What Have we Learnt from Ten Years of the iPhone?

Ten years ago this week (on 9th January 2007) the late Steve Jobs, then at the hight of his powers at Apple, introduced the iPhone to an unsuspecting world. The history of that little device (which has got both smaller and bigger in the interceding ten years) is writ large over the entire Internet so I’m not going to repeat it here. However it’s worth looking at the above video on YouTube not just to remind yourself what a monumental and historical moment in tech history this was, even though few of us realised it at the time, but also to see a masterpiece in how to launch a new product.

Within two minutes of Jobs walking on stage he has the audience shouting and cheering as if he’s a rock star rather than a CEO. At around 16:25 when he’s unveiled his new baby and shows for the first time how to scroll through a list in a screen (hard to believe that ten years ago know one knew this was possible) they are practically eating out of his hand and he still has over an hour to go!

This iPhone keynote, probably one of the most important in the whole of tech history, is a case study on how to deliver a great presentation. Indeed, Nancy Duart in her book Resonate, has this as one of her case studies for how to “present visual stories that transform audiences”. In the book she analyses the whole event to show how Jobs’ uses all of the classic techniques of storytelling, establish what is and what could be, build suspense, keep your audience engaged, make them marvel and finally  show them a new bliss.

The iPhone product launch, though hugely important, is not what this post is about though. Rather, it’s about how ten years later the iPhone has kept pace with innovations in technology to not only remain relevant (and much copied) but also to continue to influence (for better and worse) the way people interact, communicate and indeed live. There are a number of enabling ideas and technologies, both introduced at launch as well as since, that have enabled this to happen. What are they and how can we learn from the example set by Apple and how can we improve on them?

Open systems generally beat closed systems

At its launch Apple had created a small set of native apps the making of which was not available to third-party developers. According to Jobs, it was an issue of security. “You don’t want your phone to be an open platform,” he said. “You don’t want it to not work because one of the apps you loaded that morning screwed it up. Cingular doesn’t want to see their West Coast network go down because of some app. This thing is more like an iPod than it is a computer in that sense.”

Jobs soon went back on that decision which is one of the factors that has led to the overwhelming success of the device. There are now 2.2 million apps available for download in the App Store with over 140 billion downloads made since 2007.

As has been shown time and time again, opening systems up and allowing access to third party developers nearly always beat keeping systems closed and locked down.

Open systems need easy to use ecosystems

Claiming your system is open does not mean developers will flock to it to extend your system unless it is both easy and potentially profitable to do so. Further, the second of these is unlikely to happen unless the first enabler is put in place.

Today with new systems being built around Cognitive computing, the Internet of Things (IoT) and Blockchain companies both large and small are vying with each other to provide easy to use but secure ecosystems that allow these new technologies to flourish and grow, hopefully to the benefits to business and society as a whole. There will be casualties on the way but this competition, and the recognition that systems need to be built right rather than us just building the right system at the time is what matters.

Open systems must not mean insecure systems

One of the reasons Jobs gave for not initially making the iPhone an open platform was his concerns over security and for hackers to break into those systems wreaking havoc. These concerns have not gone away but have become even more prominent. IoT and artificial intelligence, when embedded in everyday objects like cars and  kitchen appliances as well as our logistics and defence systems have the potential to cause there own unique and potentially disastrous type of destruction.

The cost of data breaches alone is estimated at $3.8 to $4 million and that’s without even considering the wider reputational loss companies face. Organisations need to monitor how security threats are evolving year to year and get well-informed insights about the impact they can have on their business and reputation.

Ethics matter too

With all the recent press coverage of how fake news may have affected the US election and may impact the upcoming German and French elections as well as the implications of driverless cars making life and death decisions for us, the ethics of cognitive computing is becoming a more and more serious topic for public discussion as well as potential government intervention.

