Decoding the Futures Signals

Opinion: Preoccupation with past practice only adds noise, so look hard at your own skills and see if it's time to move on.

Many trifling changes are hyped as "the end of an era," but sometimes the phrase is well-chosen. The final removal of Morse code proficiency requirements for all classes of amateur ("ham") radio licenses in a year-end action by the Federal Communications Commission is one of those signal events—pun intended.

Even if youve never seen a ham station, this redefinition of the core of hams skills is a reminder that theres only a weak connection between cost and value.

Theres a considerable cost, as measured in time, of becoming really proficient in Morse code—I do 26 words per minute, thanks for asking—but digital radio has challenged the status of whats formally termed "A1 modulation" as the mode that gets through when nothing else will.

Enterprise technologists are similarly challenged to ignore the amount of time or money theyve invested in a particular approach to solving a problem—to start with a blank spreadsheet and compute only the incremental return on the incremental investment of their options going forward.

Perhaps youve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on server hardware and software licenses. That doesnt mean youll do better to spend more money maintaining that capability instead of pointing your future budgets in the direction of using hosted applications.

Perhaps youve spent days or weeks of developers time mastering a proprietary thick-client platform and spent thousands of dollars acquiring and learning to use the tools that exploit it.

That doesnt mean youll deliver compelling and reliable applications in less time by staying on that path than by using free and platform-neutral tools that do common development tasks easily—and let you deploy the results cheaply, instantly and anywhere.

Perhaps youve gone to some lengths to build in-house expertise in Sarbanes-Oxley compliance, network and application security, or reliable and secure e-mail administration. In early stages, the best way to get out front is to do things yourself—just as the early days of e-business required leased lines and custom-built data interchange schemes.

When the market catches up, though, its costly and even counterproductive to keep on doing things yourself just because youve gotten used to it and internal empires have been built around it.

Public networks are more cost-effective than private ones, even if youve spent a lot on building the latter. Perimeter security is often better achieved by full-time professionals, even if youve been sending your own people to costly training. Application security needs and enterprise governance mandates are more consistently fulfilled with third-party tools, even if youve made the effort to devise your own procedures for standards enforcement through code review.


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I think it was either Edsger Dijkstra (computer scientist and guru of program correctness) or Niklaus Wirth (chief designer of Pascal and several lesser-known programming languages) who decried the myth of thinking that our inventories of source code must be valuable because theyve cost so much to create.

Its like saying that a natural diamond has to be worth more than a man-made one because the natural one required that you move so much dirt to get to it—a belief that sells some very expensive stones.

The transformation of development technologies, quality assurance methods, deployment modes and end-user client devices is getting us out of the dirt-shoveling business and letting us go into the shop to turn on the machine and create the artifact we want: nothing more, nothing less.

Will I miss Morse code? Sure. I like my collection of beautifully built Vibroplex keys. I like my collection of slide rules, too, but I dont ever expect to make my living using them.

Look hard at your own inventory of skills and see if its time to move on.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at


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