Learning how to code isn't essential but having a digital mindset can help you thrive in a world driven by data and artificial intelligence (AI), explain Paul Leonardi and Tsedal Neeley in The Digital Mindset: What It Really Takes to Thrive in the Age of Data, Algorithms, and AI.
In the book, Leonardi and Neeley share three approaches to develop this mindset and requisite digital skills: "Collaboration, Computation, and Change".
Leonardi is the Duca Family Professor of Technology Management at University of California Santa Barbara and an expert on digital transformation and organizational change.
Neeley is the Naylor Fitzhugh Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, and an expert on virtual and global work.
An excerpt from the book:
Budget for Technical Debt
People with a digital mindset understand that you need to constantly update and integrate software with changes made in other parts of the ecosystem. The maintenance of these components in the ecosystem is what engineering managers often refer to as technical debt. Technical debt is a phrase originally coined by software developer Ward Cunningham, who in addition to being one of seventeen authors of the “Agile Manifesto,” is also credited with inventing the wiki. He first used the term to explain to non-technical stakeholders at his company why they needed to budget resources for reworking their older technology investments.
That kind of budgeting is not very exciting for most companies who want to invest the money to build new features or products, rather than continually upgrade or future-proof the current offering. It’s like home renovations. We’d much rather install new countertops and appliances than spend our money on updating the plumbing or electrical. But if we keep spending our money on the fun stuff and don’t invest in the maintenance, eventually pipes will break and circuits will short and we’ll have to take on debt to fix the infrastructure emergency. Technical debt is the plumbing and electrical. Good product and engineering managers have long budgeted time and money to update core components of the product on a regular basis so that they continue to work well and the company doesn’t find itself one day in a situation in which they are encumbered by so much technical debt that they’ll have to stop building out the product to fix things that have been neglected for too long.
To stay on top of technical debt, AppFolio, a successful SaaS company that builds property management software, regularly holds “demolition derbies” where product engineers pitch projects for updating (usually proactively) portions of the stack that they control and fixing known problems in their core products. These demolition derbies, which can sometimes last up to two weeks, are a tool to stay on top of updates that are key to a healthy system. But as VP of engineering Eric Hawkins observes, “Nearly every time we do a demolition derby, several of the teams say they don’t need to participate because they’ve kept on top of their technical debt. They’ve just been taking care of it in the normal flow of work. That’s music to my ears. We make sure to budget time to constantly stay ahead of changes we know we’re going to need to make even if it sometimes means slowing down the pace of new software development. If you don’t pay your technical debt you’re going to have major problems down the road.”
Additionally, you have to constantly think about how you are going to stay on top of changes in the systems provided by others on which you’re dependent. If you need an example of how technical debt can quickly accrue, look no further than Apple’s App Store. Each year thousands of apps introduced in the prior few years fail and vanish from the platform. That’s because you can’t just build an app and expect it to live forever. As the platform provider, Apple constantly changes its requirement for application performance. The mobile operating systems on which the apps run change, too. So does the hardware in the phones or computers on which those operating systems run. All of this means that app developers have to constantly refactor (a term software developers use when they refer to rewriting parts of the code in an application) and redesign their systems in order to keep the app working. Many app developers aren’t cognizant of the needs for these changes or don’t budget to keep up with them all along. They eventually incur so much technical debt that they have to abandon their app like a house condemned because the pipes burst and electrical isn’t up to code.
The speed with which the Shamoon computer virus was able to wreak so much havoc on Saudi Aramco was partly attributable to issues of unresolved technical debt. The virus’s creators found and exploited weaknesses in code controlling the interoperability between computers—they created their own entrances into the castle Saudi Aramco thought was so heavily fortified. Since that attack, the virus’s creators have become more sophisticated. In 2017 the same virus was responsible for shutting down several petrochemical plants in Saudi Arabia. The virus exploited vulnerabilities that arose because the systems operating between multiple companies had not been simultaneously updated—one company had made changes that affected the systems of another company, leaving unnoticed gaps in security that the hackers infiltrated. The hackers attempted to shut down controllers across the various plants that regulate tasks like voltage, pressure, and temperatures. Security experts believe that these attacks could have resulted in massive explosions.
The higher up the problem is in the technology stack, the easier it is to understand and appreciate the consequences of technical debt on product or business performance. But for changes that occur lower in the stack, it’s often more difficult to conceptualize because the changes normally don’t have an immediate effect. However counterintuitive or unglamorous it may seem, it’s extremely important to understand that in a digital world you often have to make investments to set your product or platform up for future success by making changes to products that today work just fine. The time between today and that future for most digital businesses is constantly shrinking. Leaders of digital companies need to be proactive in allowing budget and time to make updates in the technology stack that will allow them to get ahead of ecosystem changes. In the world of digital business, if you wait until you need to make a change in your technology infrastructure, you’ve waited too long.
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from THE DIGITAL MINDSET: What It Really Takes to Thrive in the Age of Data, Algorithms, and AI by Paul Leonardi and Tsedal Neeley. Copyright 2022 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.
9781647820107 Digital Mindset Leonardi, Paul Hardcover $30.00 ₹ 1,250