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Is IT getting any easier?

By James Mulholland in Technology
Mon Nov 27, 2000 at 11:34:19 AM EST
Tags: Technology (all tags)
Technology

New software and hardware always seems to promise greater ease-of-use, easier administration, more reliability and more features. But do they ever deliver what they promise, or is it always down to the Sys Admin / programmer / committed geek to make up the shortfall?


A couple of years ago, I worked in a school where I had set up a Linux-based network to handle email, web proxying, printer sharing and file storage. It worked well, but it took all my energy for three years! I was logged on to the network in the evening, often worked at weekends and during holidays, and accepted this as part of the price of getting it right.

I was amused and bothered recently to find that my successor has been telling everyone "it's all so much harder now" (ie since my departure). He thinks the network policing and administration is an order of magnitude greater than when I ran my trusty two Red Hat boxen. He has more money, more people and more time than I ever did, and support from his senior managers.

I'm tempted to put his problems down to his ill-considered adoption of W2K and almost complete abandonment of Linux, but wondered if anyone else had any thoughts? Can we look forward to things getting easier, more efficient, etc, or is it always going to be a "death march" (as Ed Yourdon maintains most development projects always will be). Should I seek another career before I burn-out ;-)

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Is IT getting any easier? | 15 comments (15 topical, editorial, 0 hidden)
Household work (3.40 / 5) (#1)
by Aquarius on Mon Nov 27, 2000 at 08:08:33 AM EST

I heard a thing, once[1], saying that, despite all the advances in technology, the average housewife spends as long now doing housework as they did in the 1950s. This is, perhaps, somewhat related.
I think that housework has got easier since then, although it takes as long. Is this also true for IT? For example, you might have to spend just as long, say, configuring networking on your machine, but you now do it through a helpful wizard interface rather than grovelling in forty widely-dispersed text files. I think that the flaw is that there's an event horizon of simplicity, beyond which cannot be travelled; the only way to make things genuinely simple is to have an OS which provides nothing but a big clickable DWIM button. :-)

Aq.

[1] this is one of those well known unconfirmed statistics :)


"The grand plan that is Aquarius proceeds apace" -- Ronin, Frank Miller
Another unconfirmed statistic (1.00 / 1) (#8)
by jacob on Tue Nov 28, 2000 at 11:41:41 AM EST

I remember hearing that statistic as well, and I also remember an explanation for it that I think is relevant to the discussion at hand: the piece I read said that while individual tasks got easier and less time-consuming during the '50's and '60's, what it really did was raise the bar for what was considered good housekeeping. I think that applies equally to IT as we get better and better abstraction tools: true, it might be easier to write a given program now than it was 30 years ago, but it's no longer sufficient to write that given program. You've got to add all the GUI bells and whistles, support the Internet, et cetera, et cetera.

--
"it's not rocket science" right right insofar as rocket science is boring

--Iced_Up

[ Parent ]
Wizards and raw files... (2.50 / 2) (#10)
by deefer on Tue Nov 28, 2000 at 03:18:55 PM EST

you might have to spend just as long, say, configuring networking on your machine, but you now do it through a helpful wizard interface rather than grovelling in forty widely-dispersed text files.
Yep, and what happens if the wizard stuffs it up for you? You've then got to go through all the text files by hand and repair the damage. As a relative newbie to Linux, I experienced this firsthand with LinuxConf and the Samba setup... Linuxconf was stating that Samba was setup and ready to go, but I knew this to be a lie! :) So I had to trawl through all of the logs, find out what was wrong, then fix up the inetd config by hand. After a _lot_ of reading up. So what _should_ have been a quick & easy job turned into a nightmare (but I was grateful for the experience, though! :). That's what is happening in all areas of IT, not just admin tasks. Same with programming - the "wizards" and bells and whistles (aggressive optimisation, RTTI, etc) of modern programming languages sometimes do things they're not supposed to. And you have to go down to the bare metal to find out what the problem is. What is more time consuming now is that the level of "guru" seems to take more effort to attain, because the wizards want to do it all for you, and hide the dirty little realities of things from you.


Kill the baddies.
Get the girl.
And save the entire planet.

