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Are You Silver Bullet Proof?

I recently attended a presentation titled "Are You Silver Bullet Proof?" at the ICE Technology Conference by Sharon Stanbury and Joni Mines of the City of Edmonton. As non-I.T. people, they revealed an interesting perspective on how enterprise I.T. departments and the business should work together. They started by introducing two myths concerning I.T.:

  • Myth #1: There is a 'magic' solution or technology that will solve all our problems. Sharon & Joni called this silver bullet thinking, which is a nod to the classic article "No Silver Bullets" by Fred Brooks, who argued that much of software developer involves essential complexity that no tool or practice can magically simplify or eliminate. Both technical and non-technical people can subscribe to this myth. Technical people should know better, but the optimists and early adopters are often suckers for the next new technology that comes along, believing that it will solve all the problems with the current approach. Good examples of this were Ruby on Rails for developing web applications, and now currently Erlang for doing concurrent processing. It is easier for non-technical business people and managers to buy into this myth because of their lack of technical knowledge, especially if the I.T. department or sales people are eagerly pitching a solution that they claim is the solution. Recently I helped out a software development team struggling with multiple parallel development activities on the same code base. They were already using branches and merging within their version control tool, so I was surprised to discover that the non-technical lead of this team was convinced that there was some feature or approach to using the version control tool that would magically make all their problems go away.
  • Myth #2: If an I.T. project is properly managed and is successful – on time and budget – then the benefits will occur automatically. In order to be funded, most I.T. projects require a business case with a cost-benefit analysis that specifies the expected benefits from the project. Once the project is approved the business case is often forgotten about, especially by the I.T. team. The assumption is made that the benefits will occur automatically.

The typical result of believing these myths is that the I.T. project team celebrates their successful project, but the client is left unhappy or angry since the original expected benefits are not realized. To protect themselves, I.T. has adopted various practices such as expectation management, contracts, and audit trails. These help protect the I.T. team, but do not improve the customer's happiness.

This is a problem for the business. The solution is for the business – not I.T. - to ensure that business value is realized. I considered this a key insight of the presentation. The business owner must manage a business initiative potentially spanning multiple I.T. projects to ensure that the desired outcomes are achieved. Sharon and Joni stated that in their experience it usually takes up to five years after the completion of the first I.T. project before the appropriate level of benefits are realized. This seemed like an overly long period of time to me, and I wonder if their experience being with the government rather than corporations was a factor.

Sharon and Joni outlined a management framework called Value Management that helps business managers determine, evaluate, and finally achieve business value for an initiative. They called it a formal discipline similar to project management. The main insights behind this process are that expected business value must be defined up front along with measurable metrics as to whether it has been achieved, and then the initiative must be regularly evaluated and adjustments made as necessary to ensure that this value is realized. Sharon and Joni presented a number of examples within the City of Edmonton where the use of Value Management resulted in positive outcomes.

Sharon and Joni pointed out that organizations and business managers that use this type of process are silver bullet proof: rather than believing that technology will magically solve their problems, they should instead perform a disciplined evaluation of what they want to achieve and then manage to this outcome.

I think this is an important lesson for those of us in I.T. Not only should we be wary of silver-bullet thinking within ourselves, but we should also be aware that delivering business value is the ultimate goal of every I.T. project. Losing sight of that risks losing happy clients.

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2 Comments on “Are You Silver Bullet Proof?”

  1. Justin Gamble says:

    Hi Basil,

    Good article, thanks for sharing. So if I understood correctly, to guard against all the silver bullets out there, we should also buy a silver-bullet-proof shield?
    Okay, good. So which shield software was that again? ;) :)

    More seriously, I am curious to know what people consider the biggest defects with Ruby on Rails? I have never worked with it, but all the hype has me curious about it.


  2. Personally, I think one of the main issues with Ruby on Rails was all the hype. It seems like a nice framework for a certain set of web applications, but it was blown all out of proportion when it first came out.

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