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My favorite Martian

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If you haven’t already, go see The Martian.

Back in 1998 I wrote, I love the movie Apollo 13. It’s a modern rarity. Engineers and scientists — smart people dedicated to their jobs — are the heroes, and they become heroes by doing their jobs intelligently and with dedication.

The situation has improved since then, mostly courtesy of Marvel’s movie division: Lots of Marvel’s heroes are genius scientists and inventors.

But they’re geniuses in a different way. Tony Stark has lots of cool toys to play with, and gestures in three dimensions to make holographic thingies move around in the air while speaking technogibberish to whoever is in range. He has more in common with a sorcerer’s apprentice than with any actual scientist or inventor.

Not so the NASA engineers depicted with a great deal of accuracy in Apollo 13 (according to Jim Lovell and Gene Kranz, who I once had the privilege of hearing speak on the subject). They don’t invent entire new branches of physics and then turn them into working technology just in time to save the day. They solve problems using tested engineering principles, figuring things out and sweating the details along the way.

The Martian is like that too. No, it isn’t “based on a true story,” (yet?) as Apollo 13 was and Imitation Game pretended to be. But with The Martian every frame is infused with verisimilitude. The tech looks real, and the dialog describing the tech is sound engineering.

Which has what to do with running a business, leading an IT organization, or any of KJR’s other usual themes?

Just this: Scientists and engineers are the ones who create wealth. The rest of us just play games with it.

Too extreme?

Maybe. Reliable numbers are hard to come by (they require economists, who in turn require models). So take what follows with a grain or two of salt.

I started with “The Economic Impacts of the U.S. Space Program,” (Jerome Schnee, Business Administration Department, Rutgers University). Adding a bit of spreadsheet work, it appears that had the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo program never taken place, today, right now, the U.S. economy would be about 8 percent smaller.

As the Internet was designed and built by scientists and engineers (please, no Al Gore jokes), it’s in bounds for this discussion too. A 2011 McKinsey study found that without it the economy would be 10 percent smaller, and growing more slowly: As of 2011 more than a fifth of all economic growth was due to it.

Extrapolating from macroeconomics to microeconomics is even more problematic than macroeconomics itself. In this case, though, it seems reasonable to figure that the economic impact of the technologies developed for the space program, and of the Internet and World Wide Web, were largely expressed through their business use. If this chain of logic holds up, it means your average business would have something like 20% less revenue and profit today if it weren’t for the space program and Internet.

And that’s just the space program and Internet, far from the only endeavors into which scientists and engineers pour their efforts.

Putting these technologies to use in the businesses that have benefited from them took the efforts of scientists and engineers … in the case of the Internet, programmers, systems administrators and other technical professionals.

Eliminate every Internet-related programming job (in this day and age that’s all of them) from every business at the same moment, and their top and bottom lines would shrink by 10 percent.

And that understates their importance to your company: Eliminate their jobs in just one company and its top and bottom lines would shrink to negative numbers, because without use of the Internet they’d be unable to compete at all.

Which leads to a question: Does your company treat its technical professionals like people who contribute 10 percent to the top and bottom line?

Do you?

From its early days to the present, everything about information technology has been hard to measure. Even such seemingly basic concepts as productivity and value have been damnably hard to get a handle on, which has led many misguided organizations to focus their attention on the only aspect of information technology that’s easy to measure.

Its cost.

Comments (5)

  • Thanks for articulating a relationship between technology. I see information technology and plant maintenance as investment centers that are neither wholly cost centers nor profit centers. I suspect investment centers have the same kind of purpose in organizations as play and exercise and curiosity and discovery do for an individual human.

    It may be that, like quantum mechanics, people will have to create evaluation methods based on recurring results, rather than deduce from a grand fundamental model. Someone will have to identify which investment center activities usually show more benefits than harm, in a particular organization over a, say, 10 year period. Since one is talking about an investment center, to me, it makes sense to use investment strategy success evaluation tools, rather than simple profit and loss.

    That’s my 2 cents.

    • I agree – a lot of IT “investment” is just that – spending now to develop capabilities that pay off over time. And because what a business gets are capabilities, which then have to be directed toward profitable activities, connecting the dots between investment and return is pretty dicey.

  • No response required – ‘permalink’ text is okay, link is not

  • There are many things we attempt to measure that we should not — at least not in the way we try to do so today.

    Likewise, there are at least as many things that we utterly fail to measure which could easily and reasonably be measured, especially in the realm of information security.

    But we love our measurements…

    -ASB: http://XeeMe.com/AndrewBaker

  • Couple of thoughts:
    — We talk about ROI, but we also need to talk about ROE (Return on Expectations). What are your expectations of your technical areas, first of all? Are they clearly stated, and does everyone agree? And, are you realizing those expectations?
    — I think there are plenty of discussions to be had around the concept of “base level of professionalism.” If you are a professional in a given field, here are things that you just DO. Having a foundation of that level of professionalism makes it easier to deal with the emergency and the unknown.

    My $0.03.

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