Modernization As A Competitive Advantage
One of the jokes around the office is what I watch for recreation. Instead of fiction or the latest crime show drama, I love auditing college lectures. Recently, I watched several courses on the history of Western Civilization, Victorian Britain, and America In The Gilded Age. In all of these courses, each professor made a specific note of how England pioneered the Industrial Revolution, but was unable to maintain their competitive advantage because they didn’t modernize their equipment like their American counterparts, specifically, the steel titan Andrew Carnegie.
Being in the business of digital modernization, this tidbit of historical triva piqued my interest. Researching further, I stumbled upon a biography of Andrew Carnegie written in 1902 that provides a contemporary account on his views of modernization.
“In Mr. Carnegie’s opinion England’s national industries are at present time handicapped greatly by obsolete machinery. Their equipment, he says, need not merely to be altered, but “revolutionized.” … They are fearfully, slow, Mr. Carnegie says, in adopting new improvements.” - Bernard Alderson, Andrew Carnegie: The Man and His Work
This made me think back to a conversation we had last year with Andrew Russell, who was featured on Freakonomics for his essay called “Hail The Maintainers.” Below is an edited excerpt of the podcast where we talk about maintenance and how it can be more important in the long run to the success of a project, company, or society than the original innovation that sparked it.
From what I see, it’s this relentless commitment to maintenance and modernization that enabled American entrepreneurs like Carnegie to outpace their British competitors, and it’s a lesson that modern companies would do well to learn, lest their competition overtakes them.
Andrea Goulet: So, I want to dive into your article. One quote that I love is: “The most underappreciated and undervalued forms of technological labor are also the most ordinary. Those who repair and maintain technologies that already exist. That were innovated long ago.”
And I was like “Yes!” It can be hard to get funding for the [modernization] projects that we like to do even though they are incredibly valuable. So, help us unpack that a little bit about why maintenance is so overlooked when compared to innovation.
Andrew Russell: I think one of the words that really hits it for me is status. Maintenance work tends not to be high status work. In computing, and in science and technology more generally, it goes back to the 19th Century really.
We mentioned in the article about the culture of invention and these cultural heroes that American culture in particular created out of people like Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. Into the 20th century, they institutionalized forms of laboratory research like Bell Labs. Everybody knows Bell Labs as this famous citadel for innovation. In the meantime, all the anonymous work of maintenance, I think it gets taken for granted.
Andrea Goulet: Yes. So, in your article you outlined that when we think of innovation and maintenance, there are three principals. The first is that technology is not innovation. Innovation is only a small piece of what happens with technology. Can you help unpack that a little bit?
Andrew Russell: Sure, yes. So, there’s the initial idea, which I think we can characterize as invention. Innovation is the implementation of an intervention into a sustainable idea or product. The real key idea for innovation is as we understand it in my field, comes from the writings of Joseph Schumpeter, the Austrian economist. He’s the one who coined the term “creative destruction” — and it really is about meeting a market need.
If we think about the life cycle of something like a pen. There’s the idea to make a pen. Then we figured out how to sell pens. But then there are all sorts of different processes that go into it. So there’s manufacturing, there’s repair, and there’s obsolescence. Pens get neglected, and pens will eventually break and then get thrown away.
So, there’s this whole life cycle which I think is common to all technologies. If we want to talk about technology, we have to get away from this idea that it’s just the initial Steve Jobs design phase and that’s it. There’s way more to it than that.
Scott Ford: Nice. Let’s move on to the second point and that you make: by dropping innovation we can recognize the role of essential infrastructures.
Andrew Russell: We need to understand that there’s a middle phase where technologies become normalized. In many cases, they settle into the role of infrastructure. How did the Internet go from an experimental system with 5 or 10 or 50 nodes to something that we just depend on every day?
It’s not the experimenters. It’s really asking how did they manage network interconnection? How did they make contracts with different companies? How did they scale up? It’s one thing to make the first, but how do we go from that to a situation where companies are making millions of routers and modems?
So, again, it’s a different process in to think about it as a historian would. It’s a different set of sources and documents that we need to look at to understand that. It’s not really innovation.
Andrea Goulet: So lastly is that focusing on infrastructure, old existing things rather than novel ones, reminds us of the absolute centrality of the work that goes into keeping the entire world going. That’s one of the things that I love about working in maintenance. I used to work in social media and very much on the “innovation” side and I felt like a lot of the projects that I was working on were just kind of like glitter. Like it was just the veneer and it felt very trendy.
The projects we work on now really matter to society and are solving real problems. And so for me, one of the things that gets me out of bed every day is knowing that the work that I do is going to have a real impact on the world. So I can totally identify with that third point as well.
Andrew Russell: Yes, there’s some real intrinsic value just in work. I don’t want to go too far and say all maintainers are heroes and just replace one cast of heroes (the innovators) with another and insist that we need to only pay respect to heroes. What we need to do is pay respect to effort and teamwork and sacrifice and labor or just ordinary good old grinding it out. Because, that’s what makes all this stuff work.
Another paper that I want to talk about is by a guy named Nathan Ensmenger, who’s a real leader in our community. He says from the 1960’s to the present, anywhere between 50 to 70% of all total costs of software development have gone towards maintenance. So half to three quarters.
Scott Ford: And I’ve heard higher numbers as well. I hear 80% from other industries.
Andrea Goulet: Yes, I’ve heard in the government that 90% of resources is spent on maintaining legacy systems rather than building new ones.
Scott Ford: That reminds me, there’s a set of laws that were developed in the 1960’s called Lehman’s Laws. One of the laws is the idea that any software system that’s in use will have pressure on it to change. So the only systems that won’t have that pressure are systems that aren’t used.
So I’ve kind of adapted that to say, “Let’s only improve the bits that are changing.” Because there’s a pretty big chance that the bits that aren’t feeling pressure to change are moving in the direction of not being used anymore.
I like to see the improvements made alongside something else: fixing a bug or adding a new feature or improving performance where there is some pressure on the system to change. The people who are using it want it to respond to differently than it is right now. So let’s take advantage of that to deliver more value. And while we’re doing that also try to make it easier to do the next change.
Andrea Goulet: So, Andrew, are there any themes that you’ve seen in terms of how maintenance can be successful? How can you get budget for some maintenance projects? What are some of the things that you’re proposing?
Andrew Russell: We’ve been talking about changing the conversation at a national political level because caring for maintenance also ties into caring for infrastructure and, it’s routine, almost a daily routine to see problems with water infrastructure, power lines during storms, or train crashes sometimes tragically.
So, what’s stopping investment in that is mostly an attitude about taxes and organized labor that are pretty deeply entrenched in polarized political climate. And we’ve talked to some people in Washington about this. How do we change that conversation?
Well, it’s really focusing not on the things that had been problems in the past, but a vision of what we want and what we care about. Let’s not just focus on the things, the bridges and the roads and so on, but let’s make sure we’re appreciating the people who do that work and appreciating the intrinsic value of maintaining and the maintainers throughout.
Now, whether this is a successful a budget request or not, it’s not my job luckily. But that’s one thing I would recommend for anyone in a business setting or in a political setting –give us a vision for what’s going to improve.
Andrea Goulet: Awesome. Thanks, Andrew. This has been such a wonderful conversation. Thanks for coming on the show!