Sunday, August 19, 2007

New Software Technology: Blockage On Line

This was originally posted to my old blog on December 14th 2006. It was discussed on Reddit so please don't repost it there. Since it was posted even stronger evidence has emerged showing the productivity increase from functional languages.

This is the promised posting about why new software technology finds it so difficult to gain acceptance even when major improvements are likely.

To give you some idea of the scale of the problem, in 1997 Ulf Wiger wrote a paper entitled Four-fold Increase in Productivity and Quality. It described a practical experience with a mature technology (the Erlang language) on a significant new system by a large company.

Now Ulf Wiger is a well known proponent of Erlang, so the uncharitable might suspect some degree of bias and selective reporting. But however skeptical one might be of Ulf Wiger’s claims it would be a big stretch to think that he had invented or imagined the whole thing. The most likely explanation is that the reported results are broadly accurate.

So how come we are not all now programming in Erlang? I believe the answer lies in the “hill climbing” approach that most companies take to optimising their behaviour.

If you are lost on a foggy mountain then one way to reach the top is to simply head up hill. You don’t need a map or compass to tell which way that is, and eventually you will reach a point where every way is downhill. That is the top. Businesses are very much in this situation. There are lots of things a business could do that might work to increase profits. Some are big steps, others are small. The likely result, especially of big steps, is shrouded in fog. So the best thing is to move up the hill of profitability in small steps. Eventually you get to the top, and then you can rest for a while.

The trouble with this algorithm is that you are likely to have climbed a foothill, and when the fog clears you see that the real mountain is somewhere else.

Here the analogy breaks down because unlike real mountains the business environment keeps changing. Mountains go up and down over millions of years. In business the equivalent happens much faster. In fact many businesses have to run as fast as they can just to keep up with the foothills.

So now what happens when someone claims to have discovered a huge mountain in the distance? Three questions will immediately occur to the managers:
  1. Is it real?
  2. Will we survive long enough in the Lowlands of Unprofitability to get there?
  3. Will it still be there when we arrive?
All three are extremely good questions, and I’ll analyse them in detail below. For brevity I’ll talk about new programming languages but the same arguments apply to many new software technologies, especially the ones that affect the way that you program.

Is it real?

Managers in the software business are bombarded by sales pitches for things that will make their software faster, cheaper and better. 90 out of 100 of these pitches are for pure snake oil. A further 9 are stuff that will work, but nowhere near as well as advertised. The last 1 will change the world, and possibly make you a fortune if you time it right. The trouble is, how do you find that diamond in all the dross? Each new sales pitch requires a lot of time and effort to evaluate, most of which will give no return on the investment. And in the meantime there are those foothills to keep up with. So managers learn to listen to the sales pitch, nod sagely, and then carry on as before.

I say “managers” because they are usually the ones who make the decisions, and are therefore the target of the sales pitches. Sometimes they can be evaded. The early days of Linux adoption were punctuated by anecdotes of IT managers declaring that Linux was verboten in their shop, only to be gently told that it was already running some piece of key infrastructure.

Will we survive long enough to get there?

At first sight a new programming language looks simple to deploy: just start using it. Unfortunately things are not that simple.

Any significant project is going to require a team of developers, and then on-going maintenance and development of new versions. This means putting a team of people together who all know the language, and then keeping them on the staff. Do you train them? If so how long is it going to take them to get productive? In the days of the great OO paradigm shift it was generally agreed to take months. On the other hand you could hire them, but how many people out there know the language? Probably not very many. Either way, if somebody leaves then replacing them will be problematic.

A software house that has been earning money for a while will have been doing so on the back of some body of software (the exception being pure “body shops” who just write code for customers). This software is the major strategic asset of the company, and in practice most of the development effort in the company is devoted to maintaining and extending existing packages. The only way that you can apply a new programming language to an existing software package is to throw away and rewrite the whole thing. At the very least this is a huge and risky enterprise: revenue from the old legacy will drop off fast if you stop developing it, and in the meantime you just have to hope that the new system gets delivered on time and on budget, because if it doesn’t you will go bust. Of course a rewrite of this sort will eventually be necessary, but the sad thing is that by then the company is not in good enough financial shape to take the project on.

