Big Tech: Is Big Change Next to Impossible?

August 3, 2022

I read “The Disproportionate Influence of Early Tech Decisions.” The article adds some specificity to the notions of technical debt and why the Roman empire ended up with people wearing fur in the summer recycling stone from gigantic weird buildings jammed together. There are nifty quotes about the nature of things. (Lucretius and De Rerum Natura, right?)

The more recent article states:

… everybody knows that it’s hard to migrate a database or rewrite code in a new language, so this status quo wouldn’t be surprising anywhere you find it….What is more surprising is that it’s not only the big stuff that has a tendency to stay fixed. It’s the small and medium-sized elements as well.

I interpret these observations to the plight of the Silicon Valley type of big tech outfits. I believe that the observation applies to pinnacles of technological capability like the US air traffic control system and the Internal Revenue Service. If you have a backlog, just shred it. Effective. Simple. No big tech needed.

The article illustrates how expedient (maybe just bad?) initial decisions persist through time. There are examples of fixing and adding, but the persistence of initial conditions is a characteristic of some companies’ products and services.

The point which resonated with me was:

Simply this: software has inertia.

Bingo!

I noted these statements too:

quality is more of a sliding scale than it is a good or bad dichotomy, and I’d argue that many small companies optimize too much in favor of speed by trading away too much in terms of maintainability by shipping the first thing that was thrown at the wall. And this fails the other way too, where major believers in academic-level correctness agonize over details to such a degree that projects never ship, and sometimes never even start.

So what?

The people and time required to figure out how to implement meaningful technical change impose a significant cost. Cost translates into management’s need to kick the can down the road, change jobs, or ignore the mounting problems. Early decisions manifest themselves in systems whose problems cannot be addressed; management decisions which to an outsider appear to be downright wacky; and big companies struggling to escape their past.

I never “meta” a high tech outfit that I could not google or rely on a one day delivery that stretches to 10 days or more or an operating system unable to print a copy of this blog post.

Vulnerable? You bet.

Stephen E Arnold, August 3, 2022

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