data directions - Temper Technology with Practicality

OK, hang on a second, I have to get up on this soap box. Either these things get higher every year or I’m getting too old to make the climb. Either way it’s harder to do, but easier to find topics. That’s the craziness of it all. Now that I’m here…

Have you ever looked in the mirror and said "This is nuts - What am I doing here?" Now I love technology. I have to be the first to try something new -- a new operating system, a new language, a new tool, a new command or capability on the AS/400. Then when it trashes everything, I complain to myself about having to try something before it was ready.

But I always want to know what’s there, what works, what doesn’t, and what we should stay away from. First off, my clients expect that of me. Secondly, I like it, at least when it works, and hate it when it doesn’t. The problem is more often than not, it doesn’t.

We used to build systems program by program. Add a function here, add a file there and pretty soon, you have a system. Not very well integrated, but it runs the business. Then we get a little smarter and buy or rebuild an integrated system. But that system is really just an advanced version of what we already understand. Maybe there are some new programming functions, some new database functions. Maybe we use SQL for the first time, or new subfile techniques. However, we still understand what we are programming and what we are delivering.

Now the rules are changing. No longer are we just concerned about one or two programs and a couple of files. No longer can we rely on the fact that OS/400 is fairly stable and we will not be using the new functions that are available anyway. Now we have PCs linked in with a LAN and have had to hire someone to baby-sit the LAN because there are always problems with it. We have more operating systems than we thought possible.

Our users are loading software on their PCs to help productivity (at least that’s what we’re told) and it crashes the server! Then with all that, when something fails, we really don’t know where it broke down.

I had been running Windows 98 for a while (the beta -- remember, it’s in the blood -- I had to!), and really did not have any noticeable problems with it.

Then I loaded the commercial version of it. It ran fine for awhile until I noticed that it messed up Client Access. So I reloaded that and it seemed to settle down, but then I noticed that ODBC was messed up. It kept telling me (and still does as of this writing) that I have an invalid version of the DLL. So I reload Windows 98, why, I don’t know, it just seemed like the right approach. No one I talked to has had this problem (no one I ever talk to has MY problem).

Finally, I give up and come to the realization that there are just some functions that will not perform on all machines. Why? Who knows?

Then I got to thinking, "This is nuts!" Are we delivering this new technology to our users because it is giving them the "competitive edge" we claim? Are we really helping them, or are we messing with something that works and we should leave well enough alone?

I am a firm believer that technology can really help our users and company. But it must be tempered with practicality. We are building systems that are so complex that it takes whole departments just to maintain them. Great for jobs, but not so good for the bottom line. I kind of wish that we could all slow down for a little bit and let things settle down so we could figure out what technology really makes sense for our companies.

After all, isn’t it our job to provide technology to help the business rather than deliver technology for technology’s sake? In the system we build, we build components, we use object technology, we use structured function points, and we drive ourselves nuts sometimes.

I fully understand DLLs, object models, reusability, and even a little relational theory. But I hate DLL objects that don’t work with new releases and the relational database that is so complex that users cannot find data.

At sometime in our not-too-distant future, we must figure out how to make this whole mess better for our companies. Our function is to deliver technology to build our businesses and to help give them a competitive edge, not to add things to our resume.

Well enough of this, I have to go now. I just downloaded the latest Java Development Kit for the AS/400 and I have to see what it can do. I sure hope I don’t fall off this box!

--John Bussert is president of Swift Technologies (Marengo, Ill.), a company specializing in AS/400 and Windows NT software.