Monthly Archives: May 2023

Dancing with the Cloud

Recently, I’ve written about the dangers posed by technology fallacies and one of the most frustrating for me involves discussions of “best in class.” In my experience, this mindset causes technology teams to get themselves wrapped up in too many pointless discussions followed by never-ending proof-of-concept work all in search of that non-existent perfect tool. The truth is that most organizations don’t need the best, they need “good enough” so they can get on with business. But this delusion has more serious consequences within the cloud. When you choose tools solely based on the requirement of being “best in class,” you could compromise the integrity of your cloud architecture. Without considering the context, your selection could violate a sacred principle of data center design – minimizing the size of a failure domain.

For many, cloud’s abstraction of the underlying network reduced complexity in what often seemed like arcane and mystical knowledge. It also allowed development teams to work unencumbered by the fear of seemingly capricious network engineers. However, the downside of infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) is that this same obfuscation allows those without a background in traditional data center design to make critical errors in fault tolerance.  We’ve all heard the horror stories about cloud applications failing because they were only located in a single availability zone (AZ) or region. Even worse, partial outages that occur due to application dependencies that cross an AZ or region. While this could still happen with physical data centers, it was more obvious because you could see the location of a system in a rack and your network engineers would call you out when you didn’t build in fault-tolerance and thwarted their planned maintenance windows.   

Today, it’s also common for organizations to use a variety of software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications with no knowledge of which underlying cloud providers are being used or how those services are designed. While this simplicity is often beneficial for the business because it increases velocity in service delivery, it can also create blind spots that violate the same failure domain principles as with IaaS. Only the most persistent technologists can unmask the inner workings of these applications to determine how they’re deployed and whether they align with their organization’s infrastructure design. Unfortunately, the business doesn’t always understand this nuance and can fall prey to the “best in class” fallacy, leading to brittle environments due to large failure domains. By exchanging their on-premise, sluggish systems for SaaS, the organization often accepts a different set of problems associated with risk.

Ultimately, when choosing capabilities, it’s a better recommendation to “dance with the cloud that brought you.” Instead of worrying about “best in class,” you want to select the technologies that are closer to your infrastructure by leveraging the services of your cloud provider where feasible. This translates to a better technology architecture for your organization because the cloud provider is making sure that their managed services are low-latency, resilient and highly available. While it may not always be possible, by taking the failure domain principle into consideration during the selection and implementation of solutions, you’ll achieve better service delivery for your organization.

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Trapped by Technology Fallacies

After a working in tech at several large companies over a couple of decades, I’ve observed some of the worst fallacies that cause damage to organizations. They don’t arise from malice, but from a scarcity of professional reflection in our field. Technologists often jump to problem solving before spending sufficient time on problem setting, which leads to the creation of inappropriate and brittle solutions. Donald A. Schön discusses this disconnect in his seminal work, The Reflective Practitioner,

…with this emphasis on problem solving, we ignore problem setting, the process by which we define the decision to be made, the ends to be achieved, the means which may be chosen.

Problem solving relies on selecting from a menu of previously established formulas. While many of these tactics can be effective, let’s examine some of the dysfunctional approaches used by technologists that lead to pain for their organizations.
  • Fallacy #1 – Hammer-Nail: Technologists often assume that all problems can be beaten into submission with a technology hammer.  It’s like the bride’s father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, who believes that Windex can be used to cure any ill. Similarly, technologists think that every challenge is just missing a certain type of technology to resolve it.  This, even though we generally speak about maturity models in terms of people, process, technology, and culture. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen someone design and implement a seemingly elegant solution only to have it rejected because it was developed without understanding the context of the problem.
  • Fallacy #2 – Best in Class. I’ve heard this so many times in my career that I just want to stand on a chair and shake my fist in the middle of a Gartner conference. Most organizations don’t need “best in class,” they need “good enough.” The business needs fast and frugal solutions to keep them productive and efficient, but technologists are often too busy navel gazing to listen.
  • Fallacy #3 – Information Technology is the center of the business universe. I once worked for a well-known bank that had an informal motto, “We’re a technology company that happens to be a bank.” The idea was that because they were so reliant on technology, it transformed them into a cool tech company. I used to respond with, “We also use a lot of electricity, does that make us a utility company?” Maybe a little hyperbolic, but I was trying to make the point that IT Doesn’t Matter. When Nicholas Carr used that phrase as the title of his Harvard Business Review article in 2003, he was considering technology in the historical context of other advances such as electricity and telephones, “When a resource becomes essential to competition but inconsequential to strategy, the risks it creates become more important than the advantages it provides.” In the early days of tech, it gave you an edge. Today, when a core system fails, it could sink your business. The best solutions are often invisible to the organization so it can focus on its core competencies.
While technology can be very effective at solving technical problems, most organizational issues are adaptive challenges. In The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, the authors identify this failure to differentiate between the two as the root cause of business difficulties,

The most common cause of failure in leadership is produced by treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems. What’s the difference? While technical problems may be very complex and critically important (like replacing a faulty heart valve during cardiac surgery), they have known solutions that can be implemented by current know-how. They can be resolved through the application of authoritative expertise and through the organization’s current structures, procedures, and ways of doing things. Adaptive challenges can only be addressed through changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties. Making progress requires going beyond any authoritative expertise to mobilize discovery, shedding certain entrenched ways, tolerating losses, and generating the new capacity to thrive anew.

The end goals that we’re trying to reach can’t be clearly established if we don’t sufficiently reflect on the problem. When we jump to problem solving over problem setting, we’re assuming a level of confidence that hasn’t been earned. We’ve made assumptions in the way systems should work, without thoroughly investigating how they are actually functioning. When Postmodern critic Michel Foucault speaks of “an insurrection of subjugated knowledges,” he’s questioning the certainty of our perceptions when we’ve disqualified information that might be important in gaining a broader perspective. Technologists are more effective when they recognize the inherent expertise of the non-technologists in the businesses they serve and operate as trusted partners who understand change leadership. Instead of serving the “religion of tech,” we should focus on delivering what organizations really need.
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