When I was a boy, my father taught me that simple is beauty. I have lived aligning my thoughts and actions to this principle most of my life. Of course, at the beginning, I really did not know the true meaning of simple, and many times I did complex instead.
As my mind was being built by what I saw, listened, and felt, many people helped meunderstand what was truly simple and its beauty. Some great minds showed me how to achieve and help others to achieve simplicity. Others lived through a phrase I coined many years ago: “why make it simple if I can complicate it”.
The latter have been great teachers. They showed me what I did not want to do and, most importantly, why I did not want to do it.
Around the time I started DynaWare, the Systems Manager of one of my first clients, to whom I will call Robert, taught me a great lesson. Robert was very respected at that company because he spent long hours doing “his thing” and delivered, from time to time, some reports that were used to make very important decisions. Almost no one understood the new field of computer software, those who did were considered geniuses, and they were.
When Robert presented the results of one of his developments, explained what he did and no one understood but everyone praised him, his mind reinforced the idea that complexity was highly valuable. His mind began increasing the complexity of his developments and presentations without realising that his productivity and wellbeing were decreasing every day.
At the same time, the C-Level reinforced their belief that computers were for geniuses and that they were never going to understand them. They accepted that complexity was inherent to “that thing” and did not realise that business processes were being damaged, and profitability decreased.
A few years later, the organisation began having financial problems, so they hired a productivity consultancy to find the cause. This firm found that there were several disconnected “non-systems” that made the life of users miserable. No single process was fully articulated from beginning to end and data had to be reprocessed in an attempt to build usable information.
Some heads were cut, one of those being Robert. I remember his expression in total disbelief, he simply could not understand why he was being fired, and in a very harsh way, when he had been excelling on what was expected from him by the bosses. Weeks later both the CEO and CFO were fired too. They could not believe it either, they “knew” computers were complex and relied on the geniuses and experts to do “their thing”.
On the other hand, I remember visiting my dad’s office. He was VP at a Fortune 100 Mexico subsidiary. The area responsible of computer systems was named “Processes and Systems”. Details make the whole difference, the processes go first, then the systems.
At that time, I was half-way the undergraduate Industrial and Systems Engineering programme at Tecnológico de Monterrey, working part-time developing software and teaching computer programming at their high school.
The new mathematics evaluations were using computer-generated and graded exams. There as a 60-minute limit with a one point over a hundred penalisation per additional minute taken. The Systems Director and his team developed a three Apple II computer system connected via 9-pin serial cables.
The first computer registered the start time and sent the data to the second, which recorded it and made it available for the third computer to read it later. The third computer graded the exam and calculated the additional minutes, if any, taken by the student. Every time computers one and three collided saving and retrieving data from computer two at the same time, the system crashed, and a reboot was required losing data and time. It was not working.
They asked me if there was an alternative solution, I answered yes and committed to have it running in three months. My mind kept me thinking on the process. Recording and reading the entry time made the process too complex for the technology available at that time, this was 1983.
To simplify it, the solution was to inform the raw grade at the end of the exam, run a collating process at the end of the day and publish definite grades the next morning. My idea was accepted. I created the completely new solution in less than a month. Needless to say, that the team of experts in complicating it were upset with my simple solution.
It is not fair, they said, the goal was to solve the challenge as it was defined. They did not get it. The real goal was to satisfy the need in a reliable way. Combining industrial engineering process analysis and design with systems thinking, the solution was clear. Writing the code was a major challenge, but the huge unnecessary obstacle had been removed.
I learned first-hand why enterprise software is built for complexity. The cause is the viewpoint, or weltanschauung, as Cecil Rhodes and Peter Checkland called it. Many people designing and building enterprise software are formed to live by complexity to keep their geniuses’ halo, and both sides reinforce it until the organisation reaches its breakpoint and everything collapses.
Simplicity became our weltanschauung and our first mission statement had it very clear “… reliable and easy to use enterprise software …”.