I wanted to start my retirement the right way. And what better way than with a re-run. And of all the possible re-runs, what could be better than an account of why IT is like golf?

Hope you enjoy this trip down memory lane.

– Bob

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If it didn’t happen this way, it should have: On the great golfer Ben Hogan’s 70th birthday, I’m told, an interviewer asked if he had plans to retire. “Retire?” Hogan is supposed to have responded. “People retire to fish and play golf. I fish and play golf!”

Management consultants have an unfortunate penchant for sports metaphors. So, it occurred to me the other day as I searched for my ball that IS management and golf have a lot in common. To those of you who play the game I need go no further. For the rest, here are some of the parallels:

1. When your golf swing goes off, you try solutions more or less at random to fix it. When a computer program that used to work crashes, programmers often do the same.

2. Sometimes, the tools we use in computing just don’t work the way they’re supposed to. The same can be said of golf clubs.

3. In golf, even when you can reach the green in one shot it usually takes two putts to get the ball in the hole. With computers, even when you have a relatively easy problem to solve you usually need two iterations after delivering the product before you satisfy the user.

4. With computers, no matter what new snazzy tool you buy someone announces a better one right after you spend your money. That’s true of golf clubs too.

5. In golf there’s par, but most of us are pretty happy getting a bogey. With computers there’s the project plan, but we often feel pretty good if we only need one extension to finish the project. (By the way, for those of you on Year 2000 projects – you won’t get an extension. Sorry.) (By the by the way … yes, this is an anachronism. I wrote this in 1996, when Y2K was as bit a threat to our technology’s health as COVID-19 is to our public health.)

6. In IS we often work in politically charged environments. Keeping your head down can be important. In golf you want to keep your head down, too.

7. Many greenskeepers resent those pesky golfers who mess up their beautiful golf courses. Many network managers resent those pesky end-users who clog up their pretty networks with unwanted packets.

8. On a related note, too many users on the network slows down response time. Too many golfers on the course slows down play.

9. Golfers remember the sport as being fun, but when we’re playing, at least in Minnesota, we spend half our time swatting bugs. Likewise in IS, getting rid of bugs gets in the way of the fun.

10. Most people outside of IS don’t understand why we find our profession so fascinating, and have no idea why it’s so hard. Non-golfers have no clue why golfers hit a small white ball around a field with sticks, let alone why the ball usually flies off in the wrong direction.

11. In golf you can hit a great-looking shot that lands nowhere near the hole. You can also hit a nasty-looking shot off the heel of your club that scoots across the grass, bounces off a squirrel, and finishes two feet from the cup. With computers, you can write elegant code that somehow fails to satisfy the users or succeed in the marketplace … and on the other side of the equation, there’s Windows.

12. Most people can become competent programmers. With time, training and hard work we can create solid programs that work well. In the next cube, though, there’s someone who speaks C++ as if it were his native language, writing code as beautiful as poetry that always works perfectly on the first compile. In golf, most of us can get the ball in the air and “out there” after a bunch of lessons and several years of practice, but we all know someone who shot par when he was twelve years old.

And, both pursuits have the same favorite phrase: “Oh %$#^!”

What’s Microsoft waiting for?

Somehow or other, as, over the past four decades, its Office suite of applications has evolved into a powerhouse force for individual productivity and group collaboration …

Somehow or other Microsoft never bothered to fix an annoying and easily fixed Excel “feature” (as in, it isn’t a bug; it’s a feature). Namely, just how many versions of blankness do users need (maybe 2 but I doubt it) and why are they so hard to find?

There are, so far as I can tell:

  • String nulls: Cells that have never been touched but are formatted as character strings.
  • Numeric nulls: Likewise, but as numbers.
  • The other numeric null: What you get after unchecking File/Options/Advanced Show a zero in cells that have zero value.
  • “”: Empty character strings.
  • “ “: The blank character.
  • Zeroes formatted to not display anything in the cell.

By themselves a few of these might actually be useful. What makes the bad outweigh the good is that there’s no one test that reveals them all.

Surely Microsoft could provide (for example) a modified ISBLANK() function that returns a TRUE value for any sort of blank cell; likewise it could add a FILE/OPTIONS/ADVANCED parameter that unifies the behavior of all blanks; or add a parameter to any function that handles blanks telling it to either ignores blanks of all types, or treats them all as zeroes. That would save legions of Excel jockeys from having to rely on =OR(ISBLANK(A1), A1=””,A1=” “,A1=0,LEN(A1)<1) or some such formulaic nonsense.

Why do we have this mess? I can only speculate. I imagine it’s rooted in one of the laws of organizational dynamics: When the problem is diffuse and merely annoying there’s always something more important to work on instead.

While I’m beating Microsoft up over this admittedly less-than-world-shaking grievance I have to admit: I’m guilty too. In my case the problem I’ve let fester is (was) failing to update WordPress to a supported version of PHP. I’ve known for a couple of years that the platform needed updating. But as I’m no longer a good enough programmer to troubleshoot any problems that might emerge from the process I decided to leave well enough alone.

Until this week (and let me know if you spot any glitches that need fixing – thanks!)

So I’m as guilty in my own way as Microsoft is in its way, but on a small enough scale and with such a small number of victims if it goes wrong (one, namely, me) that I can handle the remorse. But at the other end of the scale I know of Fortune 500 companies running applications on out-of-support server hardware and operating systems … thousands of them … with no path to safety because procrastination has saved them money every year for the past decades or more.

Not to mention all the other large but not enormous enterprises for which infrastructure maintenance is never quite important enough, right up until an attack takes their core applications down for a week or more.

Manufacturing mavens figured out a long time ago that preventive maintenance is less expensive than break/fix maintenance. That the IT infrastructure is harder to understand than the motors, gears, pulleys, and belts that constitute a modern factory doesn’t change the principle.

Bob’s last word: In IT, maintaining healthy platforms and infrastructure isn’t best practice.

It’s the minimum standard of basic professionalism.

Bob’s sales pitch: There’s a reason I named this blog “Keep the Joint Running.” It’s because of Principle #7 of the KJR Manifesto, which says: Before you can be strategic you have to be competent.

It isn’t the only principle worth adopting, either. Be a person. Buy yourself a copy. If you already have a copy, write an Amazon review. KJR needs your support. This is one way of providing it.