In October last year the Whitehouse released a report called Preparing for the Future of Artificial Intelligence. The report looked at the current state of AI, its existing and potential applications, and the questions that progress in AI raise for society and public policy and made a number of recommendations on further actions. These included:

  • Prioritising open training data and open data standards in AI.
  • Industry should work with government to keep government updated on the general progress of AI in industry, including the likelihood of milestones being reached
  • The Federal government should prioritize basic and long-term AI research

As part of the answer to addressing the Whitehouse report this week a group of private investors, including LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, launched a $27 million research fund, called the Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Fund. The group’s purpose is to foster the development of artificial intelligence for social good by approaching technological developments with input from a diverse set of viewpoints, such as policymakers, faith leaders, and economists.

I have discussed before about transformative technologies like the world wide web have impacted all of our lives, and not always for the good. I hope that initiatives like that of the US government (which will hopefully continue under the new leadership) will enable a good and rationale public discourse on how  we allow these new systems to shape our lives for the next ten years and beyond.

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Getting Started with Blockchain

In an earlier post I discussed the UK government report on distributed ledger technology (AKA ‘blockchain‘) and how the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Mark Walport, was doing the rounds advocating the use of blockchain for a variety of (government) services.

Blockchain is a shared, trusted, public ledger that everyone can inspect, but which no single user controls. The participants in a blockchain system collectively keep the ledger up to date: it can be amended only according to strict rules and by general agreement. For a quick introduction to blockchain this article in the Economist is a pretty good place to start.

Blockchains are going to be useful wherever there is a need for a trustworthy record, something which is pretty vital for transactions of all sorts whether it be in banking, for legal documents or for registries of things like land or high value art works etc. Startups such as Stampery are looking to use blockchain technology to provide low cost certification services. Blockchain is not just for pure startups however. Twenty-five banks are part of the blockchain company, called R3 CEV, which aims to develop common standards around this technology. R3 CEV’s Head of Technology is Richard Gendal Brown an ex-colleague from IBM.

IBM recently announced that, together with Intel, J.P. Morgan and several large banks, it was joining forces to create the Open Ledger Project with the Linux Foundation, with the goal of re-imagining supply chains, contracts and other ways information about ownership and value are exchanged in a digital economy.

As part of this IBM is creating some great tools, using its Bluemix platform, to get developers up and running on the use of blockchain technology. If you have a Bluemix account you can quickly deploy some applications and study the source code on GitHub to see how to start making use of blockchain APIs.

This service is intended for developers who consider themselves early adopters and want to get involved with IBM’s approach to business networks that maintain, secure and share a replicated ledger using blockchain technology. It shows how you can:

  • Deploy and invoke simple transactions to test out IBM’s approach to blockchain technology.
  • Learn and test out IBM’s novel contributions to the blockchain open source community, including the concept of confidential transactions, containerized code execution etc.

It provides some simple demo applications you can quickly deploy into Bluemix to play around with this technology.

Marbles
Marbles Running in IBM Bluemix

This service is not production ready. It is pre-alpha and intended for testing and experimentation only. There are additional security measures that still must be implemented before the service can be used to store any confidential data. That said it’s still a great way to learn about the use and potential for this technology.

 

Hello, World (from IBM Bluemix)

“The only way to learn a new programming language is by writing programs in it. The first program to write is the same for all languages: Print the words ‘hello, world’.”

So started the introduction to the book The C Programming Language by Brian Kernighan and Dennis Ritchie back in 1978. Since then many a programmer learning a new language has heeded those words of wisdom by trying to write their first program to put up those immortal words on their computer screens. Even the Whitehouse is now in on the game.

You can find a list of how to write “hello, world” in pretty much any language you have ever heard of (as well as some you probably haven’t) here. The idea of writing such a simple program is not so much that it will teach you anything about the language syntax but it will teach you how to get to grips with the environment that the code (whether compiled or interpreted) runs in. Back in 1978 when C ran under Unix on hardware like Digital Equipment Corporation’s PDP-11 the environment was a relatively simple affair consisting of a processor, some storage and rudimentary cathode ray terminal (CRT). Then the ‘environment’ amounted to locating the compiler, making sure the right library was provided to the program and figuring out the options to run the compiler and the binary files output. Today things are a bit more complicated which is why the basic premise of getting the most simple program possible (i.e. writing ‘hello, world’ to a screen) is still very relevant as a way of learning the environment.

