Fantasy is easy, reality is hard

Overheard when passing two people on the street: “His fantasy is that system development is simple.” Perhaps they were discussing a bright young colleague with an IQ in the several hundreds, or perhaps they were referring to a non-technical manager within their company.

Unfortunately, both of those types think that systems development is easy. The rest of us have to work at it. This seems to be a relatively new attitude in the business world, undoubtedly spawned by the fact that people can now design their own Web sites using some templates and a bit of conversion software. Our kids just go ahead and write the software, complete with 3D graphics, sound and Web cam shots.

What people forget is that complex business software with communications capabilities, security requirements, firewalls and a voracious appetite for memory is not quite as simple as using a template to create a Web page that says “Hi. My name is Fred. How do you like me so far?” Integrating ERP functions, dealing with rapid package upgrades and adding the functionality that should have been implemented in the first phase is difficult. Particularly so when people insist on Web functions and Web-speed development – whatever that means.

When you see advertising campaigns by large ERP vendors saying “Be eWare or be gone” it raises some panic in businesses which are trying to keep up and trying to sort out where their IT budgets should be spent.

The short sharp answer is to apply a budget strategically. What are the overwhelming business reasons driving your IT requirements for the next two years? Anything beyond two years is wishful thinking at any level below 50,000 feet but it helps to at least know the direction you wish to take. If you want to rush into e-commerce, you need the technical architecture and structure to support it.

It also means that the underlying business applications have to be robust and accurate. It helps if the applications can be integrated properly into the e-world. If you listen to the sales hyperbole, they are; it’s easy, money will flow.

But perhaps the flow of money may not be quite as expected. An interesting observation is that in many situations, the most expensive Web solutions are the ones that are not really important and the ones that are important are not necessarily expensive or difficult. Unfortunately, the latter may not have the glamour either. Given the logarithmic rate of change in IT, half of the business world is struggling to keep up and the other half are nervously waiting for the next development when it will all be easier. In the IT world we need to strike a delicate balance. We need to move quickly into the e-world to compete but we need to retain our ERP or other business application talent. We need to become more knowledgeable about communications protocols, both wired and wireless. We need to become more aware of the tools, the middleware and the niche packages that are on the market and which can help us keep our balance.

The new reality is that business systems have become much more difficult to develop properly. One result of sloppy Web development is that the application becomes much more expensive to maintain. It’s very difficult to sell a negative return on investment these days. Some people would probably qualify that last statement by adding, “Unless you’re a government.” I don’t agree, but that’s another story for another day. We need to educate our managers and our business executives on the reality of modern systems. It may be easier than the old days of assembler language and wired boards, but it’s a hell of a lot more complex developing applications that were almost impossible to do five years ago.

It appears that the business information overload is leading to a short attention span. If you don’t pay attention everything looks easy, ask any magician or IT manager, and it seems we have to play both roles.

Horner is a partner at Sierra Systems Group Inc. He can be reached at