Posted: Mon, 31 December 2007 | permalink | No comments

I am very saddened by the state of the IT industry. It seems like nearly everyone who works in or around IT is, to put it bluntly, a cowboy. There appears to be very little desire for actually helping people; instead all I see is a very large number of people circling around looking for the next person they can make a quick buck off. In short, most of the IT industry is composed of people who are little better than shysters and conmen.

As a case in point, I recently had contact with someone who is trying to get an online store running. They've been trying, unsuccessfully so far, for several months. They've been screwed over by basically every IT-related person they've had contact with so far. Now, after all of their suffering, they've finally gotten in contact with me. Most of their money is gone, and they're deeply behind schedule. So I'm left trying to pull a miracle job in little time and with little money. Yes, I could shoo them away, because they're asking for more than they can afford, but there's a little spark of helpfulness left in me, and I'll try to get them going as best they can with what they've got.

If they'd found someone competent right at the beginning, they'd have been fine. They started with sufficient cash and time to produce a good end result. But chancing upon someone decent doesn't have good odds in IT; it's a bit like winning the lottery.

This story isn't unique in my personal experience, by any stretch. There seems to be a near-endless procession of non-technical people who come out of their encounters with the IT industry battered and bruised, whether it be on the web, in their business infrastructure, or their personal computing needs.

While it's easy to blame the customer for not managing themselves and their computing properly, I don't think it's fair to lay the blame on them -- to me, that's like blaming the patient for dying on the operating table, when the responsibility must lie, prima facie, with the surgeon. It's the surgeon, after all, who is the (presumably) trained and experienced professional in the relationship, and it is his responsibility, primarily, to ensure that everything goes smoothly[1].

Depressingly, I don't see much of a way around this problem. The few IT people who did care could try and group together, build some sort of a rating or "membership implies quality" system, educate the consumer, and try and drive the cowboys out, but guilds and trade associations are frowned upon these days, smacking (as they do) of restraint of trade and collusion. Government regulation never seems to produce anywhere near the desired result, while hoping that the consumer will either rise up and demand quality, or will gain sufficient knowledge to be able to pick a cowboy is a complete non-starter, for the same reason as teaching everyone basic surgical techniques isn't going to improve the quality of hospitals.

There's an ad that used to be on Australian TV for a certain bank, where a guy is at a party and he's asked by another of the partygoers what he does for a living. As he replies, "I work in banking", the entire party goes silent and stares at him in horror. It's only when he says, "It's OK, I'm with $BANK_BEING_ADVERTISED" that everyone looks happy again and continues on with their party.

Although I've never had that particular experience, I'm almost getting to the point where I'm not happy telling people what I do for a living. This is because in any non-trivial collection of people, there's almost certainly going to be at least one person who has had such a poor experience with the IT industry that they're either going to take it out on me, ask me interminable questions about computers, or will just hate me on principle. It's unfortunate that brothels don't have pianos any more; if I were to say "I play piano in a whorehouse" I'm pretty sure the response would be "lawyer or sysadmin?".

As Edsger Dijkstra said back in 2001, "The average customer of the computing industry has been served so poorly that he expects his system to crash all the time, and we witness a massive worldwide distribution of bug-ridden software for which we should be deeply ashamed." Are you?

1. That isn't to say that the patient (or client) has no responsibility in ensuring a positive outcome -- if you go bungee jumping the day after open heart surgery, or never send your web developer any content, you're very unlikely to have a positive outcome. However, it seems to me as though the only customer consultation done by most IT "professionals" on taking on a project is a Homeresque "I only have two questions. 'How much?' and 'give it to me'".

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