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How IT pros can solve any problem (and do it better)

Today, IT is everywhere. We have access to super-fast internet almost anywhere, we can make instant financial transactions and do a lot more other things at a scale that was unimaginable just a few years ago. And the system rarely fails despite its scale. This is because tech professionals who develop, deploy and maintain hardware and software of our interconnected world follow certain principles, which have been tried and tested over many years.

Sadly, there are some other parts of our everyday life that don't work as they should. We are all familiar with badly managed public transport networks, policies that don't do what they were intended for and many other things. In here, I will try to demonstrate how these issues could be managed much better if the principles used in IT world would be followed. I will especially concentrate on rail network, social welfare system and environmental policies.


Rail network

London is one of the most busiest cities on the planet and many people who work in there rely on rail transport to get to work. A complex rail network covering the city ensures that the passengers would be able to get anywhere within the city or its surrounding area within reasonable time, despite of its size. So far so good, but anyone who relies on this rail network will tell you that the problems happen often. Constant signal failures and other technical problems can put a large chunk of the network on standstill for hours. And occasionally there are other problems, like snow and leaves. That's right folks, in Great Britain, train service stops completely because of these!

Compare this to cell phone and broadband networks. Those operate uninterrupted on any day and in any whether. And they are used by majority of people, not just commuters. Many of the users download huge amount of data, so the use of the network is very heavy. Despite all of these, any interruptions to the service are rare and they get resolved promptly when they occur. So what tech specialist do that train operators don't?

Firstly, all technical incidents get reported and catalogued, so if a particular type of incident becomes common, the system will be improved to prevent it from happening in the future. This is obviously not happening in British rail network management. When there is interruption, it is always the same signal failure, the same snow or the same leaves. The incidents get fixed, but no changes to the system are done to prevent these from happening in the future. As Einstein once said, doing exactly the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results is madness.

Secondly, all large IT networks have disaster recovery solutions, overrides and work-arounds to prevent the whole system from failing in case when one or more of its processes fail. In the network as complex as internet, various problems occur all the time. They just stay behind the scenes and we don't get to know about them. In British rail network, however, these emergency procedures don't exist. Surely, it is possible to run trains in snow or through leaves. There are countries where it snows a lot more than it does in Britain and where there are a lot more leafy trees, but they don't get such delays somehow. Of course, there are pragmatic reasons why snow and leaves could be dangerous and there is no doubt that non-standard procedures are being applied when these problems are present in places where those don't interrupt train services. But the British answer to the problem is equivalent of switching off the broadband when some cable somewhere gets burned.

Finally, occasionally IT professionals have to solve problems that they are completely unfamiliar with. However, chances are that this kind of problem has been solved somewhere by someone, so the answer can be queried. The challenge of running a rail network through a massive megalopolis is, without a doubt, a significant challenge. However, the problem has been solved in many places. Tokyo is a great example, where it is almost unimaginable for a train to get delayed, despite having a population half a size of the entire Great Britain (this is where train network is run just like an IT network). It is evident, however, that British rail operators don't query how operators elsewhere solve their problems, because the way the rail networks are run in Britain is unique.


Social Welfare

Any IT project always starts with requirements capture. The system is being implemented to solve a specific problem, therefore the requirements are always specific. An important and unavoidable part of developing any IT system, whether it is software or hardware, is testing. Yes, an engineer may be extremely knowledgeable and may read the code several times, but even then there may be some unintended issues when the system is deployed into the live environment. And the test, of course, should concentrate on whether or not the system fulfils the specific requirements.

These principles are often ignored in politics. Although there are many dysfunctional policies, discussing every singe one of them is well out of scope of this article, so we will concentrate on social welfare, which has been in the centre of ferocious debate on both left and right of the political spectrum.

Social security policies are probably the ones that receive the most accusation of not working and, in a way, it is true. In Great Britain, left-wing Labour government has developed a system of welfare which made it possible for someone who has never worked to get more in government's support than an average middle class employee would earn. Socially, it had many negative consequences, such as encouraging people not to work. And I can't blame the ones who didn't; from purely economic perspective they've been making correct decision. Afterwards, central-right Tory-led government came and the welfare system became unfit for purpose for exactly the opposite reason. Financial benefits were simply cut without any considerations, so many families became dependent on charity handouts.

Both of these failures have occurred because the policies were rapidly implemented without being tested. It truly was an equivalent of a software engineer saying that his new software doesn't need to be tested, because he is knowledgeable enough. Tell him how knowledgeable he is when your card payment has disappeared into the ether!

But the tests where impossible in the first place because no specific requirements have been defined. There is usually only one requirement for a social welfare system - it should be there as a safety net. Good luck testing against that! And there could be measures implemented to protect the system from abuse, similar to how IT systems are made secure.

So sack the politicians and employ the engineers!


Environmental Policies

In IT, before any new system is implemented, it is analysed for any potential impact to existing systems and processes. A solution that can only solve business problems at expense of other important business processes is completely unacceptable. This kind of risk analysis is usually done at design stage and then again at pre-deployment testing.

Environmental policies work in exactly the opposite way. Anyone who has been following the green debate knows that the environmental policies that pushed most aggressively are the ones that would either stop polluting activities or make them more expensive. Unfortunately, most of these activities are vital for day-to-day life of the society, so implementing the most aggressive of the environmental policies would make life difficult for us all.

A good example of an environmental policy that was implemented without any substantial analysis is an EU-wide ban on vacuum cleaners more powerful than 1600 watt. Which!, UK-based independent consumer watchdog, said that this ban would include 5 out of 7 of its best models. And the consequences of this ban are not difficult to imagine. Those ultra-efficient models which do more work with less wattage are notoriously expensive, so many consumers would face a choice of either splashing out extra cash, living in badly vacuumed house or spending significantly longer time vacuuming, the latter of which completely defeats the original intention of the policy. And the special thanks to EU government comes from allergy sufferers!

Of course it would be good to release less greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, but it would not be good if doing this would make our everyday life harder. However, the way to achieve both would be possible if proper IT-style impact analysis would be followed



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Posted on 26 Aug 2015



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