Don't let tech extremists suck you in

SAN FRANCISCO (09/19/2003) - The only way to lose a debate with an idiot is to respond when he says your mother wears army boots.

You should also walk away from a discussion that opens with the claim that you're a brainwashed moron or a card-carrying member of the axis of evil. If you engage one of the tech industry's extremist advocates, that's just the sort of polarized reasoning you should expect. To the absolutists, either you're for Linux/Windows/.Net/J2EE/OS X/Perl/Python/ASP/Cocoa/SQL Server/Solaris/DB2/Oracle, or you deserve a whack with a cluestick.

All that chanting and raising of fists forces IT into no-win situations. If you support technology that is promoted through negative means, your motives are automatically suspect. Those who aren't advocates lump you in with the fringe or assume you're blindly indulging a fad. The advocates are all back slaps and woo-hoos, but they'll ostracize you the instant you stray from their agenda. It's a nasty business, but if you look closely you'll see an important quality shared by most of the vociferous believers: You can tune them out without missing a thing.

I'm all for the free sharing of information and ideas. But don't let your openness bury you in political fallout. For example, let's say your company makes a publicized choice to use Linux for a significant application. A big Linux win is a big Windows loss. It's going to land in your regional Microsoft rep's lap, and he or she is obligated to cajole or punish you (or your boss) into changing your mind. Likewise, choosing Windows for a task that Linux might handle is going to raise grumbles among some in-house developers. If any major OS, language, platform or tools choice is opposed by revered members of the technical staff, that dissent spreads quickly. The resulting fallout manifests itself throughout the ranks as problems with productivity, quality, and communication.

You can't avoid internal or external controversy over politically charged technology decisions. In the best case, which is fortunately the majority of cases, your staff will accept your power to choose. Potentially troublesome outsiders never know that you crossed their picket line. But for all such decisions, the smartest thing to do is to ignore polarized feedback, no matter how validating it seems or how angry it makes you. If you choose sides, or seem to, you'll be locked in an unending cycle of explaining and defending your position.

It's also up to you to avoid internally politicizing major technology decisions. Only those directly involved in making the decision should be privy to the detailed criteria used to make the choice. Be selective, because you'll find hardcore partisans even at the top echelon of technology management.

The surest way to inject politics into a major decision is to frame the outcome as a specific win for the person, team, or vendor that made the proposal. You didn't choose Bob's plan. You crafted a strategy based on all the input. Now you have the magic words that end a political debate: We chose from all the solutions available to us. Slip that in before the other guy calls you a communist or a Big Software patsy, and the discussion is over.

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