Most software companies have diversified and do not depend on one monolithic software asset, so in theory you could do the rewrites one system at a time. This is still expensive and risky, but at least you don’t have to bet the company. But typically each major asset has a division looking after it, and from within the division the sums look just the same as for a smaller company with one big asset. So the only people who can make such a decision are the board of directors. I’ll come back to this point later.

The last option for a new programming language is a completely new product line. Here you are starting with a clean sheet. You still have training and recruitment issues, not to mention long term support, and you have to put together a whole new toolchain for the developers, but the proposition does at least look sensible.

Will it still be there when we arrive?

New technologies often don’t hit the big time. If the suppliers go out of business, or the open source community loses interest, then anyone who adopted the technology early is going to be left high and dry. A previous employer of mine opted for Transputers in a big digital signal processing project. The Transputer was technically ideal, but then INMOS went out of business.

Geoffrey Moore has described a “chasm” between the Innovator market (who will buy anything just because it is new) and the Early Adopters (who make a rational decision to invest in new things). I’m not convinced that there is really a chasm: people seem to have continuous variations rather than discrete types. But either way there is a real obstacle here. In effect everyone is waiting for everyone else to jump first.

So those were the rational reasons why companies tend to avoid new technology. Now for the, err, less rational reasons.

Most of these come down to the fact that companies are not like Hobbe’s Leviathan. As described in The Tipping Point, once you get past about 150 people in an organisation the people in it cannot keep track of everyone else. Hence you find lots of people at all levels working hard to optimise their bit, but inadvertently messing up the stuff done by someone else. Bear with me while I take you on a short tour of the theory and practice of management motivation.

Companies try hard to reward people who do the Right Thing (at least, the Right Thing for the company). This generally means short term evaluation on how they are doing at their main task. Sales people, for instance, get paid partly by commission, which is a very direct linkage of short term performance to pay. Other people get annual bonuses if their bosses recommend them for it, and of course promotion happens from time to time. And its backed up by social pressure as well: these people are being rewarded for doing the Right Things, and everyone else takes note.

All of this is absolutely vital for a company to survive: you have to keep your eye on the ball, nose to the grindstone and ear to the ground. However, as Clayton Christensen describes in The Innovator’s Dilemma, it also leads to a problem when a “disruptive technology” arrives.

An example of what goes wrong was Xerox PARC. As is well known, the researchers at PARC pretty much invented the modern Office software suite, along with graphical user interfaces, laser printers and ethernet. The usual myth has it that Xerox executives were too dumb to realise what they had, but the real story is more interesting. Xerox did actually go to market with a serious office machine, called Xerox Star. You or I could sit down at one of those things and feel right at home. But when it was launched in 1981 it only sold 25,000 units, which was far too few to make a profit.

The reason (I believe, although I haven’t seen this anywhere else) is that Xerox salesmen (and they were almost all men at that time) were experts at selling big photocopiers to big companies. That was the bread-and-butter of Xerox business, and the quarterly bonuses of those salesmen depended on doing that as much as possible. Anything else was a distraction. So when this funny computer thing appeared in their catalog they basically ignored it. If someone specifically asked for some I’m sure that any salesman would be happy to fill the order, but they weren’t going to waste valuable face time with corporate buyers trying to explain why a whizzy and very expensive piece of equipment was going to revolutionise everything. So Xerox concluded that there was no market for networked desktop computers and sold the whole concept off to Steve Jobs in exchange for some Apple stock.

Christensen has a number of other examples of this phenomenon, all of which are market based. This is probably because you can observe the market behaviour and success of a company, whereas just about everything else they do tends to be visible only on the inside, and often not even then. But the same logic applies.

Suppose you are a project manager, entrusted with Project X to develop some new software. You have had your plans and associated budget approved by the Committee That Spends Money (every company has one, but the name varies). And then some engineer walks into your office and starts talking about a programming language, ending with “… so if you used this on Project X you could do it for a quarter of the cost”.

