Tech Execs: Can We Stop the Stupidity?

Tuesday Jan 6th 2009 by Steve Andriole
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Stupidity among tech executives is viral – and should be nipped in the bud. If line managers don’t kill stupidity, it will keep growing.

So what did you like about 2008? What did you hate? Here’s my take:

I hate spineless managers – especially when “executives” make incredibly stupid decisions. I realize that we all have jobs at stake but there’s a line that should not be crossed.

My stupidity benchmark is a 1998 quote from a very senior executive of a Fortune 100 company who declared in an off-site management meeting that “the Internet is a fad and will be gone in two years.” I think that statement makes Ken Olson’s “there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home,” and Bill Gate’s declaration that 64KB of memory should be enough for anyone, sound reasonable.

When executives start mumbling about things they don’t understand they should be corrected – politely, of course – but corrected nonetheless. Stupidly is viral – and should be nipped in the bud. If line managers don’t kill stupidity, it will keep growing. Stupidity needs to be kept out of the trenches – where it can do real damage.

I’ve been at meetings in 2008 where unbelievably stupid things were said by the fearless leaders – things that made absolutely no sense at all. As the consultant in the room, I politely waited for the line managers to address the stupidity but waited – meeting after meeting – in vain. Over and over again I saw heads drop and deep breaths drawn – but that’s about it.

On more than one occasion I offered myself as the sacrificial lamb pointing out – politely – that the facts did not support the opinions. I survived most of the encounters – but not all of them – and I guess this is what line managers fear the most: the deadly “dead right syndrome” (where you may be “right” but you may also be “dead”). That said, I hate it when stupid people get their way only because of the role they’re playing. I want “truth” to prevail – and I want line managers to draw the proverbial line in the sand because that’s where the rubber meets the road.

Worse are the fearless leaders who’ve been clueless about IT for decades. All they could say in 2008 – and certainly in 2009 – is “cut the budget.”

I have a CIO friend who gets the same memorandum every month: “cut spending by 5%.” He figures he will have absolutely nothing to do in about 20 months when IT suddenly becomes free. This is no time for mindless cost-cutting – or intimidation. Leadership is about optimization, motivation and performance. I resent the lack of effort that most business executives make to understand technology and how it enables business models and processes. A little knowledge would go a long way toward optimization.

These same executives talk a good game about quality, balanced scorecards, Six Sigma black belts and all of the elixirs they drink so frequently, but when it comes to technology they either punt to their similarly clueless lieutenants or try to impress us with their technology knowledge as though they were talking about marketing, new product development or customer service (things we assume they actually know something about).

I hate having to hear – year after year – that we need to educate our leaders about technology. Yes, education is always important, but teachers expect their students – even the bad ones – to do some homework once in a while.

I hate half-baked vendors. Come on: make products that work – or nearly work – when you sell them. I’ve already downloaded two service packs for my Blackberry Storm – and I just got it December 15th; already spent two hours on the phone with (I must admit helpful) support personnel; and no one can control all the damn spam I keep getting. It’s a sweet little device but the single touch pane is already starting to wobble. We’ll see.

Many products are released too early – and the vendors know that there may be nearly fatal flaws in their designs – but they peddle them anyway. It’s almost like they assume that early adopters are part of the beta testing team – not customers who spend money and expect results. There’s not as much competition out there as many vendors think, so there’s no reason to rush bad products to market to beat the competition. You would think they already know that bad products push us directly into the arms of the competition.

I hate the venture capitalists (VCs) who blew billions on stupid pet tricks while raking in huge management fees. Lots of pension fund money, money from individual investors and other institutional money was lost over the past few years when the chickens of funds- raised-five-years-ago came home to roost.

There are a lot of extremely creative entrepreneurs out there. Too bad the VCs can’t find them. My continuous complaint is that most of the VCs that I know – and I know a lot of them – really don’t know much about the technology or technology services they fund.

Don’t get me wrong: many of them are terrific financial engineers. But without domain understanding it’s hard to really understand a technology’s promise in the enterprise or with consumers. When the national financial tide was rising it was easy to succeed, but now that times are tough, ignorance has really gotten expensive: too bad for the companies whose valuations have shrunk; too bad for the investors in venture funds managed by financial engineers (not technologists); too bad for the entrepreneurs that mortgaged their futures (without guaranteed management fees).

Technology due diligence should be conducted by technologists, not accountants and not, God forbid, by bankers. But so long as venture investing remains a prep-school/ivy league club, money will be wasted – until the tide returns to raise all boats – no matter how stupid they look in the water.

I hate all this because we really need smart VCs to find and fund digital innovation, since the government has essentially given up on digital technology innovation (at least during the last eight years). I just wish VCs were better at what they do. 2008 was a horrible year for VCs – worse for their management-fee-less investors; 2009 is likely to be worse.

The 2008 presidential campaign horrified and delighted me. It horrified me because many of the presidential candidates – from both parties – could not spell I n t e r n e t; just as many failed to understand – even late in the game – that people under the age of 25 get their news from sources other than newspapers and Brian Williams. The same campaign delighted me with how at least one candidate used digital technology to connect to his supporters and donors. He “got it” – and he won.

I was also horrified with the lack of specificity about technology issues and policies with which many of the candidates seemed way too comfortable. I wrote a column about this and got some nasty emails, but the facts were the facts: some candidates talked a lot about digital technology, technology innovation, technology policy and technology funding; other candidates said virtually nothing – and in a few cases, absolutely nothing – about information technology. It’s almost as frustrating as our obsession with avoiding any discussion about physical infrastructure over the past few decades. I guess when a bridge collapses and no one’s there, it doesn’t really collapse.

I really liked the new technology delivery models that matured in 2008. Software-as-a-service is real: it works well and is cost-effective for the companies that understand how it can be leveraged. Hardware-as-a-service has also taken off. We may well mark 2008 as the year when SaaS and HaaS took off as legitimate technology delivery models.

Other delivery models also (almost) matured in 2008, especially cloud computing. I realize that C2 is far from fully baked, but I love all the attention it got in 2008. Even Larry Ellison failed to derail it.

I like the penetration that Web 2.0 technology made into the enterprise in 2008. While I realize that there will be executives that declare that Web 2.0-technology-is-a-fad-that-will-be-gone-in-two-years, I also appreciate the executives and managers who thought that the pony was worth chasing. They have been – and will continue to be – rewarded. Wikis, blogs, RSS filters, corporate social networks and even mashups are being deployed to solve a variety of communication, collaboration, customer service, training and other problems on which we’ve spent a ton of money over the years. Web 2.0 tools are fast and cheap. You have to love the trend.

But the trend I like the most is openness. Our industry continues to invest in integration and interoperability. Even those with the most to lose – like Microsoft, Oracle, BEA and SAP – have come around to the inevitability of open architectures and alternative software delivery models. We continue to move toward reusability, components for easy software construction, APIs that really interface, and platforms that accelerate interoperability.

Is proprietary software dead? No, and it will never really die – but it will get increasingly friendlier in 2009 and beyond. Eventually it will become completely promiscuous.

Finally, I like that the dependency on information technology is growing by leaps and bounds, and that the distance between business and technology is now completely gone. I lived long enough to see the full integration of business and technology. Business strategy and tactics cannot exist without digital technology. In spite of all of the stupid arguments that IT doesn’t matter, IT matters more now – and differently – than it ever did. Nobody moves without us. We’re the logistics of business. 2008 proved this once and for all. 2009 – and all of the years that will follow – will reaffirm just how extensively IT rules.

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