“I’m not techy”: Complexity vs Simplicity

A few days ago, my sister-in-law made the claim that she is not “techy”. This was after she opened up one of those digital photo frames, got it working and got several of her siblings all hooked up so they could send their 94-year-old aunt photos. She did a nice job, but when one piece didn’t work, out came the “I’m not techy” statement.

Here is a smart woman that figured out an electronic device, user accounts, and smartphone apps for both Android and iPhone. I don’t know if you have ever used one of those digital photo frames, but the user interface is terrible.

The tech industry still doesn’t truly understand what creating products for non-tech people means. For the record, I include myself in “tech industry”. For 30+ years in IT, I was responsible for putting out lots of software for employees to use. There were a lot of mistakes. We continue to put things out that require more technical expertise than our customers or users need/want to spend.

The problem mostly revolves around the tradeoff between Complexity vs User Interface. To oversimplify, the more complex the feature set, the worse the user interface. It is very hard to have lots of features and keep things simple.

Unfortunately, I don’t see this changing in the future. One reason is that security, very appropriately, needs to be built into the lowest level of all our electronic devices and that adds complexity that is hard for the user to understand. The second reason is that interfaces between things (think photoframe and smartphones in this case) are getting more complicated. We all want different parts of our tech world to work together.

I don’t have a good solution here other than to suggest that companies (and IT departments!) work a little harder at keeping complexity hidden from the user. I know it isn’t easy, but it is important.

Ask The IT Director: The Drama Triangle

A U.S. Army Soldier from the New

Dear IT Director,
I have two employees that just don’t get along. One of them is always in my office complaining about the other one. I’ve tried patience, impatience, active, passive, etc. to no success. Help!
– Mystified in Missoula

Dear Mystified,
I think every leader gets into this position at some point in their career. You, my friend, are in a Drama Triangle, specifically, the rescuer. Not a really fun place to be. But maybe this will help.

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xkcd: Code Lifespan


This is so terrifyingly true. From systems that morph into other systems to systems that rely on a whole hierarchy of vaguely known open source modules, code lasts a lot longer than we think it will.

Why do you expect change to be fast?

Yacht moving in full speed

The changes your IT department implements can be hard at a personal level and at an organizational level. The speed of the change plays an important role in how the change is accepted. But it isn’t the specific speed of the change that matters, it is the speed of the change compared to what people expect.

As I talked about in my post, Square Root Of Change, there is a dip in productivity (however you measure it) when a change happens. It takes time for productivity to get back to the level it was, or hopefully higher.

Here I want to talk about the time leading up to the change. The time between people first hearing of the change and when the change affects their day-to-day activities.

There is a simple heuristic that I believe drives most of our opinions of the speed of change: If we want the change, it is too slow. If we don’t want the change, it is too fast. Business management is littered with failed changes, many because they happened too fast. Social commentary is filled with complaints about change being either too fast or too slow.

There is also the scope/scale factor. The bigger the thing being changed, the longer it will take. Changing a personal habit can be faster than changing a company culture. Changing how a five person team handles a specific process is faster than a town gets used to a new roundabout intersection.

And the icing on the cake is looking at all the change that has happened in the last one hundred years. Virtually no aspect of human existence has been change-free. Even at the same time that the changes we want are happening too slow for us.

Going back to the IT department that we all know and love, we need to spend time up front explaining the change to make sure that as many people as possible believe it is a good thing. The more that want it, the faster the organization will want the change. Having most of your users think you are implementing a change too slowly is much better than them thinking you are rushing a change too fast.

Dashboards: over and under used

gray airplane control panel

I did a search for IT dashboards to see what is currently going on and limited the search to this past month. There are an amazing number of complex dashboards, with dozens of little graphs and charts.

I can’t see how they are useful over a long period of time. Too much time is spent maintaining the automated tools to gather the metrics or manually gathering the data compared to the value we get. When personnel change, they often bring other ideas for metrics.

In an operating room, there is a lot of equipment, all with displays, warning bells and lights, and numbers available at a glance. Individuals in the operating room are responsible for their equipment. There is no central dashboard for the surgeon because it takes focus away from the main goal of surgery on the patient.

Airplane cockpits are very complex. There are many dials, knobs, levels, switches, and displays available to the pilot. Lots of effort has gone into identifying what the pilot needs and when they need it. The goal is flying the plane, and that drives how the cockpit is designed.

IT needs to take some hints from these two scenarios. Too often, metrics are gathered onto a dashboard because it is easy to create the metric. After it is created, people figure out how to use it. It should be the other way around. Don’t create the metric unless you know how to use it to manage the department.

The internal metrics for our IT departments should be driven from the external metrics we share with the rest of the organization.

We need to keep our eye on the primary task of managing the department and only make our team create metrics that will drive decisions and behavior changes.

IT Leaders: How long will it take?

silhouette of men in construction site during sunset

“How long will it take?” A question full of risk, yet, one that gets asked of IT leaders frequently. IT leaders also ask it of their team, so it can be a double-edged sword. How can we deal with these requests for estimates?

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Two Articles in Golem.de, a German Magazine for IT professionals

A German magazine for IT professionals, Golem,de, published two articles related to my IT books.

First Days: Decision Making

compass on hand

As an IT leader, you make decisions that impact other people, often significantly. The decisions you make will affect the organization everywhere on the continuum, from tactical to strategic.

Some decisions require lots of thought and analysis. Some require less. How do you know?

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Are you who you say you are?

grayscale photo of gas mask

How do I know you are who you say you are? How do you know I am who I say I am?

I think that verification of online presences will become more important over the next few years. This includes all the social media. It also includes anywhere that an employee representing an organization is present online.

We will need to strike a balance for the need to have anonymous accounts and the need to know specifically who are scam calling the elderly. Most systems we have in place are too far in one direction or the other, usually towards anonymous accounts. We need a better balance.

We need the ability to prove who we are if we so chose. We need the ability to be anonymous if we want. And we need a way to limit contact with those that may not be who they say they are.

I don’t have good answers, and there are those smarter than me that are thinking about this stuff.

However, if you lead an IT department, you need to make sure that your identity management actually works and that your social media policies cover identity.

CIO.com: War for Talent article: decent ideas, terrible title

people forming round by shoes

Recently, CIO.com published an article titled “IT’s ‘war for talent’ is a losing battle“.

Let me get one thing out of the way first. The title sucks. It is clearly clickbait, like all titles that use this phrase. Very few in IT actually think it is a war. Same for HR. Competition? Yes. Tough competition? Absolutely! War? Don’t be stupid. Go tell the Ukrainians that your search for talent is analogous to their war. I’ve been involved in organizations with other IT leaders for years and no one ever talked about employee relations as a war. I’m sure there are a few out there, but they are a clear minority, in my opinion.

The article itself is decent. There are two points that are particularly strong.

  1. Remote work is here to stay. We can argue about what percentage of employees need to be in the office how many days of the week but that doesn’t change the point. Personally, I think the pendulum will swing back to more in-office in a few years, when both employees and employers realize that new employee connections to the company are weaker in remote situations. But I also believe that IT leaders must offer, support, and enable remote work as a permanent change. Provide the tools, HR policies, and management techniques to support remote workers as full members of the team.
  2. Build a pipeline. Intern programs with local post-high-school education entities are an excellent way to see a handful of upcoming graduates. Get involved in local technical groups to spot talent that becomes available. Find out the local IT certificate programs to find the diamonds in the rough without a college degree. Even smaller IT departments with a dozen or two employees can benefit from these techniques.

As always, remember that retention is more important than any of this. The position that doesn’t come open is the easiest to fill.