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Balancing Innovation and Practicality: Technology Leadership Insights from the (Off)Road


How do you connect Technical Debt with a Range Rover? A lesson in technology leadership; discover how balancing innovation with practicality in technology can lead to effective leadership and agile business solutions.

Keith is a good friend, an IT Director from the UK. Great guy, great thinker, loves to dive into new and interesting technologies – and does a great job making that technology do good things for his company. Keith is a die-hard hacker in the best sense of the word.

One day, while driving in to work in Keith’s very nice ride, we were debating the merits of this technology system versus that, and the conversation turned to cars. Keith told me his hacker tendencies started early – he grew up wanting to fiddle with car engines, and took great pride in fixing and tuning them to get the best performance. He also enjoyed off-road driving, appreciating the skill and craft it takes to really understand how to use the transmission, gears, tires, direction, speed, and power to successfully, say, climb a steep hill or navigate gravel and muddy conditions.

And so, when Keith had the chance, he splurged a bit and bought this new Range Rover (the one we happened to be sitting in – very nice). Right after the purchase, Keith was psyched to get it off the pavement and see what it could do, so he found an off-road driving club hosting a hillclimb event. Sounds like great fun, thought Keith. He arrived to see a challenging track over some exciting terrain. Looks like great fun, too!

Keith proceeded to the course, started off, and … meh. It was not a very exciting or challenging experience. The new Range Rovers, he discovered, came loaded with all sorts of systems and sensors making real-time adjustments and providing multiple helpful driving tools. Sounds nice – but for Keith, it took all the challenge out. He was driving straight up the hill and barely breaking a sweat.

“For the enthusiast,” Keith told me, “automated cars are taking all the fun out of driving.”

Fair point. But that line of thinking applies to a relatively small customer segment, one might assume. What else is happening here? New generations of drivers are exposed to the fun of going off-road because it’s a more accessible experience. And for sure, the cars are a lot safer.

On the other hand – the cars are getting more expensive, and it’s practically impossible to tinker, tune, and optimize their performance profile. “Kind of takes the fun out of it,” said Keith. “And,” I noted, “automation has other impacts. A whole new generation is coming that will never be exposed to manual transmission. Makes it a bit tougher to learn how to ride a motorcycle, for sure.” (I had my own ideas of fun ways to get from A to B.)

Then again (we agreed), this will drive sales growth and expose more people to off-road fun. The new vehicles are also safer – these conveniences help drivers focus on other things.

Business Automation and the Standard / Custom Tradeoff

Slowing down for the next stoplight, we started applying these ideas to modern business systems. In this arena, Keith holds the opposite view. Even though Keith is an accomplished and enthusiastic systems developer, we both believe it is best to leave the coding and data design up to the integrated software vendors.

“It only makes sense,” we agreed. Why do folks insist on paying millions for software and then seek to modify it ad nauseam, to suit their specific needs wants?

Businesses that go the custom route take on a lot of complexity and significantly accelerate their accumulation of technical debt. What is the value? Software vendors are already extending the code, tuning performance, and integrating with other systems. And they are delivering systems that continue to improve – self-correcting, auto-tuning, highly resilient. Why do the vendors do this? So you don’t have to! Relieved of that level of ongoing care and feeding, your team can focus on accurate transactions and business outcomes – the system should be doing the heavy lifting, avoiding the boulders, and handling the heavy loads.

No More Fun

Does this mean that future generations of digital thinkers will do less tinkering under the hood – less customization of the database and the source code? Possibly.

The simple truth is that complex integrations and highly custom code will always be a requirement in a world of flexible, agile, nimble business models. Building a core system that can handle all that freedom is challenging. Coders have been hanging bags on the side of commercial software for years, a practical necessity in a changing world.

There will always be a need for coding purists, the system thinkers who enjoy the technical challenge of making the system do exactly what the organization wants. There are plenty of low code tools, APIs, and analytic tools that, when set up correctly, can be just as powerful and impactful as purchased software. And technical debt can be managed – if you are thoughtful and know what you are doing,

Nonetheless, the hassle of technical debt is a material cost, and you must be mindful of the options. And yes, this may mean that expectations may need to change – from inside or outside the organization.

Technology Leadership Takeaways: Balancing Customization and Standardization

  • Embrace Standardization, But Keep Innovating: Standard software solutions offer efficiency and lower technical debt, yet there’s still a place for bespoke coding and customization. Leaders should balance the two, ensuring agility and adaptability in their systems.
  • Manage Technical Debt Wisely: Custom solutions can provide competitive advantages, but they also come with maintenance costs and technical debt. Wise management of these aspects is crucial.
  • Adapt to Changing Expectations: As technology evolves, so do expectations from stakeholders inside and outside the organization. Leaders must be agile in adapting to these changes, balancing innovation with practicality.

Got an opinion on the tech world’s off-road adventures? Don’t just idle in neutral – drive your thoughts into the comments below and join the conversation!

16 January, 2024

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