'If it ain't broke don't fix it'? Bad advice can break your business

Summary:Old adages don't apply to the fast-paced world of technology and business continuity requirements.


"If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

I heard this phrase originally from my father. Many of you also heard it for the first time from a family member, or maybe even a co-worker or a supervisor at one of your first jobs.

The phrase is widely attributed to Gainesville, Georgia-born Thomas Bertram Lance, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget during Jimmy Carter's Presidency, who resigned after his first year in office due to charges in a banking scandal that he was later acquitted of in 1980.

Bert Lance is paraphrased by an unidentified author in Page 33 of the newsletter of the US Chamber of Commerce, Nation's Business, in May of 1977.

"Bert Lance believes he can save Uncle Sam billions if he can get the government to adopt the motto,"If it ain't broken, don't fix it!" He explains,"That's the trouble with government: Fixing things that aren't broken and not fixing things that are broken."

Lance is certainly known for popularizing the saying in print, but it is believed that it had been used in the American South for many years before.

Regardless of the origin I think the full quote, particularly the part which I've bolded merits further examination.

It's certainly true that there are sometimes things that don't necessitate replacement, but we often put off replacing or fixing things due to our own complacency, being penny wise and pound foolish.

Or by having a cavalier attitude about threats to business continuity by being under the naive assumption that horrible things will never happen to us, they happen to other people instead.

It's one thing not to replace your refrigerator, your car, or your TV set because it works fine. But keeping around End-of-Life system software and aging computer systems in general? I'm not sure even Bertram Lance would agree with that one.

The Windows XP End-of-Life event has been perplexing as I've heard old Bert's quote again and again as the reason for keeping those old PCs and software around.

Bert died in August of 2013 at the age of 82, but had it been explained to him that his widely-used quote has been used as justification for potentially exposing government, businesses and individuals to malware that could result in financial damages and leaks of Personally Identifying Information (PII), he'd probably ask that it be stricken.

During my 20 years as an IT industry consultant as both a freelancer and also during my tenure as a systems architect at IBM and Unisys I encountered countless examples of putting off upgrades of clunky old stuff because it was inconvenient or nobody wanted to spend the money.

Many of those things turned out to be single points of failure that held up large migrations and application modernization efforts, and ended up causing delays that were considerably more expensive than the money that the organization thought they would be saving by putting upgrades off.

Like, I dunno, the huge insurance company I once worked with that decided not to update their mainframe's 3270 communications stack to TCP/IP ten years before and leave their physically bus-connected (and unsupported) OS/2 2.0 SNA gateway in place when they faced a massive datacenter consolidation and VMware virtualization effort a decade later.

Or the the Internet Service Provider whose provisioning and billing system was tied to home-grown scripts and off-the-shelf software written for an EOL version of SunOS on an ancient SPARC 10 that was left running for over a decade, only to discover that when the hardware failed, the backup of the script code and the orphaned off-the-shelf software they had would not run on a modernized UNIX OS so easily.  

Or the public transit authority of a large city which had a 30-year-old mainframe still in service that operated the switching system for its train cars that needed code modifications when alterations to the train lines were made. They actually had to pull someone out of retirement that wrote the original program, because the system wasn't supported anymore by the original vendor and nobody on staff there had those skill sets anymore.

I could go on with dozens of examples of systems that weren't "broken" but were left in place, and the consequences that followed.

But sometimes IT gets the cluetrain because the consequences of avoiding remediation of a problem are so dire that any inaction could risk a catastrophic business continuity loss.

If prolonged, such a loss or a data exposure could undermine your company's reputation and result in loss of customer confidence or even cause you to be fined heavily by the government. Not to mention other damages by the downtime alone.

The last time the industry hopped on the cluetrain was the Year 2000 problem.

Continued: XP's End of Life compared to Y2K        

Topics: Security, CXO, Enterprise Software, PCs


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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