Culture, Technology and Decay

In Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, Satis House (from the latin for “enough”) is a wonderful metaphor for technology in organisations today. So often, what you hope will satisfy you and be “enough”, quickly decays into dashed dreams and bitter disappointment. Why? Mostly culture, and a paradigm that’s completely broken, unsuited for the context and the complexities you are dealing with.

For many organisations, your tech landscape – the once a beautiful home with inspiring gardens and living spaces, has deteriorated, unmaintained and unloved into an overgrown mess. Like Miss Haversham, you now live in a run down home with your deep disappointment at how things are.

Ultimately, Boards and Execs get the Tech they deserve. Because it’s the organisation and its culture – its attitude, its approach and how it treats technology that leads inexorably to the poor state of the Tech.

The lazy way to think about this is to blame the individuals, and wave your hand and use phrases like “technical debt” (quite possibly one of the most abused terms in tech). But that would be failing to see the wood for the trees: that the state of your tech landscape is not the result of individuals or small actions, but rather the result of your culture. It’s culture which has allowed lots of small problems that each should have been addressed (like pulling weeds, sweeping and keeping things tidy) to grow into a much bigger problem. Which means that fixing it with the same culture that created it is utterly futile. The tech equivalent of a Sisyphean task.

“The agony is exquisite, is it not? A broken heart. You think you will die. But you just keep living. – Miss Havisham

Charles Dickens – “Great Expectations”

And it is agonising. Your organisation is increasingly reliant on being able to quickly and safely deliver changes to it’s landscape, but you can’t. It’s unsafe to move and making even small improvements take ages and seem to cost a bomb.

What to do about it?

Looking at the mess, it’s very tempting to think it’s just too hard to fix – that cleaning up the mess would be too expensive and take too long. Surely it would be easier to just buy the empty plot of land next door and start again? Of course, we’d need to hire a landscaper to build the perfect outdoor space that fulfils all your needs, both now and in the future. It sounds so much faster, and more fun.

What you don’t realise is you’ll spend months and months designing and arguing over plans and options – how you’ll use it, what goes where, how it all connects and who gets to decide. This is the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to “get it right” so there’s a lot riding on it. Everyone’s hopes and dreams for the future come to the fore, including different philosophies and approaches and what you want to be in the future. There’s the new irrigation and water storage system to figure out, new solar panels and lots of arguing about lights. And don’t forget you’ll need consent from the local authority for all of this.

Problem is, both the up front and long term running cost of all this starts to really add up. The new retaining walls and infinity pool will probably cost you twice as much, and that’s before you’ve gotten to the planting and lighting and new paving that you had in mind.

So, not only will it take 2-3 times as long and cost you many multiples of your current spend on maintenance (partly because you weren’t really doing much) but if you take the same thinking with you, you’ll end up making a very similar mess next door. Your nice new clean and tidy back garden will quickly become like your current overgrown, full of weeds and bugs and vines going everywhere to the point that the garden has turned into a jungle that is swallowing the house again.

Great Expectations (1998)

Yes, you bought a very expensive new pool, and the brochureware for that made it look incredible. But again, you have to look after it. If you don’t it’ll be green and full of bugs and muck and no one will want to swim in it, unless they are on fire and have no other choice.

At some point, you’re going to have to take a good long hard look in the mirror. Resolve yourself to the hard work of changing how you work and your approach. You’re going to have to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in. There’s going to be lots of cutting out overgrown parts, weeding and cleaning and painting and repairing. And yes, that will take time.

Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Anne Bancroft in Great Expectations (1998)

Just get started!

The way to approach it is to deal with the most painful parts first. Clear the pathways, so you can at least move around. And those clogged up guttering and downpipes are going to need to be unclogged, straightened out and kept clean, or you’ll continue to experience flooding every time it rains.

It’s going to take years to sort out the mess you’ve made. And here’s the thing, it’s never done. You can’t do it as a massive project and then just go back to what you were doing before. You need to keep looking after it. The weeding, the maintenance, the pool cleaning never stops. The pruning and watering and feeding never stops. So you need to make it the new normal.

The sooner we realise that the problem is more cultural than it is technical, the sooner we can start to change our actions and begin the work we really need to do.

And don’t forget you need to still be delivering meaningful value alongside. No one get’s three years of building the new. Likewise, no one get’s three years of just sorting out the mess. You’ve got to walk and chew gum at the same time, otherwise you run out of runway.

Deliver value early and often.
Iterate quickly from end-to-end – lightbulb to learning.
Make it safe, with fast feedback loops.