ove Battersea Bridge I found myself thinking about how the same question applies in other worlds, not least in IT project management.

A quick search on Amazon reveals 8,794 books on IT project management, a subset of the 40,853 project management books available in total. And amongst these books are familiar friends – PRINCE, ISEB …

But are project management processes a reflection of reality or are they just an exercise in crafting a set of logically consistent processes which end up only weakly engaging with reality? 

In my world one of our great weaknesses is to assume that because we have a problem documented we have a problem solved. We have a Gantt chart therefore we have a plan.

This is not about not following processes, it’s not about ignoring best practice or common causes of project failure, it’s a deeper question about how do we ensure that our processes accurately reflect reality, not waste time and effort trying to make it work the other way round.

Idle thoughts of an idle fellow

“Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen”, some of the most famous words in philosophy. “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent”. A catchy saying.

Wrong, but catchy. Life is elision.

But as I blog, I think of those words. The question which sits in my mind is “What is a blogger?” Or to be less universal, “What am I blogging for?”

Not, I think, for ego, not, alas, for Umberto Eco’s “ideal reader.

I blog I think for two reasons, the first is that words in serried ranks are a way of putting thoughts in order and creating links. The second is that I feel that I am or should be part of the public space. What are we public servants if invisible, unconnected, absent? But can we be visible? What becomes of the “world” if we become part of it?

Heisenberg’s Civil Service?

Vista Oddness

So I come back from 2gether08 all keen to start writing up about the two days and my Vista laptop refuses to find my wireless LAN.

So,  I run through the standard checklist.

1. Is the wireless LAN up? Yes, both Linux and XP boxes find it.

2. Is the wireless card in the laptop working? Yes, it finds the wireless LANs and can connect to a neighbourhood LAN.

3. Is there an error message? No, but eventually I drill down into the confused Vista network dialogs and find a line saying it had “connected with limited access”. So time for a quick search, the Microsoft KB article is not hugely useful and talks only about bridged LANS, which mine is not. Further articles do not identify any consistent fix. Things that have worked include changing the SSID or deleting the LAN details and starting again. Such varied “fixes” smack of coincidence, voodoo or a confused OS.

So I took the opportunity to redo the wireless settings on my router and change it to WPA2/PSK. I changed the settings in Vista and while I was pondering next steps it suddenly found the LAN.

So I suspect that there is a problem with Vista’s network preference settings which can occasionally corrupt. This is likely to be an intermittent problem so you might just want to keep an updated Registry savefile to hand but the fix seems to be to get Vista to recreate the settings, either by changing an entry in the wireless setup on the machine or by just deleting the settings and starting again.

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Feeling valued

Being a CIO is a lot like being a doctor. There is a similar sense of professionalism, a common commitment to making things better, and then, there’s the blood on the floor…

But the thing that is most similar about us is that we both get cornered at parties or events by people who want to tell us about their problems. “I have this pain in my left shoulder” vs “I can’t get my wireless router to work”.

Yes, Virginia, CIO’s do know about technology.

Recently a friend asked me to spec out a replacement laptop for their family. As I idly clicked away on the Dell website I found myself adding things to the laptop configuration which I would never use myself but which “normal people” would need. By the end of this the cost of the laptop worked out double that of the last laptop I bought myself.

And I belatedly had a revelation, this 100% surcharge represented the value of my experience and knowledge.  So I now know that all my years in IT, all my expertise and skills, everything, is worth a grand total of … £427.53.


Where is Vista machine?

The blogsphere (blogland? blogosity?) thrives on drama. It drive traffic, boosts egos and sells advertising.

One common source of drama is Vista in the enterprise. I am not going to get into the drama itself but instead here is a short note on what drives enterprise adoption of software and systems.

There are three things which CIOs want from software:

  1. It should work
  2. It should be supportable
  3. It should be affordable.

Who could argue with such tenets? But when you unpick them you begin to understand why the world is the way it is and why, alas for drama, logic tends to be the main driver.

It should work

Even in my organization we have a lot of enterprise systems which we need to work. Some of them are off the shelf applications, some are bespoke internal applications and some are external systems which we need to use for line of business or cross-cutting activities.

If I change my desktop operating system then I need to retest all of those enterprise systems to make sure that they still work. Even in my organization where we have long since moved all bespoke applications to the web we still need to ensure that they work with the combination of browser, OS and security controls we have to put in place.

Let’s assume that I have 50 enterprise systems, each to be tested. They will vary in complexity and scope but you would do well to start with an estimate of 50 person weeks to test those systems.

Of course you could do some in parallel and of course you would look to drive down the time needed but remember the basic rule of management – “hope for the best, but plan for the worst”.

And don’t forget that many organizations have enterprise systems that are infrequently used. How often do you run year end financials?

It should be supportable

When someone has a problem they phone the Helpdesk. Fine, who does the Helpdesk phone?

