What a time to be alive!

When I was at high school in the 80s, computers were about the most boring things I could imagine. They couldn’t do anything cool, unless your idea of cool was maths, and to program them was like talking very slowly to a barely literate person with an IQ of 50.

In the 90s, things changed.

By the 90s, computers had become capable of doing things for you that you couldn’t do better by hand. In the 90s, they started connecting to one another and becoming part of the Internet we all take for granted today. In the 90s, computers started waiting for us, instead of the other way around.

Let’s do stuff!

I got my first computer in the 90s, and immediately started a business doing digital imaging using Photoshop. Kodak at this point was still sleeping peacefully, figuring all this digital stuff was a fad that would be over soon.

The world wide web was hitting the news in the 90s. It took a while for people to figure out what it was, but when they did, the web took off exponentially. Even the dot.com meltdown in 2001 couldn’t really slow it down.

I started building for the web in the mid 90s and have been doing it ever since. In that time I have seen many incredible advances, and some monumental follies*, from vector-animation to 3D, streaming audio and video, WebSockets and WebGL through to initiatives like WebAssembly. The web just keeps getting stronger and more capable. Importantly, it has also stayed open, despite the best attempts by some companies to subvert it.

But even 10 years ago, few would have foreseen how different computing was going to be today.

Clouds appear

In the last 10 years, computing has gone from something we do at a desk or in server rooms to something we do everywhere, all the time. We are all carrying around computers in our pockets. We are seeing tiny cheap computers being built into every corner of our environments – from the smart TV to the wearable activity tracker and the smart watch, to the lightbulbs in your house and the locks on your doors. And it’s all connected via the web.

This is why, for me, the two most exciting technology trends today are Cloud computing and the Internet of Things.

Cloud computing got a lot of hype in the early years and some of it was just silly. The cloud’s infrastructure isn’t that different to what preceded it – it’s still run on servers in data centres, just like we did things in the past. What is different is how commoditised computing resources are changing the nature of computing itself. Servers are no longer purpose-built boxes in a DC that are configured to do one thing. Now they are simply a source of computing resources that can be abstracted away by higher level services. This means they can deliver the outcome we want without all the configuration and systems admin we used to have to do to get that outcome.

So while virtual machines that scale are nice, they are far from the most important thing that cloud computing has unlocked. By removing the need for me to manage my own servers, cloud computing has freed me to focus on the value I want my application to provide. Almost inevitably, this has lead to the concept of serverless architectures, where my application is only the code I need and nothing more. The cloud replaces the server stack I would otherwise spend my time maintaining.

New ways to think of software

This kind of thinking is opening up new ways to build applications. An example of this is AWS Step Functions, where an entire application can be pulled together via a visual workflow. Likewise, tools like AWS Simple Workflow Service offer ways to orchestrate your code in a serverless environment, and then to build out and connect it to systems hosted elsewhere and even to processes that existing in the non-virtual world. Tools like these are facilitating an increased connectedness, which in turn opens up new ideas as to what a software application is, and what it could be.

And then, humming at the edges of all that new cloud-enabled capability are the huge numbers of IoT devices that are popping up daily in our lives.

Devices everywhere

Before we had smartphones, who would have thought everyone carrying around a GPS receiver would be useful? Now we can’t live without them. This is just one familiar example of the IoT world that is heading our way, as we measure, monitor and report on more and more metrics we encounter in our everyday lives. Heart rate, steps taken, how much electricity we’re consuming, room temperature, environmental noise, pollution levels, security camera footage…it’s all being picked up and turned into knowledge we can use to improve our lives.

In industry, condition monitoring is a huge growth area, again driven in large part by low cost computer hardware. You can now put a $100 vibration monitor on a truck and collect that data. The data can allow you to predict when it will need servicing, which can save your company the cost of unscheduled downtime. The economics of this are becoming a no-brainer as computing hardware gets cheaper and smaller and wireless networking becomes increasingly ubiquitous.

One interesting result of the rise of IoT is how the cutting edge of computing has come full circle. In a world where servers are now being commoditised and abstracted away, there is renewed interest in physical computing. People are building their own devices, and plugging them into the cloud. They are getting reacquainted with low-level knowledge, like how serial communications work. They are learning how to gather data from sensors over GPIO pins on a circuit board. It’s an interesting development and one that bodes well for humanity, I think. It gets us back in touch with the magic of what, as a species, we’ve achieved over the last century.


* You can put the proprietary Microsoft Network and Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of a dying MySpace in that column.

The importance of honesty

This year I’ve been learning a lot about organisational behaviours, based on the Human Synergistics “Circumplex” model. The program from Global Mindset leverages this model to improve our understanding of what creates a productive and positive work environment.

In this model there are three overall behavioural styles that are winningly described as Snail (defensive), Hippo (aggressive) or Dolphin (collaborative). The three behavioural mascots are a useful way of thinking about types of behaviour, and the impact they have on others.

Hippo behaviours tend to use aggression to shut down collaboration and cooperation. Snail behaviours leverage manipulation or appeals to authority to preserve the status quo. Dolphin behaviour, on the other hand, is open, constructive and collaborative.

Research shows it is these Dolphin behaviours that are likely to lead to high productivity and staff morale. So, the theory goes that by helping people overcome any Snail or Hippo behaviours they have, we improve our working culture. In time, we all become Dolphins and everyone lives happily ever after…

Except change is never that easy.

The reality is there is an important prerequisite for this kind of change program, and that is that people need to be willing to be honest and open with each other. Without honesty, people will merely assume the superficial trappings of change. They’ll parrot the language of it, but distort it to suit themselves, knowing that most won’t notice. Without openness there is no trust, and change is hard enough when you do have trust. It’s nigh-on impossible without it.

So, like the old psychologist joke goes, the lightbulb has to want to change. If people don’t want to change, this program, like any other, will face an uphill battle.

Dishonest people are time wasters

People who cannot be honest do enormous damage to the human organisations they occupy. They undermine confidence, by making people unsure about what is true and what is not. When people are unsure, they spend mental energy on wondering what to think, instead of being productive and focussed.

People who cannot be truly open to others do not create trust in others. Trust requires sharing. It requires risk, that if I am open with you, you will not abuse that trust.

If we don’t have trust, we can’t be honest. If we can’t be honest, we can’t change.

Where to from here?

So, if you find yourself in a working relationship with someone who cannot be honest and open, what can you do?

Well, not much, but then change is never something we can make happen in other people; we can only change ourselves. There’s that lightbulb joke again.

What you can do is focus on the change you want for yourself. Try not to invest time in worrying about the people who you don’t feel you can trust, or who you don’t feel can be honest with you. They can’t help you, all they can do is drag you down.

Unfortunately, dishonest, untrustworthy people are unlikely to change because they’re so busy keeping track of their “alternate realities” and controlling narratives they’ll never find the time for it. These are people that, for your own sanity, are best left behind.