Why people are still more important than technology?

By : |September 22, 2013 0

LONDON, ENGLAND: IS HOSTING an art or a science? To quote my old metalwork teacher Mr Ringrose, as he inspected my latest flange catastrophe: ‘It’s a craft boy, not a production line!’

So here’s the nightmare scenario: a crisis engulfs your website. What kind of support will get your systems back up and running?

Will you be stuck in call centre hell trying to get through to an elusive “account handler” six time zones away? Or has your hosting partner given you a direct line that’s available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to the experts who personally designed your setup and instinctively know how to fix it?

OK, automation is good – it allows you to concentrate your efforts on more interesting endeavours – but at some point you need human creativity, imagination and intuition to either create a solution or diagnose the problem. And problems will occur.

A couple of weeks ago a Digital Craftsmen client – which had systems with several different providers – needed a new server environment built quickly due to a problem with one of those providers. We already had an on-going relationship with them so knew exactly what they were trying to achieve. We took the lead on making it happen, worked all day Saturday (my birthday) and got it done. It’s what we do.

Smaller, niche companies with fewer clients, and a better client/staff ratio, can react quicker to challenges and problems. And importantly, they’re often less reliant on automated technology.

Let’s look at the bigger picture. Back in the summer, the likes of Amazon, the New York Times, Google, Microsoft and Apple suffered a series of major system crashes, leaving millions of users and businesses temporarily offline. Even the Nasdaq stock exchange was not immune, undergoing a three-hour outage on 22 August that knocked the wind out of the sails of financial trading across the banking system.

OK, these outages were a result of “routine system maintenance” rather than the efforts of malicious hackers, but for many, this is a clear indication that banks, governments and big business are over-reliant on computer networks that have become too complex. Too much, they say, is being shifted to the cloud and away from the living and breathing real world.

Pete McBreen, author of Software Craftmanship: The New Imperative, says software engineering has “grown out of very large projects, yet what most of us do is small projects. We’d be better learning how to organise these projects from the old craft model of apprentice-journeyman-master than from normal software engineering texts.”

In short: it’s all very well and good buying into the cloud to reduce headcount in your IT department but knowledge of your systems still needs to be nurtured and transferred.

While no one outside of a small group of gun-toting survivalists in northern Idaho is predicting a Terminator-style network Armageddon just yet, the automation of our digital infrastructure has reached a dangerous tipping point.

Personally, I’m with Mr Ringrose: it’s about craftsmanship, combined with the best bits of automation of course. Now, where did I put that blowtorch…?

The author is the MD, Digital Craftsmen, England.

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