Keep Thinking Inside the Box

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2001-04-16 Print this article Print

When a perfect technology comes along, I may be willing to let it protect me from myself

When a perfect technology comes along, I may be willing to let it protect me from myself. Until that happens, Ill insist that every black box has to give me a way to look inside. What got me going on this subject were two comments by a software developer during a Spring Comdex panel discussion. First, he praised Microsoft for shielding him from the distraction of every "latest thing" technology; he specifically mentioned XML. In almost the next breath, though, he lauded Microsofts speed in delivering tools for .Net. Of course, .Nets Web services are based on XML.

My cynical side thought, "Theres someone whos really drunk the Kool-Aid. He doesnt want to waste time on vendor-neutral standards; hed rather stay on the leading edge of proprietary APIs." My charitable side protested that I was being too quick to condemn. What he meant, I suspect, was that he didnt want to deal with technology in its raw form but preferred to find it packaged for application.

Many IT builders seem to seek the equivalent of a heat-and-eat meal, shying away from peeling their own potatoes (let alone butchering their own steaks). Object-oriented software, integrated circuits ... and .Net APIs? Yes, these can have benefits.

But Ive always found real benefit from understanding technologies to at least one level below their supposed encapsulations. If you dont know whats inside, youll have no clue whats gone wrong when it doesnt work as promised. When your cars engine doesnt start, can you tell the difference between a dead battery (wont turn over) and a broken fuel pump (catches but wont keep running)? Dont you want at least that level of readiness to diagnose IT bugs?

When they say, "No user-serviceable parts inside," reach for your screwdriver and keep learning.

Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developers' technical requirements on the company's evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter company's first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

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