Less technology is better technology

In the Guardian development team we continually talk about the naturally increasing complexity of our codebase — there are always new features to add, so it always gets more complex. On the hardware side, a couple of articles recently ([1], [2]) have pointed out the ubiquity of smartphones, and how a business’s IT function might deal with that — there’s a danger of company information leaking, but it’s an unavoidable reality that employees expect to own and use technology that’s slicker than than their standard issue corporate hardware.

Less technology is better technologyIn general, and in both cases above, I would say less technology is better.

Less software

More software features can be better, but it comes at a price. More software means more staff to maintain it, or slower progress as new features are added onto a more complex system. Or both. That in turn means greater costs (and almost certainly decreasing profitability) and a loss of momentum in the market. Good architecture can help manage this (for example, see the Guardian’s micro-app framework), but it won’t solve it entirely. More features can also mean more complexity for users, and hence less engagement. At some point new features have to stop going in.

But less technology doesn’t necessarily mean less capability. To give one example: Guardian.co.uk has its own video player, but journalists can embed YouTube videos, too. Had we not have chosen to develop our own player (built on top of Brightcove’s technology) then the capability to put videos onto our website would remain.

(But not “no software”)

The Guardian software team, by the way, needs to enable not just video on web pages. If it did, then YouTube alone would be a sufficient solution. However, we also need to enable video distribution and syndication across a variety of platforms, so an in-house player fronting a well-managed back-end store is important. That also explains why “no technology” is also inappropriate, as I’ve said before — even though it looks like the logical conclusion of “less technology is better technology”.

Less hardware

Turning to the case of smartphones, what is the internal technology team to do? I disagree with the viewpoint of R “Ray” Wang on the HBR Blog Network. He seems to be saying that for the corporate technology function to remain relevant they must be able to bless consumer technologies through standardisation and commoditisation:

If IT slows down the business capability to innovate, the company will suffer as new business models emerge and infrastructure will fail to keep up. If business moves ahead of IT in technology, then the company fails because IT will spend years cleaning up technology messes. As technologies mature, IT should take over the commoditized technologies and drive efficiencies.

I think that means the IT department should be buying smartphones for everyone, getting a bulk discount, and then giving them standard configs. Unfortunately it’s exactly that approach that led us here in the first place. Once upon a time, just before smartphones, the IT function bought lots of BlackBerrys and gave them out to the staff. This worked really well for a long time, but of course not everyone got to have a BlackBerry and then smartphones overtook them, and everyone had a different smartphone that they liked and which wasn’t locked down. BlackBerrys-for-many-if-not-all became a burden that was seen to be holding the staff back. No wonder Ray says “We’ve yet to see many organizations succeed” in this.

Buying smartphones for everyone is a “more technology” solution, and causes problems.

Instead, I think Dan Tynan at InfoWorld has the right attitude when he says “bring your own device” is a reality, and the business has to embrace it. As one of their interviewees explains:

“Unless IT supports the devices and technologies users demand, the users will simply go around IT and use personal tech for business purposes […] That is a much more dangerous situation from a security standpoint than supporting the consumer devices in the first place.”

I’m pleased to be working for an organisation which succeeds at this. You can use your smartphone to access your corporate mail as long as you adhere to certain reasonable security requirements. The company’s primary concern is managing the data.

Towards a less burdened future

As technology (software services like YouTube, and hardware like smartphones) becomes consumerised we in-house technologists have to question what we’re really here for. As Ray says, “For IT leaders accustomed to having control over corporate technology, this represents a huge challenge”. But the answer is not to find better ways of controlling what we used to control — it’s to verify what we should be enabling…

The enterprise tech team needs to be enabling secure e-mail access, and if it can do that without having to manage hundreds of devices then great. Similarly, as we saw above, the Guardian’s software team needs to enable distribution and syndication beyond the desktop web browser, so an in-house video player results. But YouTube is still an option — if it’s more convenient for journalists whose video content doesn’t need those additional channels then it’s a fine, lightweight option; and if those extra channels were never needed then we’d have been better off without the player and accompanying infrastructure.

Overall, having less technology is better.