[ Parent ]
strong data typing? (1.00 / 1) (#12)
by matman on Tue Nov 28, 2000 at 11:24:49 PM EST

Why is strong data typing for weak minds? So far as I've ever heard, it's a good thing, however more difficult to get used to than dynamic typing.

[ Parent ]
Data typing... (1.00 / 1) (#13)
by deefer on Wed Nov 29, 2000 at 07:18:27 AM EST

Because everything is an array, and you're fooling yourself if you believe otherwise... :)

Look for "Real Programmers Don't Eat Quiche" texts - one of the variants has a "Real programmers don't use ADTs. Everything is an array. An integer is considered a special case of an array." or something... Been a while since I read it...


Kill the baddies.
Get the girl.
And save the entire planet.

[ Parent ]
Found it! (1.00 / 1) (#14)
by deefer on Wed Nov 29, 2000 at 07:36:25 AM EST

here!


Kill the baddies.
Get the girl.
And save the entire planet.

[ Parent ]
T4aN5iT1v3 R3lAt1oNz (OT) (1.00 / 1) (#11)
by bort13 on Tue Nov 28, 2000 at 03:23:55 PM EST

...the average housewife spends as long now doing housework as they did in the 1950s. This is, perhaps, somewhat related. I think that housework has got easier since then, ...

Hence, your contention is that houses are cleaner?

[ Parent ]

Glue. (2.14 / 7) (#2)
by Holloway on Mon Nov 27, 2000 at 08:13:07 AM EST

Bah humbug.

An analogy: Early days of cars with smoke suits and breakdowns every 5 clicks = early days of computers with mammoth wiring and unreliable parts. It is getting easier to rely upon yourself in that there's better equipment and better software (hell, there is software).

No doubt there'll be the generic "it's not getting easier, per se, but it's changing and people are requiring new skills" kuro5hin posts, which I'll avoid.

I expect glue code to be the NeXt BiG programming thing, which will take about ten years to fruition. Mark my words, son.


== Human's wear pants, if they don't wear pants they stand out in a crowd. But if a monkey didn't wear pants it would be anonymous

The whole picture (2.66 / 3) (#4)
by B'Trey on Mon Nov 27, 2000 at 08:41:06 AM EST

You're only looking at part of the picture. Take the automibile. Yes, in the early days, they were much less reliable but conversely, they were much easier to work on. As a driver, it's gotten easier. But as a mechanic, it's gotten much more difficult. The days of the shade tree mechanic with a handful of wrenches and a couple of screw drivers are over. You need code readers and engine analyzers and all kinds of specialized tools.

As a user, computers have gotten easier. The GUI isn't a panacea, but Windows is definitely much easier for the novice than a DOS command line. For the maintainer, (that's us) things aren't necessarily getting easier. Sure, the hardware is more reliable and compiling a text file is much easier than feeding in a stack of punch cards, but configuring things has gotten much more complex.

[ Parent ]

Natch... (2.50 / 2) (#5)
by Holloway on Mon Nov 27, 2000 at 09:42:47 AM EST

...I should have remembered that analogies always come back to haunt you. I don't know a thing about cars.

I think we have a differing scope. Mine is somewhat around decades, whether things are getting better since the 70s, 80s, 90s and today. IMO they are for both users and programmers.

One could easily argue that the wonderful thing of home-computing never even took off until the early 80s.

90s/2000: We have a world wide computer network. We have x86s that, however technically inferior compared to other architectures, have been a particular godsend this decade. We finally have more colours and photo quality images. We have quite good 3D, much improvement to be had though. GUIs are finally a point that my mother (and my girlfriend's mother) can use.

It's all up as far as I can see.

===

...but of course things are not the same. Programmers' tasks have fitted with the hardware and expectations of the time. Programmers are starting to get more code-reuse: creating libraries so that others needn't rewrite code, and so that they may use hardened code. If programmers were to have continued writing the vast quantity of software themselves, without libraries, it would take much longer today. But easier? this point is moot.

We're expecting more from programmers, but their tools are better, so it evens out.

ps. can you give some examples of maintaining being less easy today?