All of this is by way of an introduction to how to get ‘hello, world’ to work in the IBM Bluemix Platform as a Service (PaaS) environment.  In case you haven’t heard, IBM Bluemix is an open source platform based on Cloud Foundry that provides developers with a complete set of DevOps tools to develop, deploy and maintain web and mobile applications in the cloud with minimal hassle. Bluemix-hosted applications have access to the capabilities of the underlying cloud infrastructure to support the type of non-functional requirements (performance, availability, security etc) that are needed to support enterprise applications. Bluemix also provides a rich set of services to extend your applications with capabilities like analytics, social, internet of things and even IBM Watson cognitive services. The Bluemix platform frees developers and organizations from worrying about infrastructure-related plumbing details and focus on what matters to their organizations – business scenarios that drive better value for their customers.

IBM Bluemix
IBM Bluemix

Because Bluemix supports a whole range of programming languages and services the options for creating ‘hello, world’ are many and varied. Here though are the basic instructions for creating this simplest of programs using the JavaScript language Node.js.  Follow these steps for getting up and running on Bluemix.

Step 1: Sign Up for a Free Bluemix Trial

You can sign up for a free Bluemix trial (and get an an IBM ID if you don’t have one) here. You’ll need to do this before you do anything else. The remainder of this tutorial assumes you have Bluemix running and you are logged into your account.

Step 2: Download the Cloud Foundry Command Line Interface

You can write code and get it up and running in numerous ways in Bluemix including within Bluemix itself, using Eclipse tools or with the Cloud Foundry command line interface (CLI). As this example uses the latter you’ll need to ensure you have the CLI downloaded on your computer. To do that follow the instructions here.

Step 3: Download the Example Code

You can download the code for this example from my GitHub here. Thanks to Carl Osipov over at Clouds with Carl for this code. Once you have downloaded the zip file unpack it into a convenient folder. You will see there are three files (plus a readme).

  • main.js – the Javascript source code. The code returns a ‘hello, world’ message to any HTTP request sent to the web server running the code.
  • package.json – which tells Bluemix it needs a Node.js runtime.
  • manifest.yml – this file is used when you deploy your code to Bluemix using the command line interface.  It contains the values that you would otherwise have to type on the command line when you ‘push’ your code to Bluemix. I suggest you edit this and change the ‘host’ parameter to something unique to you (e.g. change my name to yours).

Step 4: Deploy and Run the Code

Because all your code and the instructions for deploying it are contained in the three files just downloaded deploying into Bluemix is simplicity itself. Do the following:

  1. Open a command a Command Prompt window.
  2. Change to the directory that you unpacked the source code into by typing: cd your_directory.
  3. Connect to Bluemix by typing: cf api https://api.ng.bluemix.net.
  4. Login to Bluemix with your IBM ID credentials: cf login -u user-id -o password -s devHere dev is the Bluemix space you want to use (‘dev’ by default).
  5. Deploy your app to Bluemix by typing: cf push.

That’s it! It will take a while to upload, install and start the code and you will receive a notification when it’s done.  Once you get that response back on the command line you can switch to your Bluemix console and should see this.

IBM Bluemix Dashboard
IBM Bluemix Dashboard

To show the program is working you can either click on the ‘Open URL’ widget (the square with the right pointing arrow in the hello-world-node-js application) or type the URL: ‘hello-world-node-js-your-name.mybluemix.net’ into a browser window (your-name is whatever you set ‘host’ to in the manifest file). The words ‘hello, world’ will magically appear in the browser. Congratulations you have written and deployed your first Bluemix app. Pour yourself a fresh cup of coffee and bask in your new found glory.

If you live in the UK and would like to learn more about the IBM Bluemix innovation platform then sign up for this free event in London at the Rainmaking Loft on Thursday 25th June 2015 here.

