Tuesday, October 9, 2007

The artists among us ...

This past weekend at Brighton was one of the best in a long time, weather wise, according to the locals, and a lot nicer than I had been expecting. The last time I had visited Brighton was very late in December 1975, and it was pretty dreadful.

On Sunday there was a charity motorcycle gathering and a couple of us took a little downtime from the preparations for the ITUG event to walk through the bikes and exhibits. I have no idea how many bikes finished up participating, but there had to be more than 1,000, by my estimates.

What caught my eye was the mix and variety of the community. There were the customary groups of mechanics and engine technicians. There were the craftsmen working on leather saddlebags, cases, and clothing, and there were the artists who treated metal, wires, and paint as just different components with which to sculpture. The art works on display were amazing! No question, some of today’s reality shows on TV have contributed enormously to the general public’s interest in all things custom-bike related.

In case you wondering about the connection here with the photo displayed at the top – for those that may not be aware, our incoming Chairman for 2009 just happens to like riding her own motorcycle. Cruising through the Rockies, particularly during the fall, is one way to relax. And yes, that’s me, pumping gas and checking out the bikes.

As I left the Brighton bike show and exhibition, I remember reading a draft data sheet from another company I work with – Fujitsu. I like the direction they are taking, electing to augment their RISC technology (SPARC) with Itanium. Their new PrimeQuest line was being introduced to the marketplace, and their marketing machine was getting firmly behind the Intel Itanium family of chips. As they talked about the data bases they supported, and how customers could migrate to them, they observed how in “quick time, numerous advances have been made in the data base art”!

I have to say, I can’t recall ever seeing anything previously to do with software called out as art. But then again, is anything precluded from being viewed as art these days? Are the more gifted of today’s architects, developers, and operators any less entitled to being called artists than any other group in our society? Today’s gifted motorcycle mechanics and technicians are certainly taking pride in the custom bikes they produce!

Is the operator who instinctively knows what actions to take, at precisely the right time, and pursuing a sequence of commands many of us struggle to comprehend, any less an artist than the conductor of our best symphonies? Are the forward-thinking product designers any less artistic than the fashion designers of Milan or Paris? And are our programmers any different from the custom motorcycle builders we so often see on TV?

I had been in a conversation with Andy Hall just recently on a related topic, so when I asked him whether he thought artists were among our ITUG membership, he responded “I would absolutely agree that those who ‘get it’ will approach their design objective holistically, as an artist might approach a canvas or a sculptor would approach a stone. And then, once ‘in the zone’ they can achieve great things.”

Andy then went on to remind me that for some of us, “what drew us to this industry during its infancy was uncharted processes and lack of a rule book.” The freedom to pursue all options and to have no real judges mandating any one approach was something I recall as being a part of the attraction of IT in the early days.

As I have looked at some of today’s data center schematics describing in minute detail the complexities of the interfaces between servers, storage, and communications paths – I can’t imagine how much time would be involved if ever we had to poor over them to figure out what we had to do next to fix a problem. Time alone, checking things out from scratch, could produce additional side issues and compound the problem.

Wil Marshman of HP Cupertino responded to me after I pushed him a little on this point “I think you are on to something with regard to pattern recognition – we may not create art with our complex data centers, but we are more effective ‘runners of them’ if we have strong pattern recognition skills. It’s not a matter of just using your left brain logic skills; the complexity needs advanced right brain skill for us to understand and even appreciate the complexity.”

But are any of our technicians really artists? As my good friend and colleague Sami Akbay pointed out “is the mechanic who rebuilds the carburetor on an antique car an artist, or artisan? Or is he just a mechanic? The answer may be in the eye of the beholder!”

Earlier this year my wife and I visited the Hearst Castle up on the Pacific Coast Highway where the road heads north into Big Sur. What intrigued us both was that between Hearst and his architect, Julia Morgan, there developed a great relationship where the sum of the parts way exceeded what each could have done on their own. Hearst would wave his hands and describe something he had seen, and then proceed to outline what he thought could be appropriate. Morgan would figure it out and go to embellish it in a way that the final rendering would turn out to be close to magical! Hearst certainly considered Morgan an artist!

