microsoft , office 365 , | 2017/12/07 at 8:15am

What if it doesn’t break? – The Old Guy Who Breaks Things

 After my last epistle, a number of you seem to identify with the Old Guy Who Breaks Things (hereby referred to as OGWBT) – and since there may be more of us than I thought, let’s look more deeply into the key skill areas of the role.


OGWBTs have, almost by definition, two main areas of strength: recalling (for now) what happened before half their colleagues were born, and Broken Things. They (OK, I) remember an era when the objective of technology was perfection. The business computer that ran itself, congestion-free network protocols, … the everlasting battery of ICT. And there, we privately acknowledged, was the rub: everlasting batteries may be sustainable, but not as a business, because no one ever replaces them.


Fortunately for those of us employed in the industry, thought leaders emerged who grasped the central truth: the big money in computing was in Broken Things, and the strategic high ground was therefore held by Things That Would Break.


UNIX and its derivatives was an early example. UNIX was, and remains, the Land Rover Defender of operating systems, with a loyal following of home mechanics happily swapping out their diffs every six weeks. At one stage IBM had its top mainframe team ruggedize UNIX to minimise the tinkering, an inevitable commercial flop.


Others followed suit and introduced a whole series of technologies that required other technologies (and more importantly, technologists) to keep them going. Windows overthrew the old notion that computing was binary, so any problem could be reduced to ones and zeroes. The new order drew instead on Heisenberg and Schrödinger. “Will this fix it?”. “Probably. Well, sometimes does, sometimes doesn’t. Why don’t you try it and see?”.


Eventually the Break-Fix Period reached its zenith in The Internet, a mesh of technologies of ubiquitous reach and unlimited power whose detailed workings absolutely no one understood. But even as The Cloud reached out to envelop it, the seeds of its decline were already sown.


Thirty years ago, a little-known prophet and seer* who happened to buy mainframes off me told me: “You know, I don’t really want all this stuff”. After the smelling salts had done their work, I asked what he did want. “I want a socket in the wall that delivers computing like electricity”. And he introduced me to that great technique for managing indecisive users, the Tray of Sandwiches. “Start by serving all the options. Then keep taking away the kinds they don’t eat, till only the egg mayonnaise is left. And it is always egg mayonnaise, by the way”.


A man way ahead of his time. In recent years we have seen what was foretold come to pass. Break-Fix has been eclipsed by BYOD (Break Your Own, Dammit), a swamp of hedonism in which users get to do pretty much what they like. All you have to do is plug your device into the wall (or not even that) and there it is – the Tray of Sandwiches. Pick and choose your application. New fillings every day.


And thus it was that Microsoft, co-authors of Break-Fix, gave to this new world the Everlasting Tray of Sandwiches, Office 365. If you want them on a silver platter, Surface Hub, the Office 365 Consumption Device, is to hand. Microsoft run Office 365. It’s theirs. It’s not yours. Don’t even think about fixing it. Think instead about what you can do with it. Most organisations I can mention don’t even have a function that can manage the arrival, almost daily, of new function and possibility. They need perspective, vision and above all open-minded engagement. This calls for a new combination of technical and user pioneers, doing things they actually didn’t set out to do.


If this notion appeals, let’s talk about it – where “it” means use cases, real, possible or imagined. As well as running user groups and myth busting webinars, we just won a Microsoft award for “Empowering your Employees” – which is what this is all about. Just don’t forget that in the end they always want egg mayonnaise.


*A very real person, IT Director at a large UK local authority.