Non-Functional Requirements and the Cloud

As discussed here the term non-functional requirements really is a complete misnomer. Who would, after all, create a system based on requirements that were “not functional”? Non-functional requirements refer to the qualities that a system should have and the constraints under which it must operate. Non-functional requirements are sometimes referred to as the “ilities,” because many end in “ility,” such as, availability, reliability, and maintainability etc.

Non-functional requirements will  of course an impact on the functionality of the system. For example, a system may quite easily address all of the functional requirements that have been specified for it but if that system is not available for certain times during the day then it is quite useless even though it may be functionally ‘complete’.

Non-functional requirements are not abstract things which are written down when considering the design of a system and then ignored but must be engineered into the systems design just like functional requirements are. Non-functional requirements can have a bigger impact on systems design than can functional requirements and certainly if you get them wrong can lead to more costly rework. Missing a functional requirement usually means adding it later or doing some rework. Getting a non-functional requirement wrong can lead to some very costly rework or even cancelled projects with the knock-on effect that has on reputation etc.

From an architects point of view, when defining how a system will address non-functional requirements, it mainly (though not exclusively) boils down to how the compute platforms (whether that be processors, storage or networking) are specified and configured to be able to satisfy the qualities and constraints specified of it. As more and more workloads get moved to the cloud how much control do we as architects have in specifying the non-functional requirements for our systems and which non-functionals are the ones which should concern us most?

As ever the answer to this question is “it depends”. Every situation is different and for each case some things will matter more than others. If you are a bank or a government department holding sensitive customer data the security of your providers cloud may be upper most in your mind. If on the other hand you are an on-line retailer who wants your customers to be able to shop at any time of the day then availability may be most important. If you are seeking a cloud platform to develop new services and products then maybe the ease of use of the development tools is key. The question really is therefore not so much which are the important non-functional requirements but which ones should I be considering in the context of a cloud platform?

Below are some of the key NFR’s I would normally expect to be taken into consideration when looking at moving workloads to the cloud. These apply whether they are public or private or a mix of the two. These apply to any of the layers of the cloud stack (i.e. Infrastructure, Platform or Software as a Service) but will have an impact on different users. For example availability (or lack of) of a SaaS service is likely to have more of an impact on the business user than developers or IT operations whereas availability of the infrastructure will effect all users.

  • Availability – What percentage of time does the cloud vendor guarantee cloud services will be available (including scheduled maintenance down-times)? Bear in mind that although 99% availability may sound good that actually equates to just over 3.5 days potential downtime a year. Even 99.99 could mean 8 hours down time. Also consider as part of this Disaster Recovery aspects of availability and if more then one physical data centre is used where do they reside? The latter is especially true where data residency is an issue if your data needs to reside on-shore for legal or regulatory reasons.
  • Elasticity (Scalability) – How easy is it to bring on line or take down compute resources (CPU, memory, network) as workload increases or decreases?
  • Interoperability – If using services from multiple cloud providers how easy is it to move workloads between cloud providers? (Hint: open standards help here). Also what about if you want to migrate from one cloud provider to another ? (Hint: open standards help here as well).
  • Security – What security levels and standards are in place? for public/private clouds not in your data centre also consider physical security of the cloud providers data centres as well as networks. Data residency again needs to be considered as part of this.
  • Adaptability – How easy is it to extend, add to or grow services as business needs change? For example if I want to change my business processes or connect to new back end or external API’s how easy would it be to do that?
  • Performance – How well suited is my cloud infrastructure to supporting the workloads that will be deployed onto it, particularly as workloads grow?
  • Usability – This will be different depending on who the client is (i.e. business users, developers/architects or IT operations). In all cases however you need to consider ease of use of the software and how well designed interfaces are etc. IT is no longer hidden inside your own company, instead your systems of engagement are out there for all the world to see. Effective design of those systems is more important than ever before.
  • Maintainability – More from an IT operations and developer point of view.  How easy is it to manage (and develop) the cloud services?
  • Integration – In a world of hybrid cloud where some workloads and data need to remain in your own data centre (usually systems of record) whilst others need to be deployed in public or private clouds (usually systems of engagement) how those two clouds integrate is crucial.

