Out of the Pit
It's time to build a new IT culture
Myths provide models for human behaviour, institutions, or universal conditions
Rear Admiral Grace Hopper
One of the early pioneers of computing, Grace worked on the Mark 1 at Harvard University. However, her major contribution was forcing the adoption of COBOL as a standard requirement for US Department of Defence computers.
As C.E.O. of Microsoft, Gates is probably the most significant current hero and his and Paul Allens's founding of Microsoft in 1975 and the subsequent dominance of Microsoft in P.C. software is a fertile ground for many myths.
The "two Steves", Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started Apple in 1975 and both in partnership and in competition with Microsoft, levered Xerox's concepts of G.U.I. into the industry standard. The many rises and falls of Apple and Steve Jobs, in particular, has also been a rich source of myth and legend.
The head "guru" of Netscape, Andreessen typifies many of the traits and behaviour patterns of contemporary IT heroes. His appearance barefoot on the cover of TIME and the aggressive development patterns associated with Netscape has rapidly become legendary.
The developer of powerful computers from the days of Control Data in the 1960's to the Cray super computers of the 1980's, Cray's exploits in developing innovative and complex firmware and chip design, are the true stuff of legend [at least for the "big iron" people].
Of course, there are many other major people in the short history of computing. Andy Groves, Professor Barry Boehm, Ed Roberts, Gerry Weinberg, Dave Hewlett Packard, Thomas Watson JR and so on. All these people could be considered as the Gods of Computing. Their deeds are told and retold countless times. They are our role models.
However, a pattern emerges very quickly when you examine these significant heroes and heroines and the myths associated with them.
1. They are idiosyncratic
From Bill Gates' famous rocking while talking to Steve Job's renowned mood swings, our Gods are "different" and quirky. At worst, they are simply maniacs;
2. They are aggressive and driven
Each of our Gods has got to where they are through vicious competition and are driven by being better than the "enemy" and by visions of domination;
3. They are highly intelligent
This is a very significant trait. As Bill Gates puts is so well, "high bandwidth" is the most important characteristic of people he admires;
4. They are intolerant and demanding
The almost super-human work effort and dedication demanded by these Gods of the people who work for them is well-documented. The job is the person and "wimps" who cannot sustain the unbelievably high pressure and expectations of commitment to the organisation are quickly removed;
5. They are "geeks" .
Business Week estimates that there are over 9.1 million IT people in the US and that over 5.3 million of those work in general IT [i.e. in-house development groups] or in management and other consultancy companies. Only 3.8 million work in computer hardware or vendor software organisations and, as in the case of Microsoft, less than 20% of these people directly write software or design new hardware.
In other words, our Geek Gods are from the smallest sector of our industry. Indeed, in Australia, the percentage of IT professionals directly involved in vendor software or hardware development efforts would be extremely small [thanks, in no small part, to the Industrial Age policies of both our major political parties].
In effect, Bill Gates, Marc Andreesen and Steve Jobs and the people who work for them are false Gods. They are indeed mythical.
1. They are normal human beings
Despite the myths, these people are funny, social, interesting and exhibit few, if any, quirks;
2. They are quietly driven
These people have very high needs for learning and being challenged creatively. In this sense, they are driven by a need to learn and grow. In general, they are not aggressive and, if anything, are often a bit too passive;
3. They are highly intelligent
This is a trait that is shared with their Gods.
4. They are intolerant, impatient and demanding
This is another trait they share with their Gods. However, they focus these attitudes on themselves rather than on other people. In other words, most IT people have very high standards and they expect their colleagues and clients to respect and understand this.
5. They are not "geeks"
This is a very key difference. Given the opportunity, most IT people would be and are more driven by the value that their work and their technology adds for their clients rather than the technology. As discovered by our group in hundreds of discussions with IT people, many IT people are not given the opportunity to understand the broader organisational issues and drivers associated with their projects. As a result, they are often forced to look for technical excellence as a form of motivation.
While these people may not be the CEOs of billion dollar organisations, they do manage major projects that can cost hundreds of millions of dollars. More importantly, these projects are typically mission-critical for their organisations and are the only vehicle for implementing the changes required by organisations to meet the emerging business challenges.
It's about time we started treating these people as heroes and heroines. They are the true Gods of the IT culture. You work with them everyday.
One of Bill Gates' professors at Harvard, Tom Cheatham recollected "Gates had a bad personality but a great intellect"
Who wants a God like that?