Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Rock Icons and IT Thought Leadership

Mechanical calculators or computers date at least as far back as the 150-100 BC with the creation of the Antikythera mechanism. In more modern times Charles Babbage created his mechanical difference engine in the 1800’s. John Von Neumann outlined the architecture of modern computers in the first half of the 20th Century based in part on ENIAC, a military computer developed by J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly. They then made it generally practical with the first commercial computer, the UNIVAC-1. Admiral Grace Hopper made that invention accessible in business by inventing COBOL, COmmon Business Oriented Language, the first business move away from ones and zeros, computing for the business masses.

These relatively technical accomplishments were soon complimented by people who studied the effect of computing on business and how to manage computing in business. In the 50’s John Diebold coined the use of the word “automation” to reflect the use of computers in this way. Based in part on the Diffusion of Innovations concepts developed by Everett Rogers in the 60’s, in the 70’s Richard Nolan and Chuck Gibson wrote “Managing the Four Stages of EDP Growth” signaling an understanding that a business’ ability to manage computing, to manage IT, had predictable evolutionary steps. In the 80’s Michael Hammer led the revolution in Business Process Reengineering.

These were and are the great thought leaders in IT and IT Management. We all stand on their shoulders. But of significant concern is where are the subsequent generations of thought leaders for how IT and business interact? It’s been quite some time since “reengineering.” As is often the case Rock and Roll provides the answer.

One of the first generally recognized rock icons who wrote on the role of IT in business was John Lennon. Expressing a visionary viewpoint he wrote:

Imagine there’s no hunger,

It’s easy if you try

Computers are transformative

No need to wonder why.

As it happens these original lyrics were edited in studio.

Mick Jagger was contemporaneously writing practical observations on the yin and yang between business goals and technical visions and what can actually be done within a given time period, with a given set of IT skills and a given budget. Influenced heavily by Fred Brooks and The Mythical Man Month Jagger famously (and repetitively) wrote:

You can’t always git what you want

You can’t always git what you want

You can’t always git what you want

But if you try sometime

You might just find

You get what you need

Jerry Garcia was a keen observer of this scene. He was especially interested in CIOs, their careers and what it took for them to succeed. He would immerse himself in the life of a CIO-at-a-time, chronicling their struggles, how they overcame obstacles, and the successes they settled for. Garcia’s most telling commentary on this was from Truckin’ with the line “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” As a side note Jerry Garcia and Tom Davenport have never been seen in the same place at the same time.

As we entered the age of outsourcing Warren Zevon described the optimal approaches to defining which services to outsource, which vendors to consider, how to choose a vendor and how to negotiate with the vendors. This last was summed up with:

I'm the innocent bystander
Somehow I got stuck
Between the rock and the hard place
And I'm down on my luck

Send lawyers guns and money!

More recently Lady Gaga has been writing about the difficulties of outsourcing contracts gone bad with: “Want your bad romance, caught in a bad romance. Rah-rah rah-ah-ah. Roma roma-ma-ah,” though the meaning of the last phrase remains unclear.

The Foo Fighters have been writing on the conflicts between reinvesting in current systems or “going greenfields” and replacing existing applications and infrastructures: Well we all want something ‘better than,’ we wish for something new.”

IT professionals are constantly being sold by vendors. They’re constantly being besieged by users. They’re constantly being reviewed by auditors and CFO’s. Whatever certifications they have are always going out of date as the technology relentlessly marches on. Still, IT generally succeeds. Much is written about how IT may or may not be strategic. The proof is in the widespread consistently improving use of technology in business. On these points, in the song “Handle Me with Care” The Traveling Wilbury’s wrote:

I’ve been fobbed off and I’ve been fooled

I’ve been robbed and ridiculed

In [data centers] and night schools

Handle me with care….

I’ve been uptight and made a mess

But I’ll clean it up myself, I guess

Oh, the sweet smell of success

Handle me with care!

Do you have a favorite rock icon who writes about IT thought leadership? Use the comments to let us know about it.


  1. That one time Enterpise Architect Francesco Zappa once worked in a massive DataCentre which had recently deployed a range of new hardware called by the initiated "Giant Fire Puffers". He subsequently recounted his experience on an Album called Thing Fish with the words:
    In the room where the giant fire puffer works
    'N the torture never stops
    The torture never stops.

    Indeed not, how very true

  2. It's always a wise move to look to rock & roll for the answers. Coincidentally, I was just thinking of doing a post on Joni Mitchell's early ambivalence about web-based computing which she wrote about in 1967 when she said she looked at the issue from both sides but in the end was concerned about "cloud's illusions."


  3. My cousin writes, "If I were King of the Forest, Not queen, not duke, not prince. My regal robes of the forest, would be satin, not cotton, not chintz!"

