VISTA Enterprise Network - Successful Implementation, World Class Support

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Essential Principle

Dear Reader,

The eight essential points all derive from one essential point and one essential principle.

First, the principle: humility.

Science begins with the admission "I don't know," one of the most powerful sentences in English.

Science is about the recognition that reality matters more than opinion, that when you and the world disagree, you are wrong. Kafka summed it up best:

"In any contest between you and the world, side with the world."
-- Franz Kafka, "Aphorism 52," Unpublished Works 1916-1918

It's obvious, so any sane species would hold their opinions about the world lightly, would attend carefully to every dissonance between their opinions and the truths of the world. Unfortunately, we are not quite sane, because we usually set aside caution where our own prejudices and hopes are concerned.

Science, therefore, must also be about recognizing how easy it is for people to lose track of these deep truths, how easy it is to be convinced by one's own opinions and rhetoric, to be fooled into thinking it's okay turn away from the truth of the world in favor of the seductive quality one's own ideas and prejudices have. Something in mankind finds the feeling of confidence intoxicating:

"The partisan, when he is engaged in a dispute, cares nothing about the rights of the question, but is anxious only to convince his hearers of his own assertions."
-- attributed to Socrates by Plato, Phaedo, tr. Benjamin Jowett

This is the heart of the software-lifecycle problem with VISTA. Managing VISTA's flow is a complex problem, but it's already been solved successfully. Repeatedly. We have a reliable model to follow. And yet we don't. The problem's not technical; it's human.

In Peopleware, my favorite book about how to manage IT projects, authors Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister make the crucial observation that most people suffer from the illusion that software development is a technical field, but it's not. The technology is conspicuously present, but you can't succeed by focusing on it. It doesn't matter how great a technologist you are if you don't give people what they really need - and you don't know what they need (and they may not know either). At its core, software development is a human-relations field, in which the people who best understand the priorities, the people who best understand the technology, and the people in charge are three different groups of people. Getting them to work together well, to communicate well, and to divide up their responsibilities properly makes or breaks a software project long before the technical issues have a chance to.

VISTA illustrates their claim well, which is why the core principle is not a technical one, why the fundamental principle is one of human character. Without humility, even small VISTA projects are likely to fail.

When the question is the entire VISTA software lifecycle and how to manage it, the sober, realistic assessment is that the scale of the problem is vast and the valid judgment of each individual involved is limited. Willingness to recognize that the scale of the problem exceeds our grasp separates the humble realists from the arrogant dreamers. Humble realists have proven their ability to work miracles with VISTA, just as the arrogant dreamers have proven their ability to squander unimaginable sums of money and to endanger patient care in the pursuit of their grand designs.

Some hard scientists claim that history isn't a science, but by being managed alternately by humble realists and arrogant dreamers in succession, VA has turned its own history into a perfect laboratory that demonstrates over and over decade after decade consistent results that back up DeMarco and Lister's thesis about managing software projects.

So here we are. We have one of those situations all-too-rare in the soft sciences, in which we have a perfect match between theory and evidence. What we ought to do is obvious to anyone with the humility to do justice to the rights of the question by spending the time learning from our history and then letting that evidence guide them.

The only thing stopping us from succeeding with VISTA is our addiction to our own opinions, the rush of the eternal adolescent fantasy that with enough power we could solve all the world's problems, the illusion that the problems we must overcome are outside of ourselves.

All hail the immortal Walt Kelly for his observation "We have met the enemy and he is us." Humility demands that we accept the truth of this. It's the only real explanation for the mess the VISTA community finds itself in today.

Fortunately, it's also the key to getting out of this mess. If we embrace the principle of humility, if we acknowledge the limitations of our expertise, then we can roll up our sleeves and overhaul our allocation of VISTA authority to break up its unhealthy and insane centralization, then we can distribute each kind of VISTA authority into the hands of only those people who hold that kind of expertise.

Humility does not require us to give up, or to assume a posture of helplessness. This is not a jump off a cliff into the unknown. This is a return to the most effective model of management VISTA has ever known, in which authority is decentralized but concentrated according to expertise, reaping all the supposed benefits of centralized VISTA control with none of the all-too-real flaws.

This is why the eight essential points all derive from the principle of humility. If we can muster the courage to admit that no one of us nor any small group of us can possibly know enough to manage something of VISTA's scale of complexity, then all the elements of the VISTA software lifecycle follow as inevitable solutions to that problem.

Yours truly,

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