The IT Birthday Party Syndrome

Why IT must be viewed just as any other product: something we can measure, monitor and thereby improve

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Everyone who works in IT knows the Birthday Party syndrome. Whenever you’re making casual conversation at a party and mention you work in IT, one of two things will happen. The first thing is that people will very quickly change the subject to the weather, football, music or anything else less scary. The second thing that can happen is that people will ask you to fix their laptop or help manage their iPad.

The result of this very well-known phenomenon is that IT people either tend to cluster together at parties or avoid talking about IT at all. This is all well and good and possibly not that harmful, but it has a risky consequence. Or rather, it has a risky cause: people think IT is a dark matter, something incomprehensible. It leads to the situation where business managers see IT as something that cannot really be understood at the core. The only option they have to effectively manage it is to manage at a more abstract level, with project management techniques; not based on what’s happening at the core. If we were to make our cars like that, they would fall apart because we wouldn’t use the right materials, the welds wouldn’t be right, and the nuts wouldn’t be tight enough. There is a reason why everything is measured in manufacturing.

But in IT, it seems that only when the software is ready can you see whether it actually works or not. Only then will you know if you made budget, and only time will tell if your future expansion and maintenance budget is anywhere feasible. This all couldn’t be further from the truth. I am not saying that we should all start talking IT at birthday parties (please!). However, it would be good to see IT just as we do any other product: something that we can measure, something that we can monitor, and therefore something that we can improve. It would save so much time, money and frustration.

I worked in the field of risk management for many years. The same phenomenon can be seen there, where people who really understand know that managing risk involves statistics. You have to run scenarios and calculate. People with statistical knowledge have an even larger Birthday Party syndrome: as soon as they mention they work in statistics, 99,9% (with an accuracy of 99% probably) of their audience will think back and remember this one class at school where they really didn’t want to be. Risk management will therefore remain qualitative and anecdotical for many, unfortunately.

Let’s not make that same mistake in software development. Let’s be transparent, start measuring and start getting software right.

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