Solved Problems

I took time out a few weeks back to attend Edward Tufte’s One-Day Course on “Presenting Data and Information” and learned several new things and had several ideas reinforced by the methods and examples that Edward used. One of my favorite things that Edward brought up was encapsulated in this quote: “These are largely solved problems (displaying information); don’t get an original, get it right”. This of course immediately brought to mind the dreaded “Not Invented Here” syndrome and led me to think about how often I’ve encountered this in the IT world. On the other hand, innovation is terribly important and we take it very seriously at EMC - so how do you find the right balance of “solved problems” and innovation?

The point of Edward’s observation was that we often spend a lot of time focused on the container that we’re putting something into rather than the content. I’ve certainly been guilty of this while twiddling with a PowerPoint presentation at 3am in the morning changing fonts, colors, and finding stupid art that all really had nothing to do with what the presentation was trying to say. It was a real wake up call as was most of the content of Edward’s great essay “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within“. So, what’s this got to do with IT? Well just like I get caught up futzing with PowerPoint fonts I’ve also been guilty of over-engineering IT solutions as an engineer and architect, and I know I’m not the only one. From trying to make components do things that they aren’t necessarily good at, e.g. let switches switch and routers route, or not accepting a solution because it only does 95% of what I want, even though the remaining 5% is largely icing on the cake not core functionality, or writing a message queue from scratch because hey, it’s cool. Focus on the content, boy that strips away a lot of the nonsense, doesn’t it?

When we were designing the Vblock a primary driver was to limit the non-recurring engineering that IT shops have to do. There is very little value in your engineers validating that NIC A works with Firmware B on Switch C when installed into Motherboard D and so on. And guess what, you’ve got to start that whole process over again when Firmware B’ comes out. The value is in having your engineers focus on the content, how do you integrate the solution into your security, BC\DR, compliance and monitoring infrastructure and policies. This is largely true of most stack solutions of course, I just happen to think the Vblock is more vanilla, more flexible, and what not, yeah, I’m a bit biased. You can extrapolate that thinking up to what runs on the Vblock, either from a software suite perspective or a development framework and so on.

Taking Edward’s point a bit further, the content is where you should focus your innovation. For EMC that content is our products and solutions and that’s where our Innovation Showcase helps us shine. If we spent a ton of time innovating on developing a kickass CRM system from scratch we wouldn’t have a ton of ROI to show for those efforts. If you’re a financial services company your content is how you get your customers to interact with you in new ways, how you get new products that are compelling to them in front of them, and how you ensure their information is secure and yet still useable. IT systems are enablers of these things, but they’re not the answer per se. I’d often hear, “If I install XYZ solution I’ll have a cloud, right?” in the early days of this whole cloud transformation movement. Hardware and software, IMHO, do not a cloud make, you need the processes, and policies, etc. to bring it all together. A solution like the Vblock is a cloud accelerant in my opinion, its goal is to help customers focus on the content. The best clip art and slide transitions aren’t going to get your point across, it’s all about the content.