Painting the IT Bridge

Working in IT is exhausting. It is an endless series of projects, each one more art than science in its execution, and each one reshuffling the deck and attempting to improve upon the last one. The exhaustion derives from the constant firefighting, moving from one flare-up to the next, while trying desperately to gain a few yards on this project or that one. Unlike football, there are no first downs in the IT world. Instead, there is a single desperate struggle to get the ball into the end zone before you’re clobbered. And once there, you have to do it all over again.

When I step back and look across the years I’ve worked in IT, I am reminded of painting a bridge. By the time you finish, it’s time to start over from the beginning again. What IT lacks is stability. There is always a new operating system version, always a new patch to Microsoft Office, always a new and better way to manage your email, always more and more layers of security to fight through in order to do your work in the first place. Remember the humorous opening to Get Smart? That is what IT security is like for most of us these days.

Security aside, very few software technology improvements I’ve seen over the years add value commensurate to the effort it takes to make them available. Microsoft Word was at its prime when it was still a DOS application. There is little that people use word processors for today that could not be done by Word 5.5 for DOS, or WordPerfect, or even WordStar for that matter.

Email programs have grown increasingly complex, but few contain groundbreaking features that actually make it easier to manage your email. Each new version is supposed to be an improvement, but what it is improving? I have to go to third-party plug-ins like Boomerang, or Mail Butler to find features that really make it easier to manage my email.

Operating systems should be invisible, and yet in most cases, they turn out to be the most visible part of a computer system. I have this theory that on devices that are easiest to use, we tend not to realize that an operating system is there behind the scenes. On those that are most difficult to use, the operating system is standing in our way. Think of the early iPods, which were intuitive, simple, and performed their tasks well. Then think of, well, Windows 10, or macOS  Sierra, operating systems which can’t seem to get out of your way.

I long for stability in software. Instead of churning out version after feature-filled version, I’d prefer to see bug-free releases that last a long time. As a end-user, it would be nice to have a working piece of software that I can get used to and not worry that a feature, function, or keyboard command will change with the next release.

Instead of making changes for the sake of a pre-determined release schedule, make software that does exactly what it is supposed to do, and let it alone. A word processor is a good example of this. At its heart, it is a simple tool that allows us to write. Imagine if all our software could be that simple and easy-to-use.

6 thoughts on “Painting the IT Bridge

  1. We have a home PC that sits in our son’s room. The hardware must be around 5 years old (or more) and I have Linux Mint running on it. I initially had Ubuntu on it but the machine couldn’t cope with just 2GB of RAM so I switched to Mint.

    You mentioned just wanting the OS to get out of the way and I think that is something about the Linux flavours I’ve tried that appeal to me, to a degree. The UI tends to feel a couple generations behind my Mac but the PC does what it is supposed to do without snaring me in UI flourish.

    The downside is that some of the apps I rely on just aren’t available for Linux distros and I’d need to make far too many compromises to compensate for the lack of those apps to make a switch worthwhile. Even though it would probably be cheaper in the longer run in some senses.

  2. Another thought: this desire for the ability to just do the work and not spend all my time messing with features is what drove to do virtually all my writing in plain text with MultiMarkdown. I used Word for a long time because I needed much of its functionality for my legal work. The problem was that I kept losing formatting settings because my styles stopped working for me. I suspect I am the only person who couldn’t figure it out, though.

    eventually gave up and adapted my workflows to work with plain text. It is the one interface that is what it is and just let’s me write. If I could figure out how to export that text for certain specific use cases afterwards, my workflow would be complete.

  3. Voice recognition is starting to show one possible path. When I am writing, instead of having to pause what I am doing and pull up a browser, I can ask Siri a question, and continue with what I am doing. With my Amazon Echo Dot, I can ask it to turn up the heat on the Nest, or play some music, or continue listening to my audiobook. There is no bulky, complicated UI that gets in the way. As this improves, the voice UI might help mitigate some of what I complain about today.

  4. I’m not sure that is necessarily solving the underlying problem though. Still, I think voice will become a dominant interface in the near future.

  5. Not solving it, but masking it somewhat. Voice becomes a wrapper, and things can change underneath, so long as voice continues to work properly. It’s not like buttons moving around on a UI.

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