% fortune -ae paul murphy

Lessons from the last decade

One of the more widely honored end of project traditions involves holding a lessons learned meeting and then burying results critical of the seniors who made the major mistakes driving the project to rack to ruin.

In that context what I've learnt over the last ten years comes down to two blindingly obvious -in retrospect- general laws of human behavior with broad applicability to both public policy and IT.

The easier of these to understand is something I've previously described as the real "Murphy's law" and now formulate as:

The consequences of actions in the real world align with expectations to exactly the extent to which the beliefs underlying those expectations align with reality.

Thus both the normal formulation in technological or engineering contexts: viz, that anything which can go wrong will go wrong; and the social analog known as the law of unintended consequences (claiming that public policy and/or legislation usually has consequences opposite to those intended) are really just domain specific observations illustrating the working out of Murphy's law.

To cite a simple public policy example - and I don't have to cite IT examples, do I? - it's obvious that newspaper recycling is a good idea. Right? Well, wrong, it turns out that this does far more harm than good - and in two ways:

The harder one to understand involves something I think of as the law of temporal spreading - the reality that we don't all operate in the same temporal zone in personal, political, or technological contexts.

At the IT level this shows up in many different ways - two of the most obvious being:

At the public policy level this shows up most clearly when you consider that large swathes of the world are dominated by 11th century societies cheerfully equipping their crusaders with AK47s, jet aircraft, and modern bio-labs.

It's when you combine these two laws - meaning, of course, the predictions the two allow you make about the behavior of groups you have to deal with - that the real challenges for the next decade become clear because the job is to succeed despite both temporal spreading and the operation of Murphy's law.

Consider, for example, the current crisis in air travel security - on the surface this is a situation in which a few nut cases successfully imposed new economic costs on airlines, airports, police, and about two million passengers a day at the world's airports. Look more deeply, however, and blame ultimately adheres to the people who made this kind of thing inevitable by blindly and stupidly insisting on applying 18th century ideas about personal identity verification to 21st century problems - themselves compounded by mixing 11th century social and religious behaviors with 20th century technology.

So, bottom line, what's the personal lesson learnt from the last decade? That I've only begun to understand this stuff, that both IT and social policy successes depend on testing every assumption against reality first, and that manipulating some self righteous idiot living in the 1920s DP world into doing something right, requires first understanding that the problem is the temporal and social boundary, not the person living inside it.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.