IT On Target

In the early 1940s, J. Presper Eckert was the designer and chief engineer building ENIAC, the first general-purpose all-electronic computer (see "The Eckert Tapes: Computer Pioneer Says ENIAC Team Couldn't Afford to Fail -- and Didn't"). It was a huge undertaking; ENIAC was the largest electronic device that had ever been built. So why did Eckert -- on a tight schedule and with a limited staff - take time out to feed electrical wire to mice?

Because he knew that ENIAC's hundreds of miles of wiring would be chewed by the rodents. So he used a cageful of mice to taste-test wire samples. The wire whose insulation the mice chewed on least was the stuff Eckert's team used to wire up ENIAC.

It was an elegant solution to an unavoidable problem.

ENIAC was officially unveiled 60 years ago this month. These days, IT people don't usually worry much about mice chewing on the wiring. We've got other unavoidable problems, like how to keep costs down, run development projects with limited resources and match up commodity hardware and off-the-shelf software with the business needs of our users. We've certainly come a long way from Eckert and his mouse cage, haven't we?

Or maybe not. After all, Eckert's budget for the most complicated IT project up to that time was less than $500,000 -- that's $5.5 million in today's dollars. He had just a dozen technicians working on ENIAC -- there was a war on, after all. And they were using commodity wire and off-the-shelf vacuum tubes to build a system that experts said would never work.

But Eckert had an advantage over most people in modern IT shops. He understood exactly what ENIAC was intended to be used for: calculating trajectory tables for shooting artillery at the enemy. Keeping ENIAC's wiring unchewed was critical to making that possible.

How many IT people today really understand what our systems are for?

Some of us just aren't interested. We want to write elegant code, or maximize network throughput, or optimize server utilization. We don't care what the business does or how it does it. We're pure techies, that's all.

Many of us do care about the business processes we automate. We're focused on pushing costs down, keeping users happy and getting business done.

But that's not quite as sharp as Eckert's shooting-artillery-at-the-enemy focus, is it?

How many people in your IT shop understand what gives your company a competitive advantage? That comes down to products, people and processes -- what your company sells, who makes and sells it, and how it's made and sold. Anything that contributes specifically to getting customers to buy from your company instead of a competitor is a competitive advantage. Anything else, well, isn't.

That's what our systems are supposed to be for: to support our ability to compete. We're not cranking out trajectory tables. But the goal is still to hit the target.

If we know what our purpose is, we can spot what's important and what's frivolous. We can understand when customer service people inconveniently tell us they need faster response times, or sales guys ask for a hard-to-build custom credit-check calculation. Those are our unavoidable problems -- the ones that demand elegant solutions from us.

And we can safely assume that customizable color schemes for a back-office application aren't such a high priority.

Can your whole IT shop get that kind of clarity? Maybe not. Some techies won't want to. Others simply may not get it.

But tell them about it anyway. For those who understand, it will explain the otherwise inexplicable, unreasonable, apparently meaningless demands that users sometimes make. It may even spur them to find ingenious new ways to increase the real value your IT shop delivers to the business - though presumably short of feeding wire to mice.

And if not, at least it'll give them something to chew on.

Frank Hayes, Computerworld's senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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