The Vasa – learn from History!

In 1625 King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden ordered his shipyards to build (among others) a mighty fighting ship called the Vasa.  He gave very specific instructions for what he wanted in this ship, how he wanted it outfitted, and made it clear that it should be the mightiest ship on the seas, and it was… sixty-four guns on two gundecks, it was truly the mightiest ship ever to come out of the Stockholm shipyard… for about twenty minutes.

On August 10, 1628 the Vasa set sail for its maiden voyage with huge fanfare.  Foreign diplomats were invited to watch from the shore as a demonstration of Swedish splendor… as well as a not-too-subtle reminder of the might of the Swedish Navy.  The Vasa, just out of port, fired a salute… the powerful recoil from the cannons started the top-heavy ship heeling.  With not nearly enough ballast to keep the ship upright, it heeled from port to starboard, and as water poured into the gun ports the fate of the mighty ship was sealed… less than twenty minutes into her maiden voyage the Vasa went to the bottom of the sea.

Of course King Gustavus Adolphus angrily write that the disaster happened because of “imprudence and negligence” and that the guilty parties had to be punished.  The captain (Sofring Hanosson) was arrested and charged.  I am not a sailor, but I am pretty sure that a boat lost at sea can often be the fault of the captain, but a boat lost in harbour before its sails are unfurled is likely an engineering defect.

The king had told his engineers (led by master shipbuilder Henrik Hybertsson) what he wanted.  The engineers, rather than running the math and telling the king that his demands were impossible, delivered what the king wanted.  In effect the ship was lost years before she set sail because the professionals were too sheepish to tell the executive why his demands were unreasonable.

I thought of the Vasa today because a colleague who works in IT Management for a medium-sized firm told me that he suspected that his IT Professionals – the certified experts whose job it is to build and maintain the company’s IT infrastructure – were listening to what the CIO wants, and rather than going back to him to say why his demands are unreasonable they are simply going ahead to fulfill the requests.

There are people in the world whose job title is ‘Computer Operator’.  These people are given instructions and carry them out, plain and simple.  There is no room for debate, they are told to enter data so they enter data.  If we as IT Professionals are going to live up to that term – not simply fill the role of Geek that many of us (hopefully) jokingly use – then we have to be professionals… and we have to act as professionals.  When an executive tells us that they want something, it is our responsibility to determine if the request might be based on buzz-words, partial information, or bad advice given freely by someone who likely does not have a complete understanding of the technology.

<Fictitious Executive> Mitch, last week at the football game I was sitting with a colleague who is a business owner who tells me that centralizing information in servers is too costly with too little return on investment, while they cost a fortune to hire people to maintain; I trust him, so please discontinue using file servers and make sure that everyone maintains their files on their personal computers.

The above quote is absolutely ridiculous, but at the same time part of it might be accurate.  The information that we are missing is that the ‘business owner’ runs a second-hand book store, has a single computer that is shared by himself and his wife.  A server would likely be an unnecessary expense that would cost a fortune to maintain.  As accurate as the statement might be for our bookstore owner is how ludicrous it is for an organization with five thousand employees with a full-time IT staff of ninety.  If our executive tells this to an IT manager it would be an offense bordering on criminal for that manager to agree.  He can handle it in any number of ways (the correct way as I see it is to calmly explain to the executive the issue of scale, and how small business needs are different from large organizations, and go from there) but the way he should not handle it is to do it.

I once had a boss who would come into my office and tell me about an idea he had, and asked me to go ahead and do it… whatever it was.  Some of the suggestions had merit (we should outsource our mail servers because for our fifteen employees it is too much to manage an Exchange 2000 infrastructure) and others less so (if we paint all of our computers red like Ferraris they should go faster… or file security is stupid… everyone in the office should be able to open any file they want!).  I was not as savvy as I am today, and likely would have made fun of him for some of the sillier ideas, while simply ignoring the edicts on the ones that were plain dumb.  If he forgot about the idea then I was fine to ignore them, but if he remembered and noticed that I did not do as told then I could get in trouble.  I suspect that I would have gotten much farther ahead had I explained to him in a calm and reasonable tone why some of his ideas, while sounding good, did not make technological sense.  An example of this is the file security; we were a security company!  There were things that we did that by definition had to be compartmentalized, such as government bids, salaries, and such.  (for the record I made up the one about the red computers… sorry Isaac!)

My father is an attorney, and his clients see him as a trusted advisor.  That is why he is so valuable to them; that is why they see him as an asset and not as an expense.  IT Professionals need to take every opportunity to prove to their companies (or clients) that they are strategic assets; trusted advisors, and not simply people who press the buttons they are told to press.  That is how we are not only going to make ourselves valuable, but change the opinions of those who think we are expendable.

Our profession will always have its share of hobbyist wannabe’s who learn a little bit about computers and print out business cards, figuring they can make a living charging $25/hour.  Because of them, and because of the stigma that our profession has, we have to work doubly hard to prove our value.  Hopefully we will succeed, and with emerging industry certifications that will be recognized internationally I expect that in ten years there will be few if any IT Professionals who call themselves geeks… I know I have never heard my father refer to himself as a shyster.

(In 1961 the Vasa was discovered at the bottom of Stockholm’s harbour, and was raised.  It has been restored to within degrees of its original splendor, and is housed in its own museum in Stockholm.  If you ever find yourself in Sweden it is certainly worth a visit!)


One response to “The Vasa – learn from History!”

  1. […] August, 2008 I wrote an article called The Vasa – Learn from History! It talked about the Vasa Museum in Stockholm and I drove a direct line from that doomed ship to the […]

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