The thought of teams like this made me recall an earlier email exchange with Neil Coleman, the chief architect I worked with back at Insession. He commented “I certainly think there is a degree of art in many ideas and concepts that we have seen come and go in the technology space. Perhaps creativity or even ‘left field approach’ to problem solving is more accurate. However, once we dive into ‘implementation’ then the science does (and should) take over. We have the artist recognizing and promoting ideas and concepts. To do the implementation though, you want someone like a scientist. Then there are the middlemen that bridge the two. A successful company needs both extremes, as well as the management in the middle, to work well together”

I view the concept of teams as a very important and believe that we all need to be aware of the emergence of true artists in our field. As we build teams, as we solicit new ideas, as we weigh our next steps – we need to make sure that the voices of our artists are heard. They may not be the loudest, and they may not be the most popular – but these artists have the knowledge and ability to get us onto paths we may never have thought about at all! And above all, we need to recognize and nurture them as we just can’t afford to see their talents being lost or directed elsewhere.

At this year’s HPTF in Las Vegas we all took a good look at the custom bike HP had the folks at Orange County Choppers (OCC) build for them. I have to admit, I did see the episode on TV where the OCC team sweated the details. Working in the blue coloring really bothered them as they didn’t like it; but together, they figured out a pretty creative solution with creative use of lights.

For many years, I have observed many in our vocation that have transitioned beyond the level of just a programmer, just a business analyst, or just an operator. In each discipline there are those individuals who, as highly skilled technicians, have made the progression to artisans and indeed, have become artists from my perspective. Gifted IT folks do “sweat the details” just as any artist does!

When you look inside your own organization, do you see this as well? Do you have an artist, or an artisan, on your staff? And aren’t you glad that they are around!


Sami said...

Art and science - the delineation is an artificial taxonomy imposed in a Huxleyean caste fashion as though they are exclusive of each other; alphas and the gammas; in the eyes of the beholder, one better than the other. Just like there is the science of art, there also is the art of science.
Perhaps the best work on this subject is the pulitzer winning book by Hofstadter "Godel, Eschler, Bach -- an eternal golden braid" where the author discusses how self-reference and formal rules allow systems to acquire meaning despite being made of "meaningless" elements. Meaning - even through scientific means is an artistic endeavor.

Every good technologist is an artist at some level. Even though the caste system may condition us to categorize people as scientists vs. artists.

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear! So often we don't pay attention to what is directly in front of us.

In the late 60's, the Navy made all NROTC students take an attitude test. Not aptitude, but attitude. The Brass had discovered that the most successful officers were doing what they liked, not necessarily doing what they that at which they were most talented and this test was designed to find that synergy.

The results were broken into groups that had similar interests regardless of their skills. That is, ignoring your chosen major, with whom do you mentally and emotionally associate? Which other areas have similar outside interest?

Much to my chagrin, being a Physics major, I found I had virtually nothing in common with other Physics majors. To my surprise, I had 96% commonality with musicians, and 95% commonality with computer programming.

It's 1968.I already know I have no musical talent, but a lot of my friends do. What the devil is a computer programmer? And that is how it all began.

Have you ever really looked at your colleagues and noticed the number of them that are musicians or artists of some nature? It really is staggering.

There is definitely science in art. Painters know which colors to mix to create another color. Musicians know which notes combine well and which ones simply don't work. Yet, in neither case, does this knowledge create art. What appears on the canvas or music sheet is more than the sum of its parts.

The same holds true for technology. We have rules, things learned from experience that help eliminate that which doesn't work. We have techniques that have weathered the test of time. But assembling the techniques while avoiding the pitfalls is an art, not a science.

At some point, we must accept the fact that our technology, while an applied science, is only as good as the artists who create it.

Palmer King