IT methodologies are a lot like diets

With predictable regularity, a new one will come along. Just like its predecessor, it will trumpet that it can get your system in shape, easily and quickly. The models look great. Testimonials abound. The guru is basically saying: “It worked for me, so you can do it too. For a fee, I’ll show you how”.

In IT — as in the diet industry — crazes/models/methods seem to finally come up with the definitive answer for a problem. So many months and dollars later, however, they fade away amidst unfulfilled promises and confused clients. For some reason that will be exploited and explained by the next guru and system/model/methodology, this one has mostly failed, so it’s time for a new and better approach.

The cycle starts again, well orchestrated by marketing specialists. Neither industry is penalized for failure; in fact, the industry overall is feeding itself and thriving on previous failures.

This motion is not wholly without merit. The system/model/methodology so convincingly peddled yesterday by its guru might have worked for a few, might have resulted in some short-term benefits for a number of adopters; it might have brought forward some healthy principles and handy techniques.

In dieting, as in IT, maybe the system was not properly implemented and operated. The success criteria were ill-defined, the requirements not well understood, the schedule was too aggressive or not aggressive enough, the discipline was not there, the “political will” waned along the way, the timing was not right, the ingredients were lacking in quality, or the measurements were plain wrong.

With so much variety out there, there is also a lot of confusion, skepticism and indifference within the commoners’ ranks (at least in IT!): how to sort out conflicting advice and competing products? Diet or no diet, we all have to eat. Methodology or not, those of us in the IT industry must write code or otherwise provide IT services. There are still many practitioners who swore by nothing else than their working code, and they have nothing to do with the agilists.

Just as there is a self-serving diet industry out there that has little in common with the rather mundane but inescapable realities of daily eating, there is a part of IT that has little in common with what practitioners do in their not-so-bleeding-edge IT lives.

The diet industry spins off numerous programs, services, books, products, supplements, etc. and people give themselves mandate and budget to buy them and try them. The IT industry — from one-man companies to the ubiquitous giants — launches countless conferences, workshops, seminars, forums, Web sites, Webcasts, podcasts which beckon and assault the low-profile practitioner.

But how many will pay the hefty dollars and, now that most IT folks are employed again, how many will be able to take days off work to attend them? If they do, how many would have acquired, implemented and really used those new solutions/models/methods? How many would have come back with benefits other than networking and time off?

Only a minority, and usually those in a position to pass the cost of such attendance down the IT food chain. Unlike the dieting crowd, the IT crowd often lacks the time, the budget and the mandate to experiment with novelties. When they do, they may discover that the new star method/system/model is just a case of smart repackaging of some old tried-and-true stuff.

Regardless, the conferencing industry keeps moving! After all, every self-respecting IT academic or researcher must publish, must produce something new — or seemingly new, and must let the world (prospective employers and sponsors included) know about it. Unlike the majority who just work in IT, there are some able not only to come up with all the new stuff, but they also work on real-life projects and write those extra-thick books for the rest of us — not sure in which sequence.

At the same time, the IT industry, despite its life-changing achievements, maintains a reputation for a high percentage of project failure…a lot like the dieting industry.

Maybe all of this commotion is a pre-condition for the emergence of a few precious truths and best practices. Maybe all this variety is not just self-serving, but will eventually fulfill a higher purpose, such as laying another block at the foundation of a still young industry. But for the commoner to discern it from fad and hype, one thing must not be forgotten: take it with a grain or two of common sense — in dieting, as in IT.

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–Andronache is a Toronto-based application developer for a large IT firm. She can be reached at [email protected]

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