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that non-functional requirements should actually be considered in terms of the qualities you want from your IT system as well as the constraints you will be operating under. The decision to move to cloud in many ways adds a constraint to what you are doing. You don’t have complete free reign to do whatever you want if you choose off-premise cloud operated by a vendor but have to align with the service levels they provide. An added bonus (or complication depending on how you look at it) is that you can choose from different service levels to match what you want and also change these as and when your requirements change. Probably one of the most important decisions you need to make when choosing a cloud provider is that they have the ability to expand with you and don’t lock you in to their cloud architecture too much. This is a topic I’ll be looking at in a future post.

Consideration of non-functional requirements does not go away in the world of cloud. Cloud providers have very different capabilities, some will be more relevant to you than others. These, coupled with the fact that you also need to be architecting for both on-premise as well as off-premise clouds actually make some of the architecture decisions that need to be made more not less difficult. It seems the advent of cloud computing is not about to make us architects redundant just yet.

For a more detailed discussion of non-functional requirements and cloud computing see this article on IBM’s developerWorks site.

A Cloudy Conversation with My Mum

Traditionally (and I’m being careful not to over-generalise here) parents of the Baby Boomer generation are not as tech savvy as the Boomers (age 50 – 60), Gen X’ers (35 – 49) and certainly Millenials (21 – 34). This being the generation that grew up with “the wireless”, corded telephones (with a rotary dial) and black and white televisions with diminutive screens. Technology however is invading more and more on their lives as ‘webs’, ‘tablets’ and ‘clouds’ encroach into what they read and hear.

IT, like any profession, is guilty of creating it’s own language, supposedly to help those in the know understand what each other are talking about in a short hand form but often at the expense of confusing the hell out of those on the outside. As hinted at above IT is worse than most other professions because rather than create new words it seems particularly good at hijacking existing ones and then changing their meaning completely!

‘The Cloud’ is one of the more recent terms to jump from mainstream into IT and is now making its way back into mainstream with its new meaning. This being the case I thought the following imaginary conversation between myself and my mum (a Boomer parent) given my recent new job* might be fun to envisage. Here’s how it might start…

Cloud Architect and Mum

Here’s how it might carry on…

Me: “Ha, ha very funny mum but seriously, that is what I’m doing now”.

Mum: “Alright then dear what does a ‘Cloud Architect’ do?”

Me: “Well ‘cloud computing’ is what people are talking about now for how they use computers and can get access to programs. Rather than companies having to buy lots of expensive computers for their business they can get what they need, when they need it from the cloud. It’s meant to be cheaper and more flexible.”

Mum: “Hmmm, but why is it called ‘the cloud’ and I still don’t understand what you are doing with it?”

Me: “Not sure where the name came from to be honest mum, I guess it’s because the computers are now out there and all around us, just like clouds are”. At this point I look out of the window and see a clear blue sky without a cloud in sight but quickly carry on. “People compare it with how you get your electricity and water – you just flick a switch or turn on the tap and its there, ready and waiting for when you want to use it.”

Mum: “Yes I need to talk to you about my electricity, I had a nice man on the phone the other day telling me I was probably paying too much for that, now where did I put that bill I was going to show you…”

Me: “Don’t worry mum, I can check that on the Internet, I can find out if there are any better deals for you.”

Mum: “So will you do that using one of these clouds?”

Me “Well the company that I contact to do the check for you might well be using computers and programs that are in the cloud yes. It would mean they don’t have to buy and maintain lots of expensive computers themselves but let someone else deal with that.”

Mum: “Well it all sounds a bit complicated to me dear and anyway, you still haven’t told me what you are doing now?”

Me: “Oh yes. Well I’m supposed to be helping people work out how they can make use of cloud computing and helping them move the computers they might have in their own offices today to make use of ones IBM have in the cloud. It’s meant to help them save money and do things a bit quicker.”

Mum: “I don’t know why everyone is in such a rush these days – people should slow down a bit, walk not run everywhere.”

Me: “Yes, you’re probably right about that mum but anyway have a look at this. It’s a video some of my colleagues from IBM made and it explains what cloud computing is.”

