Thursday, August 6, 2009

"Throw-away" corners ....

This past weekend saw me once again driving around a race track. This time it was at the very impressive Auto Club Speedway, formerly California Speedway – the site of NASCAR and Indy Racing League events. The professionals race around the main course, which looks more like a “D” than an oval, while we ran only on a portion of the oval – the curved main straight that passed the Start / Finish line and includes NASCAR corners 1 and 2. We left the oval through a very tight left hand turn half way down the back straight, and continued around an infield road course. And the picture here is of the Infiniti coupe, prepared, and ready to leave for the track.

The designers of the track threw in a couple of surprises and those drivers new to the course took some time to figure it out. It wasn’t just that it was a mix of high-speed straights with some diabolically slow corners, but on two sections of the track, the sequence of turns forced you to look a lot further ahead. As the goal of a driver is to maximize the time spent going fast, figuring out where the business of going fast really starts becomes one of the most critical elements that need to be determined. No matter the type of car on the track, going fast is usually best achieved when you have the car pointed straight ahead!

Readers of this blog may recall how the exit from any corner is perhaps the most important element (of the track) to execute well. And that this was the subject of a blog posting I wrote in May 31, ’08 “Heading for the exit!” on how “the process of cornering was broken into four components; braking, turn-in, apex, and exit. Of these, the most important component being the exit – the car will always follow your eyes – (and then) when committed to the corner, (look) for the next corner!”

For those readers who also read the postings on my social blog (http://www.buckle-up-travel.blogspot.com/) chronicling these times on the track, may recall the story I posted on October 17, ’08 “The pedal on the right ...” where, following a session on the track, a question arose about the correct line to take through a specific corner. The instructor responded with “there’s no right way to get through it – but when you realize that you don’t gain any real advantage in these corners – you just work on minimizing your time in them … in every circuit, you will find a corner that is just there to mess with your head!”

The designers of the Auto Club Speedway “roval,” the combination road course and oval, had added several corners that “messed with our heads” - “throw-away” corners where following normal cornering disciplines didn’t apply. If you did try to follow “the racing line” you finished up being way off line for the turns that followed. Given that the most important aspect of driving on this track was to go fast down the long, banked straight, working back from the return onto the oval highlighted the one “apex” that just had to be taken correctly – all those that preceded it weren’t important!

Just as a good card player knows when to discard cards, when to hold on to others, and when to “fold” and wait for another opportunity, the good drivers in our group this weekend knew when to take what appeared to be the completely wrong line while patiently waiting for the next “real” corner where they positioned themselves to go fast. And I am reminded of how, in IT, there are so many times when we are better served recognizing throw-away products as we better position ourselves (in terms of time, and resources) to address the real product we know will provide us with much more value!

I am constantly reminded of how not every new product is going to be a game-changer, or the much-anticipated breakthrough, we all eagerly anticipate. Very few products manage to fall into these categories; most are just refinements on what has come before. Truly innovative products, that change the course of IT and propel our businesses into new and fertile marketplaces come around only so often. It is the astute CIO, who understands the business goals and is aware of the course that has been set, that recognizes these throw-away turns!

For more than a decade, the Gartner Group has used the “hype cycle” to illustrate “the maturity, adoption, and business application of specific technologies.” Comprised of five phases, the hype cycle starts out with a technology trigger followed by a rapid upward climb to the peak of inflated expectations, only to drop dramatically into the trough of disillusionment before turning upwards again, only more gradual this time, with the slope of enlightenment that leads to the plateau of productivity. While these descriptions bring a wry smile to our faces and, for many of us, recollections of past experiences, they do spin a cautionary tale.

When viewed alongside traditional product and technology bell-curves, Gartner’s hype cycle highlights how we should never get too carried away by everything we read about in the press, or have pitched to us by our favorite vendor. There are just a lot of corners that don’t need to be taken, and turns that are purely throw-away. For many of us, sighting the proverbial plateau of productivity, as we wallow in the trough of disillusionment, proves to be next to impossible.

When I became a programmer, I had a tough time figuring out which programming language I should learn next. After listening to a lot of advice, I thought that perhaps the smartest thing to do would be to start out by learning a low-level language like Assembler – so I began with IBM’s 360 Assembler language. But my next decision, in hindsight, probably wasn’t quite as smart as I then added PL/1 to my repertoire … COBOL was definitely on its last legs and all I could see was that throw away corner right in front of me. Forget about my information source being IBM, I became completely at ease with the prospect that PL/1 would dominate for decades, and it wasn’t until I came to the US in the late ‘70s that I saw how much COBOL was in use.

Much later, I was participating in development discussions over languages and sure enough, fell in with other participants and supported Modula-2 for use in a new project, as the R& D Director was well-connected with the folks developing it. No option to use C, or even Pascal, with this group and no thoughts about the longer term objective of supportability, or ease of recruiting new programmers – no, someone knew someone who was close to the author of Modula-2! And wouldn’t it be so cool to use a language almost nobody had heard of - so yes, down that path we headed!

As the 80’s came to an end – all we could talk of was CASE tools, 4GLs, and object-oriented programming! The technology bell-curve was showing how important programming languages had become, but the hype cycle was telling us that many of them were about to flame out on the peak of inflated expectations. Those that looked further afield and valued productivity were already complementing their usage of COBOL with C and would later gain more productivity “speed” as they entered the C++ and Java straight!

It isn’t only languages that have presented challenges over the decades. Much the same can be made for knowing when to invest in database management systems, when to invest in system and network management systems, as well as when to invest in just about any other application suite or infrastructure components that has come our way.

In each case, there have been many changes in direction as products mature and new incarnations arrive – but truly innovative solutions have not typically appeared with every turn. Often we end up spending too much time sticking with something that really contributes little to the longer term goal. If only getting onto the plateau of productivity was easy to do!
This past weekend was very encouraging for me – and as I finished my final session of Saturday, I was able to move up a group. No longer a member of the novice group – I was now a member of the beginner’s group! A very small step for sure, but nevertheless, progress, particularly as I know what my goal is and can clearly see where I’m headed.

Seeing how IT solutions often make turns, and that there’s really no right way through many of them – and no real advantage to be gained from mastering them either – it’s easy to see that there’s rarely any speed gained made from ignoring the goal. I see many signs that our economies are about to improve with many experts suggesting that the economic “bottom” is behind us (almost a surety that investments (in IT) are about to ramp up) – so, for many of us, the temptation to stay with a turn when there’s little to be gained will be something for which we need to be prepared.

After all, there will be others who do see past it, and have already begun to accelerate into the straight – and shouldn’t we be up there with them? The slope of enlightenment is out there – we just have to look further ahead and we should see it clearly!

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