When I was in about the 7th grade, maybe the 6th, I was forced by my parents to join the Junior Cotillion. I don’t know if they had these things where you grew up, but for me it was a waste of an entire evening every week . . . an evening that could have been devoted to television, pizza and other culturally enriching experiences.
(a younger Lou)
The purpose of the cotillion was to begin the long process of transforming happy, carefree, fun-loving boys into the miserable spineless creatures that act happy about having to drive minivans to chick flix, bassoon recitals and poetry readings.
A Little Lou Lie
We had to do all the stuff we hated.
We had to shower, dress up with a tie and jacket, wear shined shoes which meant we couldn’t kick anything, act polite and worst of all, act interested in girls and dancing.
I know . . . 7th graders today are way ahead of where we were in my time. Today they are taking classes in pre-nuptial agreements and no-fault divorce. But you know what I mean.
Back to the cotillion.
When you arrived at the ballroom, the scene was always exactly the same. In one corner, all of the girls would be gathered together in a tight knot. They were plainly excited about the prospect of torturing boys all night long. They would be laughing, whispering back and forth to one another; occasionally they would point to some poor unfortunate lad. Only God knew what they had in mind for the sorry fellow.
In the opposite corner, the corner most distant from the ladies, you would see another gathering.
All the boys would be standing there itching, scratching, pulling at ties knots, looking gloomily at the clock. Not much conversation would be taking place in that corner. It would be a long, long night.
There is a similar scene occurring everyday in our contemporary working world.
Each day, the IT department wakes up little by little as the workers file in. One group heads to the coffee machine, the other brings in their Starbucks Mocha Latte Java Lite Grande. One group discusses the latest reality-based television show and the other group glumly discusses how worthless television has become. One group plugs in their iPods, the other group plugs in their space heaters.
At lunch, if you have a lunchroom, the scene is eerily similar to the cotillion ballroom. The two groups separate themselves from each other and ignore each other as if an infection might be passed between the two species.
There they are . . . two different groups, two different generations, two different bodies of knowledge.
Reflecting this technological apartheid, are the systems these people are responsible for.
On one side are the so-called legacy systems, written in older languages like COBOL. These systems are probably character- based, green-screened, back-office systems that perk along, crunching huge amounts of data on huge mainframe platforms.
Hairdresser Geezer Geek Knows
Your geezer geeks know how these things work even if you don’t.
On the other side you have the glitz, the glamour, the cool and the exciting.
Here you find the GUI-based, web-enabled, bluetoothed, newest-of-the-new, state-of-the-art, object-oriented or java-based apps running on some sort of distributed UNIX world platform powered by the latest dual core chips. Your teenager can probably explain how all of this stuff works together and most of your staff overseeing these systems is not much older than your teenager.
If you could hear the conversations taking place within the two groups, you would hear both groups using disparaging terminology about the other’s systems.
One group would use words like fragile, vulnerable and unreliable, maybe even referring to kiddie-code.
The other group would be uttering phrases about resource consumption, inflexible, featureless, keyboard-centric & character-based, finally lumping it under the heading geezer-code.
So, there it is.
The knowledge gap in today’s IT world reduced to the dance floor at the Junior Cotillion. Sadly, it’s not far from the truth.
Why and how did this happen in our industry?
We have two separate cultures, multiple technologies, divergent philosophies and disparate approaches to completing our overall mission. How can this work? How can you put together a budget with this bi-cameral approach to IT or any other corporate function for that matter?
Where else do we see this?
Does the finance group utilize GAAP rules on Monday and Friday and go with whatever for the other three days? Does the manufacturing operation combine “hand built” and robotics on the same assembly line? Does your sales force employ team selling in the morning and one-on-one selling in the afternoon? Is your building heated with coal during the day and oil during the night?
I can’t think of a single example of other business areas where this kind of schizophrenic approach to getting the job done has worked or is working.
What is really creepy about this is the danger of losing the knowledge that the older group has. Frequently these guys are last on the train as far as budget and salary growth goes. Yet, when you look at what their systems actually do for the enterprise, you find a huge amount of the day-to-day operations are run on the older systems. It makes little sense to ignore these systems.
Does this resemble your operation? Two separate teams maintaining two separate systems?
Have you ever tried to bring these two worlds together, or is there a risk of some kind of matter/antimatter cataclysmic reaction?
Can the teams even talk to each other? Is it white, short-sleeved shirt, clip-on tie and pocket protector versus the luau shirt, iPod and sandals? Do these two groups leer at one another across a chasm impossible to bridge?
The old guys are going away.
The old systems are staying.
Your young guys want nothing to do with the old systems. You have a big problem.
There are an estimated 180 billion lines of COBOL in use today (this does not include the rest of the early languages) and 80 million boomers set to adios the working world over the next 20 years. Few if any colleges even teach COBOL or FORTRAN or the rest of the legacy languages. Who will maintain these systems in the future?
How do you close that knowledge gap when your guys won’t even have lunch with each other?
Over the next couple of months we will be looking at how this divide came about, what the implications are for companies dealing with it and how some more recent developments can help you turn this liability into an asset.
About Lou Washington
I started my career in information management from the somewhat misunderstood field of Records Management. Following four years of working for the University of Missouri System's Office of Records Management, I joined Tab Products Co. in 1980. Shortly thereafter, I became interested in the software business, PCs and how those systems would shape the enterprise of the future. We were transferred to Tab's then corporate HQ in Palo Alto, CA. I was the first Product Manager for Tab's Tracker systems software products that utilized a PC-based bar-coding system to track the movements of everything from files to capital assets. I believe it was the earliest example of workflow automation available on the market. I was also peripherally involved in Tab's Laser Optics division, which brought to market one of the earliest business systems employing CD-ROM and WORM technology as an information storage media.
In 1990, I returned to Cincinnati and joined Cincom Systems where I began to learn about and work with mainframe-oriented products and systems. In those days, there was a real "split" between the mainframe forces and the desktop proponents. I always found this to be amusing since both had so many positive things to offer an enterprise. I could never understand why anyone would offer one at the exclusion of the other.
My present role at Cincom involves a number of things including product security, pricing, finance packaging and industry research.
My wife, Barbara, and I reside in Park Hills, KY. I am a member of Blessed Sacrament Church, and I am active in a local car club, Cincinnati Cruisers. We are a group of PT Cruiser owners who enjoy tricking out our cruisers and driving around annoying people who have to drive boring cars. I am the Webmaster for the Cruisers and I invite everyone to visit www.cincyptcruisers.com and check out our awesome rides! Barbara and I both enjoy photography, travel and our two four-legged canine children, Chloe and Cookie.
My dog Cookie is currently a world-class canine model – please cast your vote for her in the latest “Canine-Cutie” contest.