Now, strange to relate, a project manager will not actually be rewarded for coming in 75% under budget. Instead he (even today it is usually “he”) will be told off for not submitting a better estimate. Senior managers do not like padded estimates because it prevents the money being invested more profitably elsewhere. Coming in a bit under your original estimate is OK: it shows you are a good manager. But coming in way under shows you are either bad at estimation or just plain dishonest (managers watch Star Trek too). Besides, you already have approval for your original plan, so why bother changing course now?

But you have also been around a bit longer than this engineer, and have seen some technology changes. So you ask some pertinant questions, like who else has used it, how long it will take the programmers to learn it, and where the support is going to come from. At the end of this you conclude that, even if this technology is as good as claimed, if you use it on Project X you stand a very good chance of blowing your entire budget just teaching your programmers to use it. This will not get you promoted, and might even get you fired for incompetence. So you thank the engineer for bringing this matter to your attention, promise to look into it carefully, and show him the door.

So now the engineer tries going up the ladder. Next stop is the Product Manager, who looks after the product line that Project X will fit into. He can see that there just might be a case for making the investment, but he has already committed to a programme of improvements and updates to the existing product line to keep it competitive. His annual bonus depends on delivering that plan, and this new language will obviously disrupt the important work he has been entrusted with. So he too thanks the engineer and points him out of the door.

Next stop is the Chief Technology Officer. He is vaguely aware of programming languages, but being a wise man he seeks advice from those who understand these issues (most geeks will find this surprising, but very few senior managers got there by being stupid). Meaning, of course, the project and product managers mentioned earlier, possibly with a trusted engineer or two as well.

These engineers know about programming. In fact they owe their position to knowing more about it than anyone else. This new language will make that valuable knowledge obsolete, so they are not well disposed to it. On top of that they find the technical arguments in favour of the new language highly unconvincing. Paul Graham has christened this phenomenon The Blub Paradox. If you haven’t already read his essay please do so: it explains this far better than I ever could.

In short, everyone in the company with any interest in the selection of a new programming languge can see a lot of very good reasons why it would be a bad idea. The only people who disagree are the ones who have taken the trouble to learn a new language and understand its power. But they are generally in a minority of one.

And this is true in every company. Every company has a few eccentric engineers who try to explain why this or that new technology would be a great investment. Sometimes they are even right. But they are almost never taken seriously. And so great technologies that could actually save the world a great deal of money on software development (not to mention improve quality a lot as well) languish on the shelf.


Ulf Wiger said...

Sorry about the late comment, but I couldn't resist. (:

"Now Ulf Wiger is a well known proponent of Erlang, so the uncharitable might suspect some degree of bias and selective reporting."

I just thought I'd point out that back in 1997, I wasn't a well-known proponent of Erlang. In fact, I hadn't published anything in favour of Erlang before. So at the very least, I didn't have an entrenched position to defend.

The conclusions in that paper where discussed and agreed upon with colleagues who were not, by any measure, Erlang proponents. This is not to say that it makes the message more "correct", but at least it wasn't just the biased opinion of a known Erlang fanatic - that would be a revisionist view.

Now, 11 years later, I've certainly been branded an Erlang fanatic. I guess I'll have to live with that. I can think of worse things to be associated with. (:

I liked the article. Big companies are by their nature conservative. I think we often have unrealistic expectations regarding the time it takes for ideas to gain acceptance.

Xerox Ink Printer said...

I think this is such a brilliant article i think you completely summed it up beautifully "And this is true in every company. Every company has a few eccentric engineers who try to explain why this or that new technology would be a great investment. Sometimes they are even right. But they are almost never taken seriously. And so great technologies that could actually save the world a great deal of money on software development (not to mention improve quality a lot as well) languish on the shelf."

I completely agree, in every company, employees should be taken more seriously and have more significance. I think it would give companies more opportunity to grow.

An additional reason why employees are not taken seriously, because they are looked at as if every investment they want the company to make, they are doing it to "make there lives easier" i think companies should take a different approach towards employees and there thoughts.