End user computing as vision and reality

My esteemed colleague and similarly jaded visionary Vaughan Merlyn has written rousing call for a new vision for the IT organization. While I do agree with everything he says – in principle – I think we still have a long way to go before the nitty gritty part of IT has moved from server room to cloud, leaving the users to creatively combine and automate their world in cooperation with their colleagues, customers and suppliers. While I do agree that the IT organization is better served by helping users help themselves than do their work for them, I am not sure all the users out there are ready to fish for themselves yet, no matter how easy to use the search engines, social communities and systems implementations tools become.

The enabling vision is not a new thing. I remember a video (or, rather film) from IBM from the mid-80s about End User Computing – a notion that the role of IT was to provide the tools for end users, and then they could build their own systems rather than wait for IT to build for them. (This, incidentally, was also the motivation behind COBOL in the 70s: The language was supposedly so intuitive that end users would be able to describe the processes they wanted automated directly into the computer, obviating the need for anyone in a white coat.) The movie showed an end user (for some reason a very short man in a suit) sitting in front of a 3270 terminal running VM/CMS. Next to him was a friendly person from the EUC group explaining how to use the friendly terminal, which towered over the slightly intimidated-looking end user like the ventilation shaft of an ocean liner.

It didn’t look very convincing to me. One reason for this was that at that time I was teaching (reasonably smart) business students how to do statistical analysis on an IBM 4381 and knew that many of them could not even operate the terminal, which had a tendency to jump between the various layers of the operating system and also had a mysterious button called SysRq, which still lingers, appendix-like, on the standard PC keyboard. Very few of those students were able to do much programming – but they were pretty good at filling in the blanks in programs someone already had written for them.

Of course, we now have gesture interfaces, endless storage, personal battery-powered devices and constant communication. But as the technology gets better, we cede more and more responsibility for how things work to the computer, meaning that we can use it until it breaks down (which it does) at which point we have no idea how things work. This is not the technology’s fault – it often contains everything you need to know to understand it rather than just use it. Take the wonderful new “computational search engine” Wolfram Alpha, for example: It can give you all kinds of answers to numerical questions, and will also (I haven’t seen it, but if the capabilities of Mathematica are anything to go by, it is great) allow you to explore, in a drill-down procedure, how it reached its answers.

This is wonderful – truly – but how many are going to use that feature? By extension: All of us have a spreadsheet program, but how many of an organization’s users can write a new spreadsheet rather than just use an already existing one?

For as long as I have worked with computers, each new leap in functionality and performance has been heralded as the necessary step to turn users from passive to active, from consumers of information to creators of knowledge. While each new technology generation, admittedly, has achieved some of this, it has always been less than was promised and much less than what was hoped for.

And so I think it is this time, too. Many people read Wikipedia, few write for it (though enough do). More importantly, many of Wikipedia’s users are unaware of how the knowledge therein is instantiated. Online forums have many more lurkers than contributors. And human ingenuity is unevenly distributed and will continue to be so.

So I think the IT department will continue to do what it is doing, in principle. It will be further from the metal and closer to the user, but as long as the world remains combinatorially complex and constantly changing, there will always be room for people who can see patterns, describe them, automate them and turn them into usable and connectable components. They will be fewer, think less of technology and more in terms of systems, and have less of a mismatch in terms of clothing and posture between themselves and their customers than before (much of it because the customers have embraced nerd chic, if not nerd knowledge).

The key for a continued IT career lies in taking charge of change rather than being affected by it. I think the future is great – and that we are still a long way from true end user computing. IT as a technology will be less interesting and more important in its invisible ubiquity. And Neal Stephenson’s analogy of a world of Elois and Morlocks, of the many that consume and the few that understand will still hold true.

I just hope I still will be a Morlock. With an Eloi pay and dress sense.