Finding Shangri-La

Several months ago, UCSD extension assembled a group of senior IT professionals as an advisory board for their certificate programs in the IT space. One of the discussion threads was that software engineers (read programmers, business analysts, whatever) were coming out of school with inadequate knowledge of the business to successfully provide services to the businesses they were to work in. The other weak point seemed to be in the knowledge of the importance of systems integration. All of this led to a new class to be required as part of the Software Engineering Management certificate program. This class is focusing on integration from three perspectives. Integrating IT with the business, integrating IT with itself, and integrating IT with the regulatory environment of the business.

This isn’t a sales pitch for the class, but rather a bit of thinking out loud as I continue to struggle with exactly what I’m going to teach in this class. Yes, I’m the person who volunteered for this first effort. Of course, I’m also the person who kicked off the aforementioned discussion, so I definitely deserve this. What was I after, exactly when I initiated that discussion? And what is the solution to the underlying problem?

I started writing this post in early December. It is now the day of the first session, and I guess I’ve come up with at least a preliminary answer. I have a feeling it will morph a bit along the way.

For our first session we are going to look at both software failures – both familiar and a few I’ve been involved with, as well as successes. One area of focus will be a period of time when myself and a small group of others developed multiple systems that were broadly enabling, relatively popular, and were used for almost a decade. Initial attempts to replace these systems with commercial products were a failure. I refer to this point in time as my Shangri-La. It was an almost mythical IT world. Once I left, however, I’ve never been able to make it back.

When I look at Shangri-La, as well as other successes, and most notably failures, I find only one common theme. Tools varied, methodologies varied, but the one common theme was the degree to which developers understood what the users needed. Not what they wanted, but what they needed. In order to return to Shangri-La, we need to figure out how to develop this understanding.

To that end, I’m going to be focusing on the discipline of enterprise architecture as the most likely candidate for providing a general approach to get us, if not to Shangri-La itself, to a place where IT systems are more successful more frequently. My thesis, which is all that it really is, is that software projects are most successful when the developers, through whatever mechanism, really understand the business, its drivers, and its needs.

I’ll try to post back about this topic as we proceed.

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