Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Too Much Tech, Not Enough Ology

This post is a rant about how the following common ideas combine to make bad IT, especially clinical lab IT:
  • Everyone should express their special uniqueness at all times
  • Tech is hard, ology (knowledge) is easy, so go with the Tech
  • There is always a better way to do it
Alas! I believe that in many clinical lab IT environments, none of these ideas holds true and that the combination of them is toxic.

We Are All Individuals
You may be a special snowflake, all unique and brimming with insight, but engineering is often about doing the standard thing in the standard way, so those who come after you can figure out what you did. Yes, if you produce something truly revolutionary, it MIGHT be worth the overhead of figuring it out, but it might not.

Consider the mighty Knuth-Morris-Pratt algorithm which was a real step forward in text string searching. However, sometimes we don't need a step forward: we need something we can understand and support.The mighty Knuth himself told a story of putting this algorithm into an operating system at Stanford and being proud, as a primarily theoretical guy, to have some working code in production. Except that when he went to see his code in action, someone had removed it and replaced it with a simple search. Because although the KMP search is demonstrably better in many situations, the strings being searched in most human/computer interactions are short, so who cares? Having to maintain code you don't understand, however, is also demonstrably bad. So Knuth had some real sympathy for the sys admin who did this. Engineering is about accuracy and dependability; learn the standard approach and only get creative when creativity is called for (and worth the overhead).

Tech is Hard, Expertise is Easy
Too often I see clients going with a young programmer because (a) they cost less by the hour and (b) the assumption is that newer programmers are "up-to-date" and doing things "the modern way." I suppose this makes sense in contexts where the domain expertise is somehow supplied by someone else, but all too often I see bright-but-ignorant (BBI) programmers implementing in shiny new development environments with their shiny new skills, but producing a dreadful user experience. The only goal in clinical lab IT is to support the lab, to lower mistakes, to raise through-put, to shift drudgery away from humans and onto computers. If you produce a cool new app which does not do that, then you have failed, no matter how cheaply or quickly or slickly you did the work.

I Did It Myself!
Clinical lab IT deals with confidential information. We are supposed to take all reasonable and customary measures to guard the information in our care. Yet we still end up with security problems caused by programmers either "taking a shot" at security, as though it were an interesting hobby, or doing their own version of some standard tool which already exists, has already been validated and which is already being updated and tested by other people. Don't roll your own if you don't have to--security especially but other important as well. You might enjoy the challenge, but this is a job, not a college course.

Pay for experience. Demand that all novelties be justified. Use what is freely and securely available before rolling your own. Stop the current trend toward "upgrades" which make things worse and endless new systems which do not advance the state of the art. Have the tech and the ology.

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