Wednesday, March 07, 2007

March 12, 2007


Ever wonder why our computers typically last no more than three years? Many contend it is because of the fast pace of technological advancements. Maybe. But I tend to believe there is a little more to it than just that, namely "Parkinson's Law." For those of you who may have forgotten, "Parkinson's Law" was devised by C. Northcote Parkinson, noted British historian and author. His original book, "Parkinson's Law: The Pursuit of Progress," was introduced in 1958 and was a top-selling management book for a number of years (it is still sold today). The book was based on his experience with the British Civil Service. Among his key observation's was that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." Basically, he suggests that people make work in order to rationalize their employment. Consequently, managers create bureaucracies and superfluous work to justify their existence, not because it is really needed.

As an aside, CEO's clearly understood Parkinson's Law, which became the driving force behind the flattening of corporations in the 1990's, such as General Electric under Jack Welch's reign.


Whereas Parkinson was primarily concerned with people, his law is equally applicable to machines, particularly computers; for example, Parkinson's Law can be applied to computing in terms of "Data expands to fill the space available for storage." Years ago I had a Compaq Presario computer with 50mb of disk space, which I considered substantial at the time. I never dreamt I would be able to fill up the hard drive. But, of course, I did (as well as other PC's I have had over the years). My current PC has a hard drive with a capacity of 224gb and though I'm a long way from filling it up, inevitably I know I will for two reasons: I now feel more comfortable with downloading large multimedia files (MP3, AVI, WMV, etc.), PDF files, data base files, and other larger file formats, and; Second, because developers have become sloppy in programming.

Back when memory and disk space were at a premium, there was great concern over the efficient use of computer resources. Program code was written very tightly and consideration was given to file size. For example, establishing a simple file index was scrutinized carefully. But as the computer capacity grew and hardware prices declined, developers became less interested in efficient programming. To illustrate, not too long ago packaged software installation programs were delivered on 3.5" diskettes. Today, it is not uncommon to use multiple CD's to install the same products. This means that as computer hardware capacity increases, software becomes more bloated. This is but one example of Parkinson's Law as applied in computing.

As another example, let's consider data transmission lines as used in networking. It doesn't seem long ago we were using 14.4 baud modems over telephone lines. I remember when we doubled the speed to 28.8 and then 56.4. It seemed like the sky was the limit with every increase. But eventually performance seemed to slow to a crawl. Was it because the technology was aging or was it because our web pages were becoming bigger and more complicated requiring greater data volume over the lines? Frankly, it was the latter. Today, DSL and cable are commonplace in households as well as in business and "dial-up" is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. But as data volume increases with the number of subscribers, will we ever hit a wall in terms of capacity with DSL and cable? Undoubtedly. Again, more due to Parkinson's Law then anything else.

Make no mistake, computer hardware and software vendors are acutely aware of the role of Parkinson's Law. It is what allows them to build-in planned obsolescence into their products. As consumers reach capacity, they can either add additional capacity or, more likely, purchase new computers.

There is undoubtedly an incestuous relationship between hardware and software vendors. Hardware enhancements are primarily implemented to increase capacity in order to overcome software inefficiencies, and software vendors make their products more bloated as hardware enhancements are introduced. To illustrate the point, is it a coincidence that every major release of Windows requires additional hardware support? Hardly. This is done more by design than by accident.


Parkinson's Law is just as much a part of computer technology as it is in the corporate world. But what would happen if we decided to "flatten" computer technology in the same manner that Jack Welch flattened G.E.? Keep in mind, Welch did so to eliminate bureaucracy and force his workers to become more efficient and focus on the true problems at hand. By flattening the "bloatware" we would probably get a lot more mileage out of our computers. But I guess that wouldn't be good for selling computers (or the economy).

I guess Parkinson's Law and the vicious circle of computing will be with us for quite some time.

OUR BRYCE'S LAW OF THE WEEK therefore is... "As computer hardware capacity increases, software becomes more bloated."


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Back in the presidential election of 1972, the country was still embroiled in the Viet Nam War. But domestically, the big campaign issue was inflation (does anyone remember Nixon's WIN buttons - "Whip Inflation Now"). At the time, people were incensed by the spiraling cost of living. But people don't seem to be too concerned about inflation anymore and take it in stride. The talking heads on television don't talk about it anymore, nor do the newspapers. I'm just wondering when we became jaded about inflation.

