When was the last time you heard some part of IT referred to as a “discipline?” Roles such as capacity planning or change control might be performed in a disciplined manner—or perhaps in a disciplinarian fashion—but they don’t qualify as what have classically been called disciplines.
According to Wikipedia, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) divided computing into five disciplines: computer science, computer engineering, information systems, information technology and software engineering. I can’t tell you which one of these my career has more accurately ended up being about since I received my computer science degree a few decades back, other than that it’s not an engineering degree. Mostly, however, it’s been about doing what it takes to get IT to meet the needs of the business.
Maybe someday we’ll move to being professionals in the same way as engineers, accountants, lawyers and medical doctors. Until then, it’s up to each of us to choose to act like a professional, building on available wisdom as we move our organizations and careers forward into a still-unknown future.
New Professional Value
Of course, professionalism and wisdom have not been lacking from the history of computing, even if it’s not always evident in the modern headlong rush to adapt to and adopt every new technical innovation. In fact, some of the longest-standing players, particularly the founding members of SHARE, Guide Share Europe (GSE) and related organizations, have approached computing from a scrupulous business results and professionalism perspective. While those organizations have had to ride the same waves of change as the rest of the world since the mid-20th century, their early efforts to find and develop value in the then-nascent area of computing technology can still bring new value today.
Times may have changed. But, as they say, what goes around comes around. Or, to quote how T.S. Eliot more eloquently put it, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
Learning From the Past
And that brings us back to our main frame of memory and reference. Thinking back to the very beginning (a good place to start), it turns out that some of the ABC’s of responsible and conscientious business, academic and military behavior that led to the development of modern computing are good touchstones for moving forward in a world of pervasive computing but uneven (to put it mildly) professionalism. So, I’ve dug around for some of the wisdom that was shared in the early days of computing and put together the following sampling of principles, along with observations about how they can apply as we try to move IT forward in a professional manner.
1. Optimize for context to maximize efficient use of resources:
“The equipment is supported by programs which enable System/360 to schedule its own activities for non-stop computing that makes most efficient use of system capabilities.”
—Original System/360 announcement in 1964
We live in an age when the idea of generic configurations has great popularity. In computing, three examples are UNIX, Linux and Java. And all of these make great starts—but it is only when used for specific applications that they begin to have value. The IBM mainframe implicitly recognizes this with matching hardware and OSes that are optimized together to maximize value. At some point, every environment must follow the time-honored advice that Socrates received from the Delphic Oracle: “Know thyself.” Then you can build quality functionality that is specific to your organization’s best interests.
2. A production computing environment must have integrity and security that are comprehensive, pervasive, and scrupulously maintained:
“System integrity is defined as the ability of the system to protect itself against unauthorized user access to the extent that the security controls cannot be compromised.”
—Original documents from the founding of the SHARE Security Project
As the founders of the SHARE Security Project made clear beginning in 1972, and soon afterwards reflected in IBM’s statement of integrity (quoted above from the original version), no lapse in the integrity of a computing system is acceptable when the most sensitive business, personal, and other data are processed by it. It is essential to properly staff, fund and direct comprehensive and current computing security activities. Failing to do so is positioning an entire organization to fail.
This matches the similarly relevant insight from Simson Garfinkel and Gene Spafford in their book, Practical Unix and Internet Security: “A computer is secure if you can depend on it and its software to behave as you expect.”
3. One can never assume that a computing project or environment left to itself will behave as it should without ongoing attention and management toward what is supposed to be occurring:
“So the first false assumption that underlies the scheduling of systems programming is that all will go well, i.e., that each task will take only as long as it ‘ought’ to take.”
—Brooks, Frederick, The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering.
Brooks was the project leader in the development of the System/360, and he wrote this book a decade later as a reflection on this experience.
With modern systems and automation and so-called autonomic operations, it’s easy to assume that we can just set-and-forget a computing project or environment and it will produce the benefits that will justify the costs. However, unless the people responsible for your systems are aware of the business purpose and outcome as well as the technical behavior of your configuration, things can easily go off the rails long before the negative impact is apparent and possibly irreversible. Professionalism and attention remain essential.
This goes with the similarly time-proven observation about planning from Dwight D. Eisenhower: “I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
4. Measure twice, cut once. I know: This one predates electronic computing by countless generations, but it’s as true in business computing as anywhere else that results matter. Or, to quote Rear Admiral Grace Hopper: “One accurate measurement is worth a thousand expert opinions.”
Fortunately, on the mainframe we have a long habit of doing this with SMF data, performance and capacity management and planning solutions, and people whose job it is to pay ongoing attention to the organization’s needs. With the winding down of Moore’s Law this attention to resources will only become more important.
5. Always remember that computing is about people, not the other way around, and that’s true for staff at your organization as well as for your customers. Again quoting Rear Admiral Grace Hopper: “You manage things, you lead people. We went overboard on management and forgot about leadership.”
Wisdom will always be a premier approach to anything worth doing, and a key aspect of wisdom is the involvement of people and their understanding, not just computers and their data. Treating your people with value and respect will continue to remain a core behavior in organizations that are looking for long-term success.
Of course, this is just the beginning. The wisdom that led to the creation of the IBM System/360 mainframe and its successors as the premier business computing platform continues to be relevant as we look to the future, and there are many more insights from the past that we can productively apply to having a bright IT future. Where do you look for wisdom, and how are you applying that wisdom in your computing career?