IT, Mathematics and Money

Why is IT and mathematics and money, so misunderstood?

Although I would love to be a full time writer and earn enough to have that career, reality means that I earn a living plying a different role. Since leaving the armed forces, most of that time has been spent in or around the IT industry. Sometimes that is for companies delivering support services for non-IT related government and private contracts. This article is in no way about my current company, and I generalise for effect.

So what has this article got to do with that?

Let’s take a step back. How often have you heard otherwise intelligent people state that they do not understand mathematics? They did not do well at it in school and claim not to understand it now. Despite that alleged failing these same people hold down jobs and supposedly manage budgets sometimes of hundreds of millions of pounds or dollars. Many politicians suffer from this trait and their inability to add up neatly explains why tax income is exceeded by government expenditure.

They do not explain this fallacy because they need to promise the electorate better services, higher wages, more infrastructure, etc. whilst reducing tax. Two plus two does not equal five. This promise inflicts, or infects, all political parties, resulting in endlessly borrowing on all our grandchildren’s future. I have ranted about this before. The question is why is this simple piece of mathematics so hard for the population to grasp? This brings me back to that statement about not understanding mathematics, often explained with a silly smile and a shrug.

I get the same response about IT. There seems to be a culture of ignorance about IT in the same way as mathematics. In other words many, very clever, senior people don’t understand or do not want to understand IT. I have seen this across industries and from CEOs to numerate finance directors and operations directors. One mention of a network issue or a software problem and eyes glaze over.

Now these folks fundamentally understand complex business operations or financial wheeling and dealing. I appreciate that IT, like other fields, is full of technical jargon and complexity. I do not expect a non-expert to understand the details of network routing and firewall configuration or the impact of a failure to replicate a database between clusters in multiple data centres. What I do expect is that sufficient time is allocated to discuss with non-technical jargon the impact of such issues. As a manager next time you check a business agenda, see where IT is, if at all.

I strongly believe that here we have a root cause of why so many major IT projects go wrong. Whether it’s a major update to a legacy system in a government department, (take your pick from HMRC, NHS, DWP), or a failure sometimes in public of a major private company. BA is a recent example. In all these cases, I am certain risks or issues where known, had been briefed in IT departments and probably promptly ignored by senior management because it would mean cost increases, delay or change from sometimes impossible requirements.

The old axiom of do it right first time is often ignored by reducing budget, resources and changing requirements. Meanwhile, those in charge seem to have little if any understanding of the fundamentals they are changing. Compare this approach with other professions.

If a surgeon gives a long diagnosis and prognosis of a particular issue you may not understand it but you would not tell him to deliver the surgery in 60% of the time at 75% of the costs and by the way do it with two fewer nurses and use a cleaner as the anaesthetist because we can do that bit without that expertise. Yet the number of times I have seen senior management claim this is all possible, if only the project or programme manager would get a grip. There is then equal surprise when the task is delayed, fails, or causes some other major issue. Short cuts on patching regime, welcome to WannaCry. Short cuts on refresh policy welcome to system failure. Shortcuts on data centre configuration don’t be surprised when BCP does not work.

Clearly IT, like every business support service, needs to work to a budget but I have heard senior executives demand reductions in budget year on year regardless of the system requirements, status of hardware or software. This leaves security and service risks which again get ignored by clients and supplier alike. That is until disaster strikes or the project is so far over budget and behind schedule it cannot be recovered without exposing massive embarrassment. Try and raise this in a non-IT meeting and see how far you get. By the time you get traction it’s already too late.

So, how can this be fixed? Better training? For whom? More respect for IT? Again how? Simpler explanations? They have a place but back to the surgeon. I do not claim that IT is as complex as brain surgery but some networks I have seen look more like a neutron cluster than a controlled design. This is due to company changes and just endless bolting on of additional bits to keep it working. Look at the bloat in our core office applications. Some of this code is new features but most is error checking and correcting code rather than core fixes. It’s cheaper that way and Moore’s law has given the raw horsepower to cope.  We now have massively inefficient code, applications, management systems and networks. This should go against every engineering tenet for simplicity of design. It will cost to fix this and until disaster strikes no one will care.

That major data leak, failure of data centre or never-ending non-delivering project will be blamed on the IT team, not the executives who ignored the warnings in that briefing they did not bother to read or understand. I wish it was not so but I fear this will only get worse with the Internet of things. Router config’ anyone?