If I install version n.0 of something then is there sufficient body of support for it or is it like the old story of the teacher who said that the key to success was to be 3 pages ahead of the class? Telling the business that the supplier is fascinated by the problem they are having with the profit forecast spreadsheet is not support, resolving the problem is.

So there will always be a lag between release and adoption. The length of the lag then depends on appetite for risk and how important that system is to your business. We adopt security patches very quickly, new desktop wallpaper not so much.

And then one of the ways we try and reduce the support overhead is to standardize on a standard image so every desktop, every laptop is the same as each other. But we have to build, test and then install the image. Fine, the supplier will do the latter but it still relies upon us to be confident that it will work.

So factor in the time to build, test and distribute the image alongside the time needed to test enterprise systems and time marches on.

It should be affordable

Moving to a new desktop costs money and uses resources. Even if the update was free there are still hard and opportunity costs around doing the upgrade.

If I am moving to a new desktop then I am not doing something else. What matters most to the organization? How do the costs of supporting the old world compare to moving to the new world?

So, despite our love of drama the reason for slow enterprise adoption of systems is usually just the result of cold logic.

You could replace Vista in the example above with Linux or OSX and the logic remains.

And as a final piece of context, I am writing this entry on a Vista laptop before posting it to the site which was set up in OSX and which I usually read on Linux.

I am sure that someone will mention enterprise agility and organic implementation at some point and I will return to those later.


I am off to 2gether08 next week and, following an email from the organizer, I have been musing on who should attend such events.

From what I can see the Central government delegates are mainly a mix of digital people and a couple of us from the IT world.

So where are the policy colleagues?

This is one of the things I find odd about my world. Whether or not web 2.0 is as transformational as some people might pitch it, it is clear that it is already having an effect on how we work, how we communicate and how the public sphere operates.

These strike me as being potentially deep issues for the future of not just the Civil Service but the wider democratic process.

So my dumb question of the day is simple, who owns the policy responsibility for strategic thinking in our world?


My Life in the Bush of Hedgehogs

The getting of wisdom can be a very slow process. As I have staggered through my brilliant career I often wondered why I find myself as the odd one out at so many meetings and events and why it took me so long to focus on my strengths as opposed to continually trying to make up for my failings?

Thinking about the old Russian proverb made famous by Sir Isaiah Berlin made me realise what part of the problem was. “The fox knows many things whilst the hedgehog knows but one, but what the hedgehog knows it knows in depth”.

I am a fox, this does not make me better than a hedgehog. A world full of foxes would be people in caves having wide ranging conversations about everything under the sun while freezing to death because all that rubbing sticks together to make fire is very … well dull really.

But as a fox I am forever leaping from idea to idea, usually doing little more than skimming the surface but always aware that there is more and more out there to see and feel and do. This makes me very bad in meetings as I lose focus and can be disruptive but very good at creating new things.

Any effective system needs a healthy mix of foxes and hedgehogs. Management theory adds to the complexity with Belbin and Myers-Briggs et al but foxes and hedgehogs do well enough for me usually.

My world is divided into three parts – frontline services, corporate services and policy development. Supposedly the first two parts are specialist whilst the last is a generalist area. Which I would see as 2 hedgehogs and 1 fox. But why then is it that when I meet with policy colleagues from around the Whitehall world that they are almost always hedgehogs?

Can you have a generalist hedgehog?

The Slow Thoughts of the Machine God

In true purple lorry style the Singularity seems to have been everywhere recently. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, the Singularity starts from the simple observation that whereas machines double in processing power every 18 months we humans are as smart/dumb as we are ever going to get. So if you draw two lines – one for machine “intelligence” and one for us humans  and our level of intelligence then they will cross at some point, at which time the Singularity will occur and we humans will no longer be the most intelligent lifeform on the planet.

What happens postSingularity tends to depend on whether you are a Extropian optimist who sees it as the first step on a rapid ascent to the noosphere or a techno pessimist who regards it as proof that the Terminator series was science fact, not fiction.

If you are me then you wonder if intelligence is just a question of speed. Is it like the sound barrier? Is there a point at which the hamsters on the spinning wheel inside the machine accelerate and pass through the intelligence barrier and suddenly the machine is sentient?

If not, then what is the singularity?

And if it is just a matter of speed and there is no intelligence barrier then any universal Turing machine must be considered sentient. Slow, yes, but still as “intelligent” as its faster kin.

So that means that Sinclair Spectrum you had as a kid was capable of “intelligence”, if only the software had been available. Each thought may have taken a week, the firing of the virtual synapses might have been more like the rising and setting of the sun. But, it is still a computer and thus still capable of “thought”.

So, should we consider all computers as prospective sentients? This is a matter we need to fully and carefully consider before we add to the number of computers in the world as they may be our rivals or future masters.

And that is why, oh Management Board, you are not getting the new iPhone.