When Innovation is Appropriate

I have recently found myself very burned out on IT. Don’t get me wrong, I love doing anything related to building systems of any kind. I love to design systems and I love programming (not that those two are very distinguishable). Modular design that implements seperation of concerns well is like poetry to me. All that goes to say that I still enjoy working with computers in most capacities. What’s really burned me out is the constant fight.

I work in a heavily regulated industry with a team that is made up of half Linux guys and half AIX/IBM guys. I find that the Linux engineers are fighting with the AIX guys about ways to do things. They don’t want to use any product that doesn’t come with an enterprise support package (IBM support is preferable). They always give the excuse "Well do you want to be the one at 3:00 in the morning who’s trying to figure out some obscure problem by yourself with management breathing down your neck, or do you want a third party who you can point the finger at and send a ticket to?". The thing about that mentality though is that pointing the finger at a vendor doesn’t get your systems up any faster, nor does it better you as an engineer.

I disagree with this mentality (as evidenced with this post). My feelings on the matter are that my employer is paying me money to be the best at my job that I can be. That goes without saying that it brings me tremendous satisfaction to be great at my job. That means learning to support whatever weird stuff is already in place and engineering better solutions for the ones that break. After all, why bandage a problem when you can solve the problem all together.

Two Schools of Thought

All this goes to highlight two different mentalities (yes, I know how cliche this sounds). One group of people asks "why", and the other asks "why not".

The "why" people will often look at a problem and think only inside the box the problem’s circumstances provide. If an outside the box solution is considered, that solution is likely only inside of another box (from one proprietary solution to another). They consider outside the box thinkers to be reckless and "cowboy" because outside the box in many cases entails making ones own solution.

The other group, the "why not" folks, tend to view the "why" people as closed minded and paralyzed with indecision. They mentally roll their eyes when they hear the phrase "enterprise support" and often look at budgets and say "Why are we paying so much money when we can do such simple work for free".

Granted, these are generalizations of course. Not all of the above mentalities apply globally and neither do they apply in their implied levels. These attitudes are spectrums and do not accurately describe everyone in either group.

I Personally…​

When I see a problem at work, my first reaction is not to look for a paid solution that’s going to cost loads of money and make finding employees with experience with the solution harder. The way I view it, if you pay for a software so expensive that only a fortune 200 has the resources to buy it, you are limiting your pool of hireable people down to those who have ever worked at a fortune 200. Instead I go in search of an open source product that is established well enough to be able to handle the problems we throw at it (eg: puppet, apache, clustered mariadb, openstack, kvm, native Linux tools, etc). If one does not exist and the problem is still surmountable without needing an entire development team, I try to build my own solution using design best practice and then I document it like my job depends on it (code comments, class architecture design documents, database schema design documents, etc). The way I see it, building my own solutions gives me better understanding of how already existing solutions work. It also helps because it gets me to research better ways to do something. From the business' perspective though, they need to find a developer to maintain my product when I am gone, so in these cases an enterprise solution might be better.

A Short List

Here’s a short list of people and companies who have asked why not (notice how they’re all world renound innovators)…​

Google is [seemingly] one of those companies who has a lot of people working for it that ask why not. They are experimenting with low traffic server farms that use ARM processors to save on electricity. Twitter is built on Ruby, an open source language, because it actually can do the job and do it well (why not when the alternative is licensing IIS, Windows, MsSql and using .Net). Facebook (despite the problems I have with them) is built on PHP and when that wasn’t fast enough for them, they built their own php to c++ converter. The Linux kernel which now runs the majority of the servers on planet earth is built by people sitting at their jobs and at home, donating their time because the alternatives aren’t good enough, and again, why not? OpenStack is used and developed by NASA, an organization who has safely sent people to space and back, and Rackspace, one of the biggest hosting providers in the world. Wikipedia, one of most frequently visited websites in the world, is built for free on PHP and MariaDB because again, why not? Have you ever seen Wikipedia crash? The Lustre filesystem is an open source load balanced filesystem that runs 60 of the world’s top 100 super computers and 6 of the top 10. NASA also uses it.

In Conclusion

It’s people asking "why not" that brought us things like HTTP, SSH, Apache, pgp encryption, multithreading, fiber and copper communications, radio-based networking (WiFi), and so much more. I seriously doubt that I will ever make anything nearly as cool or world shaping as the work upon which everything I have made is built, but I can at least try in the effort to not perpetuate bad methodologies and maybe contribute if even a little to the knowledge base that is so readily available to all of us.