- Front Page
- Biz Tools
Reading through the millions of words discussing Facebook’s impending IPO, and striving to distract myself from deep-seeded envy of everyone who has worked there and is holding stock options, I came upon a letter from founder Mark Zuckerberg, who wrote to potential shareholders about “The Hacker Way". The letter was timely, coming right when RSR was moving to a whole new website platform, and it explained a lot. It also led me to wonder if it isn’t time for a reboot of our entire IT mindset.
Facebook users know that the platform changes, often without any notice, and usually disrupting peoples’ rhythms. Grumbles can be heard across cyberspace. Sometimes those changes don’t exactly work perfectly (I’m still not sure whether, six months after implementation, selecting the option to always use a secure protocol [https] on Facebook survives after you’ve played a game of Scrabble). I’ve never quite understood the method behind the seeming madness.
Further, “hacker” and “hacking” have always been pejorative terms in my mind. Hackers break things, or so I thought. So when our web designer talked about a “hack” he’d used to simulate a live environment, Brian and I sort of cringed. “A hack?” That just sounds wrong. But all that falls to the side when you read Zuckerberg’s credo, and his hopes that it will survive through the IPO and beyond.
Here’s the introduction to his letter:
The Hacker Way is an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration. Hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete. They just have to go fix it — often in the face of people who say it’s impossible or are content with the status quo.
Sounds a bit like something W Edwards Deming would have talked about sixty years ago in the realm of manufacturing; the tenet that made Toyota great. No harm there. So why does it raise the hackles on the back of my neck?
Certainly not for the reasons described in the article – which basically said (to paraphrase) “All public companies must become political, and political entities don’t iterate and they don’t prize ‘the best.’ They prize ‘the clever.’ Plus, hacking doesn’t scale.” Almost 900,000 users and “hacking doesn’t scale”? Seriously?
What I realized, and what I experienced as the project manager of our little web site project is just how risk-averse and change-averse we IT people really are. Quite simply, we fear change. We talk about our legacy code, and I’m certainly not suggesting integration is simple, but how many of us have 875,000 active users? How many of us would turn our core UI upside down from a profile to a “Timeline,” more or less overnight? We know our users would gripe like crazy, and as IT icon James Martin famously said about forty years ago “No one wants to be a pioneer. Pioneers end up with a lot of arrows in their backs.” But pioneers can also end up as billionaires who fundamentally change the world we live in, how we communicate, and even, (wait for it…) how we decide what to buy and who to buy it from.
Ironically, the man who developed RSR’s first website was and is very in tune with the hacker way. I met him at my last CIO job. He was a receiving clerk, but he was obviously insanely talented, so I brought him into our team. Within a couple of years he was flying high. For example, one morning, I came into work and discovered he’d installed a new mail server because he just thought the old one wasn’t good enough…too bloated. I had a conniption, but over time, I saw that he was right. We never had to reboot the new mail server. The old one had to be rebooted at 3am every morning. That same man built RSR’s first website in about 40 days. And it lasted almost five years. He gave us fits sometimes – because in his attempts at “continuous improvement” he’d make a change that would screw us up. But it always worked out. So Tony Caravello, thanks very much for teaching me a few things about the hacker way. And thanks for helping get RSR off the ground.
This leads me to my last thought…is it time for us to reboot our mindsets about the way we run IT? We’ve been dancing this dance for a very long time. We’ve had over a half-century to hone the craft. Yet the IT development backlog continues to grow every year, and users remain fundamentally dissatisfied with IT’s ability to understand and support the business. Brian’s and my minds were blown when we saw the results of our 2010 IT Alignment study. A decade after our departure from the ranks of CIO’s, things were the same as they ever were. If Facebook can continue to innovate, grow and change, why can’t a traditional IT shop? What will it take for us to loosen up and fly right? I mean, Facebook is no longer a garage band…it has tens of thousands of servers, a database that has got to be ginormous, and new apps getting added in every day. I’ll bet it’s a good sized portfolio.
Then there’s our world of Retail.
We know for sure that merchandising has changed forever, marketing has found a new life, and stores must be re-invigorated to keep up with the changing consumer. Maybe it’s time for IT to take a look in the mirror too. Are we going about this all wrong? Maybe being a hacker isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe it’s just simply time to change. What do you think?