We all know that gas prices keep creeping up, which has effected just about everyone's pocketbook and has caused other companies to raise their prices, such as restaurants, retailers, and so on. But when is someone going to do anything about it? Let me give you an example, I just received my quarterly garbage bill from Waste Management who suddenly announced a $20 increase in their service which I considered outrageous. I contacted their competitors to see if I could get a better price elsewhere but found they had also raised their prices on a comparable level. Most of my neighbors said, "Oh well, its simply a sign of the times," and resigned themselves to paying the increase. Its not that I can't afford the increase but I finally said "enough is enough" and canceled my service. I'm now bagging my own garbage and disposing it in my office dumpster.

I'm just wondering what ever happened to the outrage by the consumer over inflationary prices and when someone will do something about it. As a consumer, the only leverage we have is to simply say, "No." If enough people did, companies would be forced to start addressing the problem. And believe me, this can work. Let me give you an example; down here in Florida you may have heard of the outrageous insurance premiums we have had to pay since the hurricanes hit us a couple of years ago. Since then, we have been living with inordinate price hikes. The latest trick is to sell separate policies; one for liability and fire, and another for windstorm damage. Interestingly, the insurance companies have tied the latter to the former. In other words, you can't have a liability and fire policy without windstorm coverage. This has caused insurance prices to double and triple. But this has started to change though as more and more people are starting to say "No" to the insurance companies. To illustrate, I'm involved with a consortium of nonprofit organizations that maintain their own buildings. One by one they started to drop their insurance carriers and shop elsewhere. This became so prevalent that the big insurance companies finally dropped the stipulation of mandating windstorm coverage. All of this because people finally got fed up and said "No."

I don't think most people understand the power of the consumer. Only when the consumer's ire finally rises does anything seem to happen. And perhaps this is what is needed to whip inflation - not just some cute campaign buttons. But when is this finally going to happen? We'll don't hold your breath for government to do anything about it, regardless of the political party you are affiliated with. It will only happen when the consumer finally recognizes his power and decides to flex his muscles by saying, "enough is enough."

Maybe we need a few more people bagging their own garbage for a while.

Such is my Pet Peeve of the Week.


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I received an e-mail from Mike Jones in Wyoming who wrote me regarding last week's essay, "Diagnosing System Problems."

Mike writes:

"Thanks for the tips on solving problems, but quite often I see I.T. people attacking the wrong problems and are easily sidetracked."

Thanks Mike for your note,

You bring up a good point, there is a great temptation to attack symptoms in the I.T. world as opposed to true problems. I have seen this in software design, system design, and in management. Let me give you an example, whenever you see a situation where projects are coming in consistently late and over budget, the knee-jerk reaction is to bring in more Project Management. To me, this is attacking the symptom, not the root problem. Even if you get the most sophisticated Project Management software, projects will still come in late and over budget. Why? Because people don't know how to do their jobs properly in the first place. Instead, they should be concentrating on process management, or as I like to call it, their "methodology" for performing work.

Let's consider a manufacturing facility for a moment. Without a defined asembly line in place, no amount of project management will correct the problem; people will still not be performing their work assignments the right way or in a concerted manner. Only after the assembly line has been defined and people trained in their responsibilities can you affix a project management system. To me, project management is the "dials and gauges" to an automobile. Without the automobile though, they are useless. Having a Project Management system without a methodology is like attaching a speedometer to an orange crate; it measures nothing.

So, to answer your point, Yes, you are right, people have a natural inclination to attack symptoms and not problems.

Again, thanks for your e-mail. Keep those cards and letters coming.

MBA is an international management consulting firm specializing in Information Resource Management. We offer training, consulting, and writing services in the areas of Enterprise Engineering, Systems Engineering, Data Base Engineering, Project Management, Methodologies and Repositories. For information, call us at 727/786-4567. For a complete listing of my essays, see the "PRIDE" Special Subject Bulletins section of our corporate web site.

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This is Tim Bryce reporting.

Since 1971: "Software for the finest computer - the Mind."


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