Mum: “Alright dear, but it won’t be on long will it – I want to watch Countdown in a minute.”

*IBM has gone through another of its tectonic shifts of late creating a number of new business units as well as job roles, including that of ‘Cloud Architect’.

How Cloud is Changing Roles in IT

Every major change in technology comes with an inevitable upheaval in the job market. New jobs appear, existing ones go away and others morph into something different. When the automobile came along and gradually replaced the horse drawn carriage, I’m sure carriage designers and builders were able to apply their skills to designing the new horseless carriage (at least initially) whilst engine design was a completely new role that had to be invented. The role of the blacksmith however declined rapidly as far fewer horses were needed to pull carriages.
Smedje i Hornbæk, 1875The business of IT has clearly gone through several transformational stages since the modern age of commercial computing began 55 years ago with the introduction of the IBM 1401 the world’s first fully transistorized computer.  By the mid-1960?s almost half of all computer systems in the world were 1401 type machines.
IBM 1401During the subsequent 50 years we have gone through a number of different ages of computing; each corresponding to the major, underlying architecture which was dominant during that period. The ages with their (very) approximate time spans are:

  1.  The Age of the Mainframe (1960 – 1975)
  2. The Age of the Mini Computer (1975 – 1990)
  3. The Age of Client-Server (1990 – 2000)
  4. The Age of the Internet (2000 – 2010)
  5. The Age of Mobile (2010 – 20??)

Of course, the technologies from each age have never completely gone away, they are just not the predominant driving IT force any more. For example there are still estimated to be some 15,000 mainframe installations world-wide so mainframe programmers are not about to see the end of their careers any time soon. Similarly, there are other technologies bubbling under the surface running alongside and actually overlapping these major waves. For example, networking has evolved from providing the ability to connect a “green screen” to a centralised mainframe, and then mini, to the ability to connect thousands, then millions and now billions of devices. The client-server age and internet age were dependent on cheap and ubiquitous desktop personal computers whilst the age of mobile is driven by offspring’s of the PC, now unshackled from the desktop, which run the same applications (and much, much more) on smaller and smaller devices.

The current mobile age is about far more than the ubiquitous smart devices which we now all own. It’s also driven by the technologies of cloud, analytics and social media but more than anything, it’s about how these technologies are coming together to form a perfect storm that promises to take us beyond computing as just a utility, which serves up the traditional corporate data from systems of record, to systems of engagement where our devices become an extension of ourselves that anticipate our needs and help us get what we want, when we want it. If the first three ages helped us define our systems of record the last two have not just moved us to systems of engagement they have also created what has been termed the age of context – an always on society where pervasive computing is reshaping our lives in ways that could not have been possible as little as ten years ago.

For those of us that work in IT what does this new contextual age mean in terms of our jobs and the roles we play in interacting with our peers and our clients? Is the shift to cloud, analytics, mobile and social just another technology change or does it represent something far more fundamental in how we go about doing the business of IT?

perfect-stormIn 2012 the IBM Distinguished Engineer John Easton produced a thought leadership white paper Exploring the impact of Cloud on IT roles and responsibilities which used an IBM patented technique called Component Business Modeling to map out the key functions of a typical IT department and look at how each of these might change when the delivery of IT services was moved to a cloud provider. Not entirely without surprise John’s paper concluded that “many roles will move from the enterprise to the cloud provider” and that “the responsibilities and importance of the surviving IT roles will change in the new world.”

As might be expected the roles that are likely to be no longer needed are the ones that are today involved in the building and running of IT systems, those to do with the development and deployment aspects of IT and those in ancillary functions like support operations and planning.

Some functions, whilst they still exist, are likely to be dramatically reduced in scope. Things like risk and compliance, information architecture and security, privacy and data protection fall into this category. These are all functions which the enterprise at least needs to have some say in but which will largely be dictated by the cloud provider and have to be taken or not depending on the service levels needed by the enterprise.

