Ethics and IT

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In the court of public opinion, IT never really seems to get a fair break.  When “true IT” makes the news, it is usually about some government project going billions over budget, viruses attacking old people, and Google Maps sending people driving along the train tracks.

When something good *does* happen – like an iPad curing cancer – it’s a “oh great, another reason we now have to support ipads….”  Bottom line, it never seems to work out well for the sysadmin crowd.

And now we have Edward Snowden.  I’m going to try very, very hard to leave politics out of this, but factually, I think we can all agree that Snowden released information that he was either directed (or contractually obligated) to keep confidential.

Ethics hits IT in a few different ways.  Mostly it is about being honest and upfront when you know you can get away with things by snowing people with gobbledygook.  It can be something as minor as deciding who gets the new computer, the hot new interior designer girl who will use it for facebook or the very annoying Architect who will really push it.

Some of the toughest calls require HR to get involved, for oversight and guidance.  I’ve never ever had a problem giving managers access to subordinates emails, but apparently some people in Canada do.   Am I uncomfortable when I install web monitoring software for a firm without letting the users know, or putting up screen capture software to see what an employee is doing all day?  Yes, and I’ve argued against it when I felt we shouldn’t be doing it, but at the end of the day, it is the company’s property, on the company’s network, and you’re on the company clock.

So that brings us to Mr. Snowden.  At some point in time or another in a sysadmin’s career, they may come across a piece of information that they feel is either morally or legally in question.  If there is any doubt that the IT guy *could* be the most informed person in your firm if they tried, remove it.  All emails? Sure.  Confidential legal documents? Yup.  HR files?  Easy.  Without anyone knowing? Of course.

I’ve found that most leadership takes an “out of sight, out of mind” approach on this.  Probably, somewhere, they realize it, but prefer not to think about it.  I’m not sure that is a great approach.  I find it odd that honesty and ethics are openly valued in say, Accounting, but less so in IT.  As Varys (Game of Thrones reference, sorry) said: “Secrets are worth more than silver or sapphires”.

So did Snowden do the right thing or not?  That answer is probably determined by your personal beliefs and frankly irrelevant to this conversation.  What Snowden *has* done is pull back the curtain a bit on how really tied in Network Administrators are; how much info they have easy access to; and perhaps raise some awareness that IT people are not just problem solvers with blinders on, and hiring practices need to account for that.

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The trap of 2.0

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Note to parents, before we start: if you don’t like exposing your children to grotesque displays of hipocrosy, avert their unspoiled eyes now.  Cause the train is pulling into the station.

I’m trying to remember when the concept of 2.0 really hit.  And by that, I mean the idea that version 2.0 of anything instantly renders the 1.0 version into complete and utter crap.  Pre-internet, the closest “versioning” we had came in the form of Detroit’s fall new models.  But the thought that the 1963 Corvette is in any way better than the 1962 Corvette will get you into a bar fight.  The fact that new models came along every year didn’t invalidate older years.

It’s not really the same in this Internet Age.  When a new version (or model of iPhone) is released, there is immediately a negative perception of the prior iteration.  Really?  You’re on a 4S?  Why?  All of a sudden, if you’re not on the latest and greatest, you’re technically the equivalent of a Bangladeshi mud hut village.

And it’s not that the new version may be wholly new and amazing (again, see the iPhone) – it’s just that the negative connotation of “old version” or “old model” is now so pervasive.  Ironically, the first time I can recall this really happening – with Windows 3.1 (my God, Windows 3.0 is so horrible, who would use it) – is now an example of the exception to the rule, with Windows 8 – where the new version is just so horribly bad that a sense of nostalgic appreciation for the older version emerges.  But it is not the norm.

And it’s a trap.  Most major software vendors in our arena (cough AutoDesk cough Adobe) have moved to an annual or 18-month software release cycle.  And why?  Go take a look at the curve that shows new feature introduction over time.  There’s a reason why the Microsoft Office releases are now mostly notable for their UI changes.  Quite often, the makers will build in forced obsolence in terms of backward compatibility, and so it doesn’t really matter than InDesign CS3 does everything you need it to, because CS6 doesn’t support it.

Maybe it is the Old in me, but it is hard for me to reconcile this growing cultural belief that new is good, old is bad, and a new version renders the old one irrelevant.  But I think I’m fighting against the tide.

For instance: I was on the phone yesterday with a vendor that was selling backup-to-cloud appliances.  The price for their solution was roughly double what traditional tape would cost, and I had some concerns.  I wanted to understand the full TCO for the product, convey concerns about time-to-restore from the cloud, etc.

What I got was a half-hour of “you’re a complete idiot for considering tape.  Why would you put old technology at one of your client sites.  The future is cloud backup.  Are you stupid?”

Seriously.  I’m not sure the word “idiot” was used, but the tone and verbiage clearly indicated that they were wasting their time having to explain something so obvious to someone.

So… am I?  When my cost for tape over 5 years is $50k, and my cost for cloud is $100k, am I an idiot?  There are pros and cons to tape.  There are pros and cons to cloud backup.  In the phone call, however, I was told several times that tape “is the past” and therefore completely junk.

And that’s the trap.  No technology solution/decision is made in a vacuum.  What’s the environment like?  Budget? Need? Expectations? Bandwidth? Etc. Etc.  When you get into the trap of saying “This is new, it must be what you need”, you’ve lost the plot, as my English friends like to say.

So be careful. I’m not saying you can’t drool over the S4 when you have an S3 (cough), but don’t allow this trend of instant obsolescence overly impact your technology decisions.  I for one would be very happy to drive around in that 62 Vette.