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Conventional Wisdom

Originally published May 5, 2005

One of the anomalies of the computer profession is how the profession can be so smart individually and not so "bright" collectively. There is no question that writing code and debugging systems requires a high IQ. Developing a complex system is not a trivial task.  And yet, when it comes to collective industry wisdom, our industry has had an abysmal track record. When we look back in time and consider some of the collective wisdom of the past, we find many anomalies.

Consider the following tidbits of conventional wisdom that at one time or the other were commonly accepted as gospel in the computer industry:

“Someday even secretaries will be writing COBOL.” These people probably got rich during the Y2K non-crisis.

“Hardware is getting cheaper all the time.” However, we know that the rate of hardware consumption far surpasses any drop in price.

“Build it fast now and we will tune it later.” Do you recognize instant legacy systems?

“A data base is a single source for all processing.” We can’t sell that to the personal computer manufacturers, the OLAP companies, the data warehouse companies, the statistical analysis companies, etc.

“You have to know all the requirements before you build the system.” Has someone forgotten about DSS, where the user operates in a mode of discovery?

“What we really need is a formal development methodology.” Won’t we admire it as it gathers dust?

“Get a 1000 percent increase in productivity by getting a 4GL language generator.” Unfortunately, the infrastructure still doesn’t support integrated, historical and granular data.

“Our hardware is so powerful that you don’t really need to design the system.” My grandmother has angel wings, but no designed system.

“This code is self-documenting.” Do we believe it’s ok to erase the “1” in a dollar bill and replace it with “100?”

“After the programmer finishes the code, he will document it.” Right. Everyone knows that real programmers don’t do documentation.

“If we can just get the GUI to look pretty, the user will be happy with its information.” We know the format of a report has nothing to do with the integrity, accuracy and timeliness of data.

“I can make my users happy by giving them their own tools.” Never mind accuracy, quality, accessibility, response time, redundancy and a few other essential things.

“Let’s start coding now and develop the requirements as we go.” If this were true, why don’t we pave the road from San Francisco to Hawaii?

“Architecture is just a blue sky exercise.” Believable, if you are building a one room log cabin.

In short, the world is full of quaint beliefs that examined from the clarity of hindsight demonstrate that the conventional wisdom of the day in the computer profession has been full of laughable thoughts. The really scary thing about conventional wisdom is that, once, these tidbits of conventional wisdom were taken seriously.

So why does the computer profession—full of individually brilliant people—collectively "miss the mark" by such a wide margin? Because some of the computer professionals that I have observed are:

  • Inward looking. The individuals engaged in the computer profession are heads-down focused on solving immediate detailed problems that they never look up and see the larger picture.
  • Breaking things apart. The classical technique for solving large complex problems is to break the problems down into a set of smaller, less complex problems. For that reason, computer professionals have a mindset of looking at smaller and smaller subsets of the problem. They never really grasp the magnitude of problem.
  • Thought leadership. The thought leaders in the computer profession, for the most part, have axes to grind. Whether they are a company or an individual, they have a hidden agenda that they want you to follow.
  • Immaturity of the computer industry. Compared to the medical, accounting and engineering professions which have existed for thousands of years, the computer industry is still an infant.

These are just some of the reasons why I believe that the collective wisdom of the industry can be brought into question. These reasons are just the tip of the iceberg.

  • Bill InmonBill Inmon

    Bill is universally recognized as the father of the data warehouse. He has more than 36 years of database technology management experience and data warehouse design expertise. He has published more than 40 books and 1,000 articles on data warehousing and data management, and his books have been translated into nine languages. He is known globally for his data warehouse development seminars and has been a keynote speaker for many major computing associations.

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