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Buzzword engineering, or the curse of Nicholas Carr

In a recent working group meeting, I was stunned to see a government official present a hand-drawn, cartoonish technical architecture as a proposed solution for a major initiative with presidential-level visibility.  By the end of the meeting, in conjunction with his inability to answer a few basic questions on the “architecture,” the government manager admitted to everyone, “Well, I’m not a system architect.” 

Unfortunately, this is not the first time I have encountered “pseudo-engineering” or “buzzword-engineering” inside and outside the government.  The root cause of this is what I call the “curse of Nicholas Carr.” 

In 2004, Nicholas Carr published the book Does IT Matter?  In it Carr argues that information technology has become a commodity and that companies should not seek to invest heavily in it for a strategic advantage.  The name of his original article was "IT Doesn't Matter," which was clearly meant to poke the IT hornet's nest with a stick.  His book took a slightly tamer approach because it purports to be a more thorough and academic approach than the article.  So, even a skimming of the book reveals that he is really saying, "IT matters as infrastructure but not to achieving strategic competitive advantage." 

I am not interested here in debating the merits of his argument; instead I am more concerned with the ramifications and consequences of his bold assertion. 

If IT is a commodity, then it must be easy.  If IT systems are easy to build, then any business person or government official can weigh in on IT solutions — or even be so bold to present cartoon drawings of architectures, regardless of whether they have IT expertise or not. 

This is similar to the events described in a recent article by Tom Nichols entitled, The Death of Expertise.  Nichols bemoans the fact that authoritative expertise is eroding in a Google- and Wikipedia-fueled public sphere.  I have seen these same phenomena many times in technology circles, and I’d say it was more like the  “death of technical expertise” or the more aptly, the “curse of Nicholas Carr.” 

Besides the meeting described above, one of my favorite (and a very early) example of the death of technical expertise came from Cory Doctorow, a journalist and fiction writer, opining on the futility of humans creating reliable metadata in his 2001 article, “Metcrap: Putting the torch to seven straw-men of the meta-utopia.”  In it, he states that “a world of exhaustive, reliable metadata would be a utopia. It's also a pipe-dream, founded on self-delusion, nerd hubris and hysterically inflated market opportunities.”

The fact that metadata has since fueled major success stories like Amazon, Netflix, Flickr, Facebook, Google’s Knowledge Graph, Microsoft’s Satori, IBM’s Watson and Apple’s Siri (to name only a few) is testament to the naivety of Doctorow’s arguments.  In many ways, it is the same cartoonish version of a technical architecture presented by the government official cited above to the working group.  And in the same way, it shows a significant lack of respect for the audience, the subject matter and true technology experts who actually care about technology and its role as a mission multiplier!

So, what is the lesson for government functional managers?  I have known many government functional managers who took the time to “fact check” an approach or technical position they wanted to take.  Or, even better, they took along a trusted IT professional to important meetings and working groups to ensure their approach and position was on solid technical ground.  All senior-level government officials need a strong technical advisor to keep them from both the technology hucksters and the wrong technology path.  A good technical advisor has a robust track record and will reliably and repeatedly guide an organization to technical success.  Don’t leave home without one.

Michael C. Daconta (mdaconta@incadencecorp.com or @mdaconta) is the Vice President of Advanced Technology at InCadence Strategic Solutions and the former Metadata Program Manager for the Homeland Security Department. His new book is entitled, The Great Cloud Migration: Your Roadmap to Cloud Computing, Big Data and Linked Data.

Posted by Michael C. Daconta on Apr 23, 2014 at 11:40 AM


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