Yes, No, Maybe
March 30, 2001
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When you work in a high-tech career you get used to dealing
in absolutes; the bit is either on or off, the data is either there or
not, the program runs or crashes. Having a successful high-tech career,
though, involves cultivating a sense of ambiguity and being able to develop
the best solution for your clients in a world filled with shades of gray.
The right answer one day may be the wrong answer the next. It is up to
you to keep an open mind.
Simple vs. complex
One of the most ambiguous situations you will deal with is when to apply
technology and when to look elsewhere for solutions to your customers
problems. Most everyone has heard the old saying, "if you give a
child a hammer and everything becomes a nail." The same could be
said for high-tech workers. Too often the initial response to any challenge
is more technology. You need to resist this initial impulse and spend
at least a few minutes analyzing the problem first.
From personal experience I know that problems are often the product of
human nature and not a lack of technology. For example, perhaps someone
isn't tracking inventory closely enough. You can create the best inventory
system in the world, but it will all be for naught if the company culture
allows anyone to move inventory around at will. In fact, some people will
actively rebel against the additional burden the system places on them.
The unfortunate result is that you will be blamed for the failure of the
inventory system, not the company culture.
In this case, if the human issues aren't dealt with first, no amount of
technology will solve the problem. Each and every time you start a project
you need to look carefully for these human factors that could spell disaster.
There are also situations when non-technological solutions to problems
are the best choice. Does a warehouse worker really need a Palm Pilot
when a pencil and well-designed paper form will be easier to use and less
likely to be damaged or lost? It may sound like heresy, but there are
just as many reasons to avoid technological solutions as to apply them.
One of the most important reasons to carefully evaluate each technology
project you work on is your own reputation. You do not want to be seen
by either management or your customers as someone who applies the "hammer"
to every project. The moment that occurs you will find your budgets are
scrutinized more carefully, your projects denied more often and a subtle
suspicion in your dealings with management. Instead of someone who is
working towards a common goal, you become some who needs to be "reined
in"; someone who needs to be watched; someone who doesn't "understand
As you might imagine any of these opinions can stunt, if not stop, your
high-tech career dead in its tracks. Working in high-tech already makes
you a bit of an outsider in any company, since some people are threatened
by your abilities. It only takes a few failed technology projects to make
management wonder why they are spending all that money. Technology is
an easy scapegoat, and you along with it, whenever human issues get in
the way. By carefully evaluating each project, and sharing that evaluation
with management you can help to diffuse thoughts that you approach every
challenge in the same fashion. This won't entirely protect you from being
a scapegoat, but it can offer a first line of defense.
Overall, it is important that you keep an open mind about any technology
projects and that the people around you see this. We all might like business
to be unambiguous, but the simple fact is it is controlled more by human
frailties than we would ever like to believe. You must recognize this
fact in order to keep your high-tech career moving. It is too simple to
have your work dismissed or minimized if your management and your clients
believe that you are building technology for the sake of technology instead
of building solutions that help the company grow larger. Look for the
shades of gray in your work and you will go far towards dispelling any