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Eschew Entropy July 6, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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Many of us in IT like to proclaim that we are Agents Of Change, bringing wonderful new technology to the world on a regular basis.  We spend a lot of time discussing Change Management, learning how to help people through the stress of change.  We look at change as a Good Thing, a necessary step in improving our lives, both personal and professional.

Really?  Let’s be honest: as Oliver Kamm points out, the “most common form of change is decline.”  Are we simply Agents Of Decline?

Like every other system and entity in the universe, software and hardware are subject to entropy, the inexorable collapse of everything over time.  Computers fail.  Disk drives seize. Power supplies overheat.  Cables crack. Ports fill with dust. Databases fill up. Logs grow inexorably. Software gets patched.  Left on its own, everything we own and touch on a regular basis simply gets worse.

Disciplined operations is the heart of IT.  Consistent operational discipline is our only defense against entropy.  Without it, our systems will grind to a halt.  Unfortunately, there are two problems with good operations:

  • It takes an ever-increasing amount of effort to do it well

and

  • No one cares until we stop

As we deploy new things, bringing change to the world, we increase the operational burden.  Every system deployed today must be maintained forever.  More and more of our time and resources are spent on simply keeping the lights on.  Even worse, all of these systems communicate with each other, so that the potential system conflicts grow super-exponentially.  Running IT is a lot like those plate-spinning acts you used to see on the Ed Sullivan show, except that your audience is throwing plates at you during the act.

For some strange reason, users expect us to keep all of the plates in the air all of the time.  And why shouldn’t they? Why would we deploy a new system if we didn’t intend to keep it up and running? No one deploys a new system along with a planned shutdown date. (“Here’s your new collaborative environment!  We’ll keep it up and running until December”)  No, we deploy things with the promise of maintaining and expanding them forever.

As our systems grow in number and complexity, the cost of maintaining them grows as well.  This cost can overwhelm our budgets and limit our ability to develop and deploy new systems that really are important to our business.  As our ability to develop new tools diminishes, our perceived value to our customers drops as well. That’s a dangerous vicious cycle with bad career implications.

We’ve portrayed ourselves as Agents Of Change, so our customers judge us on that.  We didn’t label ourselves the Enemies Of Entropy, so users really don’t care that we spend most of our time forestalling the inevitable.  Behind the scenes, we need to strike a balance between both roles so that our systems keep running, our users are happy, and new systems arrive on a regular basis to keep our businesses ahead of the curve.

Is it easy?  Of course not!  If it were, everyone would be in IT.  Is it challenging?  You bet!  That’s what makes it fun.  Can you hold off entropy and still deliver the right stuff for your customers?  Even more importantly, will you enjoy doing it?

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Comments»

1. Susan Mazza - July 7, 2009

I have a hard enough time keeping my desktop working well some days so I can’t imagine how hard it must be to keep today’s technology infrastructures running smoothly.

Seems to me it can be a thankless job to be an “enemy of entropy” because the only time people care is when things break down. Yet it is a tremendously important and difficult role and probably takes a “thick skin” to do it well. But it occurs to me that unless you do that well, you probably won’t be a very effective change agent. After all, no one wants to make a change when they have no confidence in the result and know that they are essentially at your mercy. So maybe the two actually go hand in hand!

This is a very thought provoking post Chuck – one of your best yet I think!


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