Making the right IT choices takes courage

Every now and then, an ambitious technology project rolls around that requires investigation of a technology area with which you may not be familiar. You may never have deeply investigated it before, and you don’t have expert knowledge to draw upon. Sometimes, the business environment changes and your company needs new and uncertain technology to beat the competition, or perhaps even just play catch up. In the early days of the Internet, many IT professionals were in this uncomfortable boat.

Fast forward to the present, and everyone agrees that the Internet represented an enormous opportunity. But back in the early 1990s, you would have probably found a lot of fretful IT departments sweating over TCP/IP books instead of taking a step back and thinking about the potential transformative power of the Internet.

I have recently been working on such a paradigm-shifting project here at InfoWorld. The specifics of the project don’t really matter, except that the project reflects a significant new way of looking at our business, and the technology road is uncertain. It’s one of those projects where 1. the stakes are high because the business need is great, and 2. we are breaking new ground, so the level of ambiguity is quite high. I love it — this is the type of environment in which great, new things are built. There is a mountain of technical issues to deal with, and business issues to clarify and discover. When I look at what is needed for this project, though, it’s not servers and software (although I need those, too). It’s something more intangible: courage.

On a recent visit to Sun for an interesting and open-ended discussion with their executives about the future of computing, I was handed a stack of reading material as I was leaving. A particular booklet’s title caught my eye because it was unique: “Technology and Courage,” by Ivan Sutherland, Sun fellow and vice president. The booklet languished in my bag for several days, but as I navigated the risky project I alluded to above, I recalled the title and thought it might offer some guidance or at least moral support. After reading it, I highly recommend it.

Early in the essay, Sutherland defines courage vividly:

“Courage is what it takes to overcome fear. Fear is an emotion appropriate to perceived risk. Thus, to exhibit courage one must both perceive a risk and proceed in spite of it. Suppose a child has fallen through the ice on a lake and could be saved if reached. A person who walks out on the ice believing it to be very thick requires no courage because he perceives no risk, even though others may think him courageous. A person who correctly perceives that the ice is thin and stays off it likewise exhibits no courage; rather we call his action prudent or cowardly, depending on whether or not the ice is, in fact, too thin for safety. Courage is required only of a person who proceeds to rescue the child in full knowledge that the ice is thin.”

Sutherland sprinkles his discussion of courage and technology with personal anecdotes that illustrate his struggles with courage. In my own struggle with courage on my current project, I think about Sutherland’s child in the icy lake and realize that I need to make sure that on the IT side, we don’t engage in endless discussions about the thickness of the ice and the best method for traversing it while the child drowns.