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Technological wizardry in action

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They just waved their wands and magical things happened.

Don’t be concerned. There is an IT point to this, although we won’t get to it for a while.

My daughters, children when I wrote the first of these missives, are allegedly adults now. (Excuse me for a moment … AIYEEEEEEEEEEEEE! Sorry.) I say allegedly because when we took a few days of vacation in Florida together a couple of weeks ago, Harry Potter World at Universal Studios was at the top of their list.

Top on my own list was the Kennedy Space Center where, among other treats, we heard retired astronaut/Deputy NASA Administrator Fred Gregory recount how his career happened.

Most people who talk about themselves are tiresome. Colonel Gregory was never tiresome. Two bits: (1) He gave his parents a lot of the credit, in particular because, he said, no matter what he wanted to do as a child, they said yes, and (2) his entire career plan was to have fun and have an impact. Seemed to work out pretty well for him.

We also got close to the business end of a Saturn V rocket — the booster used for the Apollo missions, which required something like four million bits and pieces of technology, all of which had to work flawlessly. NASA engineers understood how each and every one of them was designed and put together because NASA engineers pretty much had to invent each and every one of them.

In the Harry Potter books, and most books in which magic is an important part of the plot, magic doesn’t involve millions of carefully designed and integrated bits and pieces. It’s more a matter of opening your mind and exerting your will.

Which brings us to Harry Potter World. Give Universal credit — whether or not you like this kind of thing, Universal skimped on nothing. The attention to detail was phenomenal, right down to selling butter beer (the preferred beverage among young witches and wizards at Hogwarts, I was informed). Which meant someone on the design team had to (1) recognize that selling butter beer would enrich the experience for Harry Potter fans; (2) persuade the budget-meister that formulating a recipe for butter beer and building places to buy it would be worth the investment; and (3) actually formulate a beverage that was palatable and had a flavor that tasted how something called butter beer ought to taste.

They also sold magic wands. Okay, they sold a lot of stuff — merchandising is part of the theme park equation — but at least they sold it in realistic (if that word makes any sense in this context) Diagon Alley shops. In one, a master wand maker purveyed his wares.

Unlike in the books, exerting one’s will and shouting something Latinish is optional. These wands have hidden circuitry and an infrared (I presume) tip. At various places in the park, if you stand in the right place and wave the tip at a discreetly positioned sensor in a shop window, something magical happens.

Nice touch. Huge crowds. The children (including my adult children, and, I confess, me too — my kids bought me a wand so I could enjoy being a warlock for a day) got a kick out of it.

I’m willing to bet each and every visitor knew the effects were the result of technology, not magic, and could probably explain how it worked, at least in broad terms. Certainly, the park’s designers would have known that once they described what they wanted, the engineers would have no trouble making it happen.

We aren’t all members of the ETG (embedded technology generation if you haven’t been paying attention) but we’re all so accustomed to being enmeshed in technology that for the most part we only notice it when it isn’t working right.

This is what’s wrong, and right, with IT in a lot of companies — as a matter of fact, not blame or root causes. First, there’s no butter-beer budget, to make sure users have a natural-seeming experience. And second, unlike Harry Potter World’s designers, business managers in many companies have little or no confidence that if they describe what they’re trying to accomplish, IT will have no trouble delivering it.

But, most IT shops now do score well on the Invisibility Index — the only metric that matters for IT operations. That is, in most companies business users are so accustomed to everything working right that they only notice when it isn’t.

That’s no small accomplishment. And there’s no magic involved.

Just a lot of hard work coupled with careful engineering.

And, if we took the time to count them all, millions of bits and pieces of technology.

Comments (2)

  • Bob I think you are getting at one of my favorite sayings. “No good deed goes unpunished”.

    My experience – the better I execute the more I am taken for granted. Meaning that learning to pull a rabbit out of a hat is a dangerous thing.

    Favorite executive thing I heard recently. “We aren’t too busy, everything is getting done on time.” Almost wants me to turn in my CIO badge and turn into a flagman on a road construction project…

  • Nice to hear about technology that enhanced your experience. Entertainment seems to be the industry that has the best handle on that.

    Your post reminded me of Arthur C Clarke’s famous quote:
    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    Client-invisibile processes enhance that perception. On the other hand, their invisibility promotes voodoo practices when technology only mostly works. In those cases, each ritual and incantation that gets replaced by solid process is a small victory. Keep on truckin’

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