The most interesting category of functions affected by moving to the cloud are those that grow in importance. These by and large are in the competencies of customer relationship and business strategy and administration. These cover areas like enterprise architecture, portfolio & service management and demand & performance planning. In other words the areas that are predicted to grow in importance are those that involve IT talking to the business to understand what it is they want both in terms of functionality and service levels as well as ensuring the enterprise has a vision of how it can use IT to maintain competitive advantage.

Back in 2005 the research firm Gartner predicted that demand for IT specialists could shrink as much as 40 percent within the next five years. It went on to coin the term “IT versatilist”, people who are not only specialized in IT, but who demonstrate business competencies by handling multidisciplinary assignments. According to the research firm, businesses will increasingly look to employ versatilists saying “the long-term value of today’s IT specialists will come from understanding and navigating the situations, processes and buying patterns that characterize vertical industries and cross-industry processes”. In 2005 the concept of cloud computing was still in its infancy; the term did not really enter popular usage until a year later when Amazon introduced the Elastic Compute Cloud.  What had been talked about before this was the concept of utility computing and indeed as far back as 1961 the computer scientist John McCarthy predicted that “computation may someday be organized as a public utility.”

Fast forward to 2014 and cloud computing is very much here to stay. IT professionals are in the midst of a fundamental change that, just like with the advent of the “horseless carriage” (AKA the motor car), is going to remove some job roles altogether but at the same time open up new and exciting opportunities that allow us to focus on our clients real needs and craft IT solutions that provide new and innovative ways of doing business. The phrase “may you live in interesting times” has been taken to mean “may you experience much disorder and trouble in your life”.  I prefer to interpret the phrase as “may you experience much disruption and amazement in your life” for that is most certainly what this age of context seems to be creating.

A slightly edited version of this post also appears here.

The Wicked Problems of Government

The dichotomy of our age is surely that as our machines become more and more intelligent the problems that we need them to solve are becoming ever more difficult and intractable. They are indeed truly wicked problems, no more so than in our offices of power where the addition of political and social ‘agendas’ would seem to make some of the problems we face even more difficult to address.

Poll Tax
A Demonstration Against the Infamous ‘Poll Tax’

In their book The Blunders of Our Governments the authors Anthony King and Ivor Crewe recall some of the most costly mistakes made by British governments over the last three decades. These include policy blunders such as the so called poll tax introduced by the Thatcher government in 1990 which led to rioting on the streets of many UK cities (above). Like the poll tax many, in fact most, of the blunders recounted are not IT related however the authors do devote a whole chapter (chapter 13 rather appropriately) to the more egregious examples of successive governments IT blunders. These include:

  • The Crown Prosecution Service, 1989 – A computerised system for tracking prosecutions. Meant to be up and running by 1993-94, abandoned in 1997 following a critical report from the National Audit Office (NAO).
  • The Department of Social Security, 1994 – A system to issue pensions and child benefits using swipe cards rather than the traditional books which were subject to fraud and also inefficient. The government cancelled the project in 1999 after repeated delays and disputes between the various stakeholders and following another critical report by the NAO.
  • The Home Office (Immigration and Nationality Directorate), 1996 – An integrated casework system to deal with asylum, refugee and citizenship applications. The system was meant to be live by October of 1998 but was cancelled in 1999 at a cost to the UK taxpayer of at least £77 million. The backlog of cases for asylum and citizenship which the system had meant to address had got worse not better.

Whilst the authors don’t offer any cast iron solutions to how to solve these problems they do highlight a number of factors these blunders had in common. Many of these were highlighted in a joint Royal Academy of Engineering and British Computer Society report published 10 years ago this month called The Challenges of Complex IT Projects.The major reasons found for why complex IT projects fail included:

  • Lack of agreed measures of success.
  • Lack of clear senior management ownership.
  • Lack of effective stakeholder management.
  • Lack of project/risk management skills.
  • Evaluation of proposals driven by price rather than business benefits.
  • Projects not broken into manageable steps.

