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Getting technology lifecycles in sync

August 23, 2013 3 Comments

Different technologies age at different rates. Understanding the variations is the first step to managing them.

One of the great challenges you face as an IT manager is selecting the right technology for a given project, for a specific department, or for your organization as a whole.

That technology may be anything from an end-user utility or application, up through programming languages and development tools, to operating systems and middleware, all the way up to organization-spanning database and enterprise resource planning software.

Each technology is on its own product lifecycle, which may or may not match with your organization’s business and development lifecycles.

In particular, there are certain cycle mismatch patterns that commonly occur in organizations looking to adopt new technologies. I’ve labeled four such mismatch patterns: firefly, underdone, conveyor belt, and landfill. Each is worth examining.

Firefly Technologies

Have you ever lived around fireflies? The first time I moved back east, to Virginia, I was fascinated by them. It’s one thing to read about fireflies, or to see the various (and usually unconvincing) attempts to represent them in movies and TV shows. It’s another thing to have a bright green dot light up in mid-air a few feet away from you, move along for a few seconds, then vanish again, only to reappear some distance away.

That behavior is fun when it’s fireflies in your front yard; it’s maddening when it’s information technology that you’re trying to adopt. But some technologies are like that: they light up with promise, but turn out to be inadequate for your use.

Then a new version is released which appears to fix the former problems, but it turns out to be flawed as well. But wait! A new version is coming out which will fix those problems, and so on. In the meantime, months or years go by as you chase after the firefly, hoping that the next version will be the one that works.

Many of the dot.com technologies of the late 1990s turned out to be firefly technologies, promising wondrous things but never really materializing into usable tools and services.

Underdone Technologies

Roughly twenty-five years ago, while attending the Macworld Conference as a contributing editor for Macworld, I interviewed the Apple product manager in charge of the forthcoming release of System 7.0 (the Mac operating system). After he gave me his spiel about all the improvements and new features in 7.0, he asked me what I thought. I told him that I had seen a conference attendee wearing a t-shirt that read, “I’m waiting for System 7.0.1” The product manager winced visibly, but chuckled at the truism.

Underdone technologies are available now but lack the stability for deployment and reliance. They differ from firefly technologies in that they often have a proven track record, but the newest X.0 version just isn’t quite ready for prime time. Sometime you can wait for the next dot-release, but sometimes you can’t — you need to make a choice now and get the project or deployment moving.

Conveyor Belt Technologies

Some technologies do, in fact, arrive in serviceable form, but end up having — or appearing to have — a limited lifespan. This can be for any of several reasons: new and better technologies in the pipeline; failure to gain sufficient traction in the marketplace; lack of support from third parties; and so on.

Adopting and deploying such a technology is a bit like trying to grow a garden on a long conveyor belt: you need to hope that you can plant the seeds, grow the plants, harvest the fruit, and transplant the crops before your garden falls off the end of the belt.

In the end, all technologies are more or less conveyor belt technologies; after all, few of us are using WordStar on MS-DOS (or on CP/M!) to create our documents, though I’m sure someone out there is. But as an IT manager, your goal is make sure the technology’s lifecycle is long enough to accomplish all that you need to.

Landfill Technologies

Finally, there are some technologies that are, in effect, dead on (or soon after) arrival. My inspiration for the “landfill” term comes from the IBM PCjr, which was IBM’s first attempt (some 30 years ago) to build a true home computer that was, by all accounts, pretty wretched. It was such a flop in the market that IBM was reported to have buried large quantities of unsold computers in landfills.

But the landfills I’m talking about are metaphorical. Some technologies arrive with fanfare, transforming organizations; some land with a resounding thud or splat and are frequently shunned. One recent example could be Microsoft RT, which has caused Microsoft to take a nearly $1 billion write-down and to slash the price of MS Surface RT tablets by $150; it may have even led to Microsoft’s announcement today that Steve Balmer, CEO since 2000, will retire in the next 12 months. That could qualify it as a landfill technology, or you could simply see it as an underdone technology that – with luck – Microsoft will somehow be able to revive.

As that last example shows, overlaps exist among these four patterns, and often they are only clear in retrospect. But as an IT manager you need to ask yourself if the technologies you are looking at adopting fall into any of these four categories. If they do, then you may well be better off looking for a different solution.

[Adapted from an article originally written for the online version of Baseline.]

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About the Author:

Webster is Principal and Founder at at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor for the BYU Computer Science Department. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at 303.502.4141 or at bwebster@bfwa.com.

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