Consulting the oracle

Ten years ago, the computer industry was still comprehensible enough in human terms that one person could have a breadth of knowledge encompassing a surprisingly large portion of the territory. These days, I feel more often than not that I know nothing.

Ten years ago I knew everything.

Well, I guess even by my standards that's a bit arrogant, but like most lies, it is dimly lit by a taper of truth ... Ten years ago, the computer industry was still comprehensible enough in human terms that one person could have a breadth of knowledge encompassing a surprisingly large portion of the territory. These days, however, I feel more often than not that I know nothing.

The computing industry has become enormously complex in the last 10 years: paradoxically, though, the bulk of this complexity is self-imposed. Industry pundits often say that complexity is a side-effect of the exigencies of meeting a spiral of user demand, but I'm quite certain that the vast majority of users want and expect only a modest amount more from their systems now than they did back then.

No, the computing industry is driven by a strange, almost religious need to innovate, to change for the sake of change alone. As a group, we are rigorously incapable of leaving well enough alone. And, as ever, it's a vicious cycle driven mostly by marketing: in an attempt to "get an edge", Company A introduces a new widget and promotes it heavily, forcing other companies to follow suit. The end user has never actually been consulted about whether or not the widget is useful, but is swayed by advertising, and told by consultants that the widget is good, so it becomes good.

Which brings us to the consultant. One of the strangest professions in the world, this one: put simply, a consultant is a person whose credentials are usually completely unknown to a client, yet who charges significant fees for forcefully articulating his or her own opinions and prejudices in a way that heavily influences the client's buying practices.

Okay, that might be a little over-judgmental, but I believe that a significant proportion of consultants are like software reviewers - empowered beyond their actual merit. The true value a consultant has to offer is an unbiased assessment of a user's situation that considers all the viable solutions equally, and chooses between them based on the client's needs and the products' strengths.

An unending stream of faddish new jargon is flooding out of the computer industry at such a rate now that we're starting to see acronyms being recycled. In the midst of the torrent it's understandable that people will tend to cling on to something that looks solid to them.

I maintain that it is no longer really possible for individual consultants to have the breadth of knowledge necessary to provide a properly impartial perspective on any given problem. Consultants will tend to recommend the solutions they know and like, and are often unreceptive to alternatives.

This, of course, plays into the hands of the large corporate developers - or perhaps that should be "the large corporate developer". Back in the 70s, the adage used to be that "nobody ever got fired for buying IBM": these days the adage is the same, it's just the company name that's different. Microsoft's monopoly dominance has given consultants a nice, easy recipe they can formulate for every site - "install Microsoft xxx". It's a safe recipe too, because the products aren't bad, nothing short of a major world cataclysm is going to make Microsoft go away, and more often than not there simply aren't any alternatives any more. It also opens up a useful ongoing revenue stream developing and supporting those applications for the client, so on the surface, everyone wins.

We now have a new generation of consultants whose career prospects are better served by an MSCE than a BCom, and who can't imagine what SOAP would be doing in a bathroom - and all the while, Redmond is rubbing its hands and counting the cash. It's a new variation on the "high priesthood" that used to manage the mainframes - another attempt to ennoble and control from within. The personal computer brought down the old priesthood, but it's hard to see what kind of revolution it would take to unseat the new one. Whatever it is, it will have to be major enough that at least it should be interesting.

Harris is the Dunedin-based developer of email software Pegasus Mail. Send email to David Harris.

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