In an attempt to address at least some of the issues around the procurement and operation of government IT systems (which is not restricted to the UK of course), in particular those citizen facing services over the internet, the coalition government that came to power in May 2010 commissioned a strategic review of its online delivery of public services by the UK Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox. Her report published in November 2010 recommended:

  • Provision of a common look and feel for all government departments’ transactional online services to citizens and business.
  • The opening up of government services and content, using application programme interfaces (APIs), to third parties.
  • Putting a new central team in Cabinet Office that is in absolute control of the overall user experience across all digital channels and that commissions all government online information from other departments.
  • Appointing a new CEO for digital in the Cabinet Office with absolute authority over the user experience across all government online services and the power to direct all government online spending.

Another government report, published in July of 2011, by the Public Administration Select Committee entitled Government and IT – “a recipe for rip-offs” – time for a new approach proposed 33 recommendations on how government could improve it’s woeful record for delivering IT. These included:

  • Developing a strategy to either replace legacy systems with newer, less costly systems, or open up the intellectual property rights to competitors.
  • Contracts to be broken up to allow for more effective competition and to increase opportunities for SMEs.
  • The Government must stop departments specifying IT solutions and ensure they specify what outcomes they wish to achieve.
  • Having a small group within government with the skills to both procure and manage a contract in partnership
    with its suppliers.
  • Senior Responsible Owners (SROs) should stay in post to oversee the delivery of the benefits for which they are accountable and which the project was intended to deliver.

At least partly as a result of these reports and their recommendations the Government Digital Service (GDS) was established in April 2011 under the leadership of Mike Bracken (previously Director of Digital Development at The Guardian newspaper). GDS works in three core areas:

  • Transforming 25 high volume key exemplars from across government into digital services.
  • Building and maintaining the consolidated GOV.UK website –  which brings government services together in one place.
  • Changing the way government procures IT services.

To the large corporates that have traditionally provided IT software, hardware and services to government GDS has had a big impact on how they do business. Not only does most business now have to be transacted through the governments own CloudStore but GDS also encourages a strong bias in favour of:

  • Software built on open source technology.
  • Systems that conform to open standards.
  • Using the cloud where it makes sense to do so.
  • Agile based development.
  • Working with small to medium enterprises (SME’s) rather than the large corporates seen as “an oligarchy that is ripping off the government“.

There can be no doubt that the sorry litany of public sector IT project failures, rightly or wrongly, have caused the pendulum to swing strongly in the direction that favours the above approach when procuring IT. However some argue that the pendulum has now swung a little too far. Indeed the UK Labour party has launched its own digital strategy review led by shadow Cabinet Office minister Chi Onwurah. She talks about a need to be more context-driven, rather than transaction focused saying that while the GDS focus has been on redesigning 25 “exemplar” transactions, Labour feels this is missing the complexity of delivering public services to the individual. Labour is also critical of the GDSs apparent hostility to large IT suppliers saying it is an “exaggeration” that big IT suppliers are “the bogeymen of IT”. While Labour supports competition and creating opportunities for SMEs, she said that large suppliers “shouldn’t be locked out, but neither should they be locked in”.

The establishment of the GDS has certainly provided a wake up call for the large IT providers however, and here I agree with the views expressed by Ms Onwurah, context is crucial and it’s far too easy to take an overly simplistic approach to trying to solve government IT issues. A good example of this is that of open source software. Open source software is certainly not free and often not dramatically cheaper than proprietary software (which is often built using some elements of open source anyway) once support costs are taken into account. The more serious problem with open source is where the support from it comes from. As the recent Heartbleed security issue with OpenSSL has shown there are dangers in entrusting mission critical enterprise software to people who are not accountable (and even unknown).

One aspect to ‘solving’ wicked problems is to bring more of a multi-disciplinary approach to the table. I have blogged before about the importance of a versatilist approach in solving such problems. Like it or not, the world cannot be viewed in high contrast black and white terms. One of the attributes of a wicked problem is that there is often no right or wrong answer and addressing one aspect of the problem can often introduce other issues. Understanding context and making smart architecture decisions is one aspect to this. Another aspect is whether the so called SMAC (social, mobile, analytics and cloud) technologies can bring a radically new approach to the way government makes use of IT? This is something for discussion in future blog posts.