  4. The late Michael Jackson had a unique perspective on the third year of a CIOs position,

    "They're Out To Get You, Better Leave While You Can
    Don't Wanna Be A Boy, You Wanna Be A Man
    You Wanna Stay Alive, Better Do What You Can
    So Beat It, Just Beat It"

  5. Eat a banana
    Eat a whole bunch
    It doesn't matter what you had for lunch
    Just eat it, eat it! (Weird Al Yankovich)

  6. Not to be outdone by Rock and Rollers, Hollywood also had a big impact in the early days of IT.

    A junior technologist wanted to use a new, unproven piece of software in a mission critical application. Dirty Harry asked the question that CIOs still use today, "You’ve got to ask yourself one question. Do I feel lucky? Well do ya, punk?"

  7. Bart has raised an important point. There is an entire sub-genre of IT thought leadership based on cinema. Of particular interest to me is the music from cinema often has hidden within it important commentary on life in the overall IT community.

    For instance, who doesn’t know that in Midnight Cowboy when Harry Nielsen sand “Everybody's Talkin' at me” he was offering a peon to the plight of the business analyst trying to collect system requirements. In a similar vein, when Francis Ford Coppola chose The Door’s “The End” as the theme for Apocalypse Now don’t we all know he was referring to the emotional catastrophe felt when someone finally puts a bullet in a runaway system?

    Huey Lewis & the News sang “Hip to be Square” and it was reused in American Psycho because it highlighted that, peanut brittle on their acne ridden faces aside, the technical services group is actually full of some really cool people (some of whom are psychotic, I hear).

    The IT sales people, whether selling technology or services, are much loved across IT organizations and this is celebrated in two instances that immediately come to mind. In 1986’s “9 ½ Weeks” they used Joe Cocker’s cover of Randy Newman’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” as evocative a tale as can be imagined. On a related note, for Hustle and Flow in 2005 the song was “Its Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” Touching

    In the original post above we have already touched on The Rolling Stones’ 'You Can't Always Get What You Want' which was the theme song for 1983’s The Big Chill.

    But perhaps the most evocative song from a movie that describes a real life situation in the world of IT comes from Wayne’s World. Here I’m talking about Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” which laid out bare the essence and the ethos of the intrepid internal and external consultants with the general role of business-to-IT interface, and I quote:

    “I'm just a poor boy
    I need no sympathy
    Because I'm easy come, easy go
    Little high, little low
    Any way the wind blows
    Doesn't really matter to me, to me”

  8. Project management is really important in Hollywood to make sure films are delivered on time, on budget, with high quality. You will notice that they have quite a track record in this department. Frequently messages appear in movies which comment on the state of IT projects. For example:

    • When a project manager was in over his head, Dirty Harry commented “A man’s got to know his limitation.”
    • A successfully delivered project was summarized in Casablanca with "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
    • And of course when executives wanted to shut down a project, Dirty Harry commented, “Go ahead, make my day.”

  9. Hey Doug et al: you inspired me to complete my post re Joni Mitchell's prescient ruminations on "the Cloud." Thanks. www.BusinessLessonsFromRock.blogspot.com

  10. Speaking as a ex-pat from both the business and IT sides of the house, who now makes his living suckling at the giant teat of TARP and F500 management inefficiency, there is one rock lyric which comes to mind in summing up both my successes and failures in designing, selling, and deploying, this thing called IT.

    By one of my favorite bands (still)

    RUSH - Freewill

    You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice (i.e. RFP, Vendor scoring, and other guides that promise a solid right answer for a liquid set of questions)

    If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice. (i.e. Who is running this joint? What does that guy do for a real job and why is he cock-blocking my deal/project?)

    You can choose from phantom fears and kindess that can kill (i.e. product evangelism, it happens, it works, I'm convinced most deals happen as a result of irrational thought backed by subjective data...i'm sure a real economist could explain this phenomena)

    I will choose a path that's clear, I will choose Freewill. (i.e. I'm here writing this ridiculous commentary instead of selling more IT, quit stressing everybody and definitely quit sending me emails...it's Friday!!)


  11. Don't forget about Nirvana, who sang:

    Where do PCs go when they die?
    They don't go to heaven where the angels fly.
    They go in a pile of fire and fry,
    See them again till the Fourth of July.

  12. Jefferson Airplane was very brand focused:

    "Data Control and IBM
    Science is mankind's brother
    But all I see is drainin' me
    On my plastic fantastic lover."

    I don't know why they referred to CDC as "Data Control" instead of "Control Data"

  13. Jefferson Airplane was very brand specific:

    Data control and IBM
    Science is mankind's brother
    But all I see is drainin' me
    On my plastic fantastic lover

    I do not know why they switched CDC's name around.

  14. As it happens Chrissie Hynds and The Pretenders were at the recent announcement of the iPad:

    Don't get me wrong
    If I'm looking kind of dazzled
    I see neon lights
    Whenever you walk by


    Don't get me wrong
    If I come and go like fashion
    I might be great tomorrow
    But hopeless yesterday

    Don't get me wrong
    If I fall in the "mode of passion"
    It mgiht be unbelievable
    But let's not say "so long"
    It might just be fantastic
    Don't get me wrong