== Human's wear pants, if they don't wear pants they stand out in a crowd. But if a monkey didn't wear pants it would be anonymous

[ Parent ]

Work expands to fill the time available (3.83 / 6) (#3)
by Paul Johnson on Mon Nov 27, 2000 at 08:25:19 AM EST

It depends on how much you want to do, and how much resources you have to do it with. The 80-20 rule says you will get 80% done with 20% of the effort, and the other 20% will take 80% of the effort. This is true pretty much no matter how much you are trying to do: increasing your output by another 25% (so that the new stuff is now 20% of the new total) will require five times as much effort (so that the new effort is 80% of the new total).

The reason for this is that some things give great results for a small effort and some things give very little results for a great deal of effort. So you start with the easy wins that you can do in a few minutes and which give great returns, and gradually work your way up the list to the hard stuff.

Eventually you reach a point of diminishing returns: the next thing is just not worth the effort. If the amount of effort available increases then you can tackle it, but its not going to be a big win because if it was then you would already have done it. All that is left are the little wins that require lots of input.

So this guy has probably been able to talk his managers into giving him lots of resources, and of course he has found projects to expend these resources on. Its also probable that he is (consciously or not) doing some empire building. Hence his "so much work" spiel needs to be seen as part of how he manages his managers: he has to convince them that he and his people are trying hard to do a difficult job, otherwise how can he justify their existence?

Paul.
You are lost in a twisty maze of little standards, all different.

Umm (1.00 / 1) (#7)
by bjrubble on Tue Nov 28, 2000 at 03:40:05 AM EST

increasing your output by another 25% (so that the new stuff is now 20% of the new total) will require five times as much effort (so that the new effort is 80% of the new total).

I think you're mixing your contexts here. The 80/20 rule is for projects, and once you get to 100% the project's done and there's not another 25% there. Technically, increasing your output by 25% takes 25% more work, because you're just taking 25% of the next day's work. Of course "cost" is something entirely different, if that extra 25% burns you out, you end up with -100% work.

[ Parent ]
What does it matter to you? (1.33 / 3) (#6)
by easilyodd on Mon Nov 27, 2000 at 11:31:08 PM EST

Sometimes jobs get easier, sometimes jobs get harder, sometimes its both. Who cares? What does it matter to you? Did he choose W2K? Was it chosen for him? Who cares! That was your old job. Take the knowledge, experience, freindships and profesional relationships with you and move on. I would hope its hard for him. If he is following a challenging career path then it should be the hardest job he ever had. The guy that was in my job before me says the same crap! If he had done his job well and had a better attitude I wouldn't have as much a hard time. Was this the case for you? I don't know. Do you really think things are going to get easier? I hope not. The IT field is already competetive enough that I don't want it to turn into a highschool kids summer job like Burger King. With advances coming quickly and everybody wanting the low hanging fruit I don't think it will. If you really want to put this in perspective ask a nurse. There have been tremendous advances in medicine and health care. I don't see their jobs getting any easier. I guarentee you that any of them will agree.

Downsizing (2.50 / 2) (#9)
by forgey on Tue Nov 28, 2000 at 01:18:41 PM EST

I think part of the reason is that as there were more and more tools to make work easier and faster businesses needed to hire less and less people. A job that used to take 5 people a week to do can now be done by one person in an afternoon of hard work.

I have noticed this at work over the past two years as we moved from a really antiquated mainframe system to SAP. A lot of the payroll and accouting work that took an entire week is now done by an employee in each department in an afternoon. When I started overtime and expenses had to be in a week in advance, but now as long as you get it in before noon the Monday before payday it will be on your paycheck.

What it all boils down to is the easier and faster we make our job, the more work we will be expected to do.

forge

Well, it all depends on how you look at it (none / 0) (#15)
by jungleboogie on Fri Dec 01, 2000 at 01:13:28 PM EST

Most of the time I spent administrating systems was actually learning about software, mostly free Unix-like systems, free software, and underlying protocols and technologies. Now that I have a firm grasp in building systems, networking, administration, automation, I can get any job done in a minimal amount of time. Oh yeah, I use OpenBSD exclusively because I have learned how to use it best, the default tools and the way it is laid out save me hours upon hours of time. I can put up a firewall in about 20 minutes after the box is built, a server in about an hour with custom mail/web configuration.

Is IT getting any easier? | 15 comments (15 topical, 0 editorial, 0 hidden)
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