Software for the finest computer – The Mind


Posted by Tim Bryce on February 24, 2016


– particularly in the systems world.

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If you think the physical infrastructure of our country is bad, its bridges and highways, you should see its systems. Like it or not, we are a nation run by systems developed as far back as the 1960’s. No wonder COBOL programmers are still in demand. Over the years I have heard one horror story after another, be it in banking, insurance, manufacturing, or government. I have also written about such snafus, such as at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Security Agency (NSA). Another that comes to mind is the Obamacare health system which was delivered late and horribly over budget. These are mammoth systems wasting taxpayer dollars in the millions and billions. The big question is, Why?

Whereas other countries have cleaned up their messes, such as the banking systems of Japan and Europe, we are just the antithesis. While others are moving forward introducing new banking products, the Americans find themselves in the role of constantly fighting fires. You cannot move forward until you put your house in order by bringing standard practices and discipline into your work effort. This is what happens when you treat system design as an art form, as opposed to a science.

Until the 1980’s, there was an abundance of trained systems people in the work force. We then began to see our focus shift from total systems to how to write a single program efficiently, meaning the Structured Programming and CASE movement (Computer Aided Software Engineering) of that period. This led to a void of systems people and, without such talent, major system projects began to die in the 1980’s and 90’s. So much so, nobody is willing to try it anymore, primarily because they have forgotten how to do so and settle for building smaller things, such as an “app.”

For example, developers no longer know how to write information requirements or project scopes. They may know how to produce a program spec, but have no idea how to develop the high level requirements needed to satisfy the actions and decisions of a business. Without such requirements, developers waste considerable time building the wrong system. Without a well defined project scope, developers frequently wander outside the boundaries of a project and either perform too little or too much work.

Systems design is to programming what architects are to carpenters. Without a proper set of blueprints, the carpenters will likely build the wrong product, regardless of the elaborate tools they may use. Unfortunately, the systems architects disappeared in the 1980’s which explains why we lack the know-how to build systems anymore.

A major system can take several months, if not a couple of years to build, but we now possess the attention span of a gnat. If we cannot produce something quickly, such as in a couple of days, we tend to lose interest. This is why long-term planning is usually no longer than thirty days and why we find ourselves in a reactionary form of management.

When you talk with programmers about doing something bigger and better, the excuse typically is, “We do not have time to do things right.” Translation: “We have plenty of time to do things wrong.”

Like any discipline, in order to perform systems design properly, a standard body of knowledge is required featuring common sense concepts, principles, and defined terminology. Such knowledge should be tested and proven. This is the purpose of a standardized methodology, like “PRIDE,” which is aimed at bringing uniformity to the design and development process. By doing so, it can turn a heterogeneous environment into a homogeneous one, thereby forcing people to speak common language and perform work in a standard manner.

So, the reason nobody thinks big in the systems field anymore is simple; they do not know how to.

“If we built bridges the same way we build systems in this country, this would be a nation run by ferryboats.”
– Bryce’s Law

Related article:
“Too Many Carpenters, Not Enough Architects” (Sep 10, 2012)

Keep the Faith!

Note: All trademarks both marked and unmarked belong to their respective companies.

Tim Bryce is a writer and the Managing Director of M&JB Investment Company (M&JB) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at

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Copyright © 2016 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.


LAST TIME:  WASTING TIME WITH MY CREDIT CARD COMPANY  – Actually, the programmers are at fault.

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  1. Tim Bryce said

    A D.F. of Austin, Texas wrote…

    “Industry has been working for decades to drive the skill level requirements down in the IT industry. From a professional discipline akin to civil engineering back in the 1970s driving to blue collar labor now. How much of this is labor price at the expense of quality? Exactly as you point out.”


  2. Tim Bryce said

    A W.H. of Boulder, Colorado wrote…

    “Well, actually, we can probably blame a significant piece of this problem on the MBA’s from Harvard and other “prestige” MBA mills. Why?
    BECAUSE, they FOCUS on the bottom line, and not just ANY bottom line, the CURRENT bottom line. They don’t look at the long-haul picture. Their focus and emphasis is on getting maximum payout to the shareholders and executives (who are usually pretty significant shareholders themselves).

    I will tell you that when I retired from the navy after 20 years, I started working for Ball Aerospace Corporation in Boulder. They were, and still are, a high-tech company that focuses on small, smart spacecraft. As a result, they do indeed focus on the need for a SYSTEMS ENGINEER – to take a “big picture” look at everything and make sure that all the teams play together nicely (correctly). After 4.5 years, and 5 layoff cycles, I was finally caught because my specialty was classified programs, and Ball lost most of their classified work and the unclassified segment of the company viewed anyone that had classified program experience with suspicion. Then, I went to work for a little over a year for TRW – and was moving up in their Systems Engineering and Functional Management organization. But, a small and familiar employee-owned company (Delfin Systems) out of Santa Clara started a Denver office with a newly retired Navy Captain that I knew. He offered me a job as the first Denver employee (an offer I just couldn’t refuse). Now, that company and that boss stayed with me and I with them as Titan Corporation out of San Diego bought out Delfin, and soon thereafter L3 Communications bought Titan. I had the same job, in the same office, on the same contracts, for the same customers for over 14 years. My “home” office was out of Chantilly, VA. And, while L3 is a HUGE defense contractor and does a lot of really good things, one thing they do very badly is manage resources from afar. Basically, Chantilly let the business base we had (which actually was homed in Chantilly, but staffed in Denver) wither away and die. My boss retired about a year before I retired, and actually I was laid off – first employee hired by the original boss, last employee let go as they shut the doors for good in Denver.

    Where I’m going with all this is, for the most part, management doesn’t believe they need SYSTEMS ENGINEERS – they view them as superfluous and “nice to have” but not essential. And, of course, the customers don’t see it that way, but then they don’t want to pay the overhead costs for having the experience they need. At Ball, there were three systems engineers on the last project I was assigned to work; between the three of us, we had something like 100 years of Systems Engineering experience. The program manager, at the direction of corporate management, said “we don’t need systems engineers” – we’ll put that into the program at the end, rather than up front. To which, ALL THREE OF US told them they were making a HUGE mistake and it would come back to bite them. Well, that philosophy (and cost savings) won them a huge contract as the Prime, BUT … they forgot how to ACT LIKE a Prime, and in the end, the customer fired them as a Prime Contractor, and demoted their role to one as a “co-contractor” on a subsystem answering to a much larger company that had a staff of Systems Engineers…doing the same things the three of us had TOLD BALL that they needed to do if they were going to have any credence as a Prime.

    I’d like to say that Ball learned their lesson, but the fact of the matter is, they never really recovered in the organization and they are still regarded in that industry as a third tier sub-contractor – providing good engineering work, but just not credible as a “Prime” Contractor because they won’t make the investment (MBA’s again) in the talent to be good systems engineers at the level they need. It’s kind of like asking a high school football team that is VERY good to play against an NHL team and expect them to win. Ain’t gonna happen in this lifetime.

    So, unless you can move the MBA’s out of the way, keep them from making the decisions based solely on bottom line, I don’t see much of this problem going away or changing. And, the difficulty with all this is, if the MBA’s are out of the way, and the profits go down in order to play with the big boys, investors will find another place for their money, which in the end drives the game back – because now the company can’t afford to hire the best and brightest talent to do the job – it’s a vicious circle, to say the least.”




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