The Circle of (IT) Life June 3, 2008Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
Tags: Best Of 2008, Math, Staffing, Support
For years, computers have been touted as offering limitless capability, with some fabulous new feature just around the corner. Unfortunately, we’ve been delivering on that promise, over and over. Mainframes begat minicomputers. We then offered up personal computers. Then we created local areas networks, which grew into wide area networks, which grew into the internet. We offered simple file transmission, which turned into text-based email, which became multimedia email with attachments and embedded content of every flavor. We developed FTP sites and bulletin boards that turned into web sites that exploded into the web as we know it. Now we’re layering all sorts of services atop the web, making computers even more indispensible to an ever-increasing user community.
The problem is that all of the new stuff did not replace the old stuff. It simply extended it, which means that we have to keep most of the old stuff running. Even worse, we’re getting better and better at running all this technology, so users naively think it is getting easier and easier. Email and internet connectivity used to be an amazing capability that astounded previously unconnected users. Now, these services are expected to just be there, like electricity and running water. Trust me, it is no less complicated to keep these services running now than it was ten years ago, but we are expected to do so with smaller and more focused staffs.
Think of IT as an expanding circle. The new stuff is at the edge, where users see and appreciate cool new capabilities. The infrastructure is everything in the circle, hidden from users but crucial to maintaining the edge. Our job is to expand the circle. Each time we grow the circumference (adding a new service of some sort) the area inside grows in proportion to the square of the change, so that the amount of interior stuff grows much faster than the visible stuff. If each IT person can only cover so much area in your circle, you’ll soon be unable to keep up. And as the circle gets bigger, each incremental change makes it that much worse.
Consider one of my favorite numerical illusions: if you stretch a band around the equator and add exactly one foot to that band, how far off the surface of the Earth will the band rise? Most people think of the size of the Earth, compare it to just one foot, and answer with a tiny number. The real answer is about 1.9 inches. Since the circumference of a circle equals the diameter times π, and you just added 12 inches to the diameter, you added 12/π (3.82) inches to the diameter of the band. The band lifts up by half that amount (since the radius of the circle is half the diameter) or 1.91 inches.
That number is the same, by the way, if you add 12 inches to a band wrapped around an orange. The difference in the surface area? Adding one foot to the band around a 3-inch orange increases the area inside the band by about 29 square inches. Adding that same foot to the band around the Earth increases the area by almost half of a square mile!
Which size circle would you rather support?