A call from a former colleague

In the last seventeen or so years, what's changed? The PC people won the It battles but lost the war by merging into the predecessor data processing culture: a series of transitions from excessive control to chaos to excessive control.

I talked to a former colleague last week: a guy busily doing the job pretty much as we did it together in the late eighties except now he's in charge, the hospital's bed count has shrunk, and the department is much bigger than it used to be.

What's scary is that there's a case to be made for the view that the entire Windows thing has been a detour to IT hell - something that's distracted an entire industry, raising costs and slowing IT adoption across the economy.

As I said yesterday, I think that user management may be getting close to that magic tipping point where large numbers of them simply won't take it anymore - and reach out for anything that can help them achieve their business goals whether the IT gurus at headquarters approve or not.

There's been all been all kinds of technical progress in the seventeen years since I worked with that client but there's been surprisingly little change on two critical dimensions of the job.

At the senior manager level the eighties network computing solutions that looked good then, look even better now - and, as I'll discuss tomorrow, not much more has changed at the sysgrunt level.

Back then I did most of the work setting up two pairs of NCR machines with NCR's AT&T System VR3 variant to run a bunch of custom applications "crash ported" from Burroughs, an Oracle RDBMS implementation, some fairly advanced reporting facilities built on IQ, and Quadratron's integrated office applications suite - a product swapped out a year later for the Applix stuff when we replaced about 460 Wyse terminals with NCD's 19C 21" X-terminals.

The big battles at the time were about getting IT staff disciplined enough not to mess up the system, keeping users on side as they struggled with the software, and ensuring that patient data didn't escape into the wild.

So what's he doing now? Pretty much the same things: similar applications with the exception that he now has PC based word processing and the consequent file and access management problems; similar staffing issues with the exception that desktop support now eats the lion's share of his manpower budget and per business employee IT staffing has increased by a factor of nine; and, similar issues on data confidentiality except that he's long since been forced to give up the reality and operate purely in CYA mode.

A few things have advanced: we could barely keep about sixteen months worth of data on line, he's got everything since about 1998 immediately available; he's got diesel standby power - all I could get funding for for was a (theoretical) one hour battery backed shutdown crisis; and neither his core RDBMS (10g) nor the licensed applications suite has thrown a serious hissy in over a year.

On the other hand, email is now a big source of cost and frustration; keeping the desktop current eats three quarters of his capital budget; staffing has ballooned out of all proportion to his mandate; support and development FTE commitments on the custom applications have risen in each of the last ten years; He lost the most recent battle with the finance people over unmonitored employee internet access courtesy of some idiot auditor's hymn of praise for the joys of DHCP and the "Security" (!) of a Microsoft proxy server; the statistical process control software I considered my greatest success there is gone (but there's a quality monitoring center that imports data from IT and presumably does something with it); and user group managers are emulating their seventies and early eighties predecessors by cheerfully end running him with senior management on departmental IT initiatives.

On net I'd say that things over there got worse instead of better over the period.

And the shocker? He contacted me to talk about using Sun Ray to reverse their 1996 decision to replace the NCR/NCD combination with Alpha Servers and Windows NT workstations - and that raises a question: if smart display was right then and looks even better now, what happened during the years in between?

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