The government IT professional sometimes has to decide how modern to be in their technology choices. By the time an IT professional is making strategic decisions, they may no longer be coding on a daily basis, if they ever were. When making decisions, they’ll hear two voices, which we might call the safe and the modern. The safe voice tells them to use the same systems they’ve been using. That, “Sure, Apple and Google might be using a new technology, but it’s not appropriate for the Department (or the Agency, or the State, or the City.) Startups might be using the latest thing, but sometimes the latest thing is just a passing fad, and an inappropriate one for us at that. The old ways are less risky; we should stick with what we know.”
Even though the modern voice doesn’t have as much of a foothold in government, its whispers can still be heard if you know how to listen. “There are huge benefits to using the latest technology,” it says. “Productivity will soar if you use the latest language. The cloud is better, NoSQL is better, agile is better. APIs matter as much as coding. It should take weeks, not years, to build a system.” In short: “We should do what the cool kids are doing.”
In many cases, a decision-maker doesn’t have enough basis in actual experience to make their decision. This makes the decision a choice between the relative merits of the safe and modern voices, neither of which they can fully trust.
Even framing the question in terms of what’s best for the citizens/patients/customers that a system serves can be inconclusive. While focusing on the end user should always be a priority, the focus itself may not tilt the scales much between safe and modern technologies.
However, the government decision-maker should strive to find, and listen to, the modern voice, and intentionally give it more weight. There are three main reasons for this.
First, people are biased to like what they know, but what they know may very well be obsolete by the time they’ve been promoted to decision-making positions. People follow the crowd, and when you’re in government, the crowd is generally safe. Keeping a clear-eyed distance from this bias helps maintain a fresh perspective on the impacts new technologies can have.
The second reason to heed the modern voice is the paradox that doing the safe thing in the short term leads to greater risk in the long term. I’m sure you can think of examples. My favorite example is when browsers had to be upgraded by making an explicit decision to upgrade. Governments sometimes chose to continue supporting browser versions so out-of-date that the browsers themselves became inherent security risks. Of course, if you’re reading this blog I’m sure you’d never participate in a mistake like that. Of course not.
Finally, choosing the modern way helps attract quality hires into your organization and supports the professional growth of your current employees. Both of these are much easier if you can put aside your bias for the safe choices. You need to not only attract the kids who are already cool, you need to be able to tell your employees that they, too, can become cool.
When I was in high school, I was tactless, mean, short, fat, slow, and wore glasses and braces. I wasn’t one of the cool kids. It was easier not to care about what the cool kids were doing than to try to be a cool kid. Eventually, we turn our attention away from the games played in high school and focus on more serious concerns, and if we’re IT professionals that means being concerned with modern technologies and methodologies. I’m now 53, and with respect to technology, I’m finally a cool kid. It’s both more satisfying and more useful.
Government IT executives don’t have the luxury of waiting 35 years. They need to worry about what the cool kids are doing right now — not to emulate them, but to leverage them. They have to worry about hiring great people and growing great people, and you can’t hire or retain great technologists to work in organizations governed by safe technology choices. Whether you like it or not, you need to do what the cool kids are doing.