Avoiding Stone Age Practices in the Age of the Internet

Originally published on ProjectConnections.com January 2011.

Albert Einstein once said “There are two things that are infinite, the universe, and human stupidity — and I’m not sure about the universe.” Like most people, I usually write this off as an amusing, sarcastic quip he made on a bad day. I mean, it can’t possibly be taken literally, right? Then I wander across a news item or business situation that make me wonder if maybe he was on to something. In spite of common sense, again and again I encounter companies repeating tragically avoidable mistakes, hamstringing themselves with the same ludicrous errors their competitors (fortunately) are also making.

Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here

Although Steven McConnell clearly mapped out a step-by-step recipe for successful software product development projects over a decade ago in his Software Project Survival Guide, a surprising level of ignorance seems to prevail in some software development organizations. Here are a few real-world examples that I have encountered in the past year:

  • In spite of the availability of free bug tracking software like Bugzilla, one software organization that has been in business for over a decade still didn’t have a bug tracking system. No, I’m not kidding.
  • Another, similar decade-old organization pushed changes in the source code directly to the live production server, upon which their customers depended. Really, they did this.
  • One software product development team in a Fortune 100 company reported that their schedule had slipped due to the fact that, during the quality testing phase, they’d unexpectedly found bugs that needed to be fixed before shipment. Yes, unexpectedly.

Using one of my favorite thinking tools, called API (Assumption of Positive Intent), I searched my mind for an explanation of why smart, well-educated, experienced people would behave in such seemingly less-than-brilliant ways. I’m sorry to be negative, but I came up empty at that particular moment. Stick with me; by the end of the article all shall be revealed. But until then, more mayhem!

We Can Send a Man to the Moon, and Yet . . .

The widespread availability of inexpensive, even free, internet-based collaboration tools has made working with people scattered around the planet relatively easy compared to even a few years ago. (In the not-so-distant past I was sending memory sticks of big files to Japan through the physical mail!) Today, wikis, Skype, and shared document services such as SharefileDropbox or Box.net have given even small companies like mine the ability to do business around the globe almost effortlessly — at least from an IT standpoint. And yet I’m personally aware of large, so-called global businesses that are still hampered by issues like these:

  • No ability to videoconference from work (although Skyping from a nearby Starbucks is no problem!)
  • No storage location where a file can be stored, where every employee in the world can access it (but placing it unofficially on Dropbox is easy as pie!)
  • No cross-divisional team collaboration website that can serve as a project dashboard, collaboration space, and team memory for projects (but for $100 you can set up one heck of a collaboration system on sites.google.com)
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