A Purpose-Driven Technology Life

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal's Chin Music (18-Feb-2009)

back back to portfolio

Why are we here? What's it all about? What's the meaning of life?

These philosophical questions that explore the complexities of human existence have weighed heavily on the minds of many great thinkers, but they should also be applied to technology and its acceptance in our business lives. Unfortunately, these existential questions don't garner nearly as much attention among the cube farm dwellers responsible for the application of technology within organizations. And when they are considered, it occurs after some form of technology is implemented—not in an experimental R&D environment, but rather in a real world production setting.

While all manner of effort is made to inject new technology into the corporate bloodstream—installing new software; adopting new development languages, platforms, or frameworks; and writing new systems—its authors are sometimes unable to answer the most basic question: Why?

What's the motivation or reasoning behind this new technology? Is it because everyone else is doing it? Is it some mindless busywork you created because you're bored with what you're currently doing? Or is it simply because... you can?

Purpose drives development and design; it's not the other way around. You need to have a reason for writing that new app or buying that new software before applying it. Otherwise, you're merely playing with technology for your own amusement under the guise of productive work.

Too many people get caught up in the cool factor and jump aboard something new without having a valid reason for doing so. They declare that they need it first and decide (or rationalize) why they need it second. They will spend a lot of time developing and setting up a tool only to ask, "Now that we have this, let's decide how we're going to use it," after it hits production. If you need to ask, you probably don't need it.

In my days as a systems developer, I saw countless instances of people starting up some tech tool with great enthusiasm only to see it languish in anonymity because there was no reason for its existence. I've seen daily blogs turn into bi-monthly blogs turn into obsolete blogs because the bloggers thought it would be cool at the beginning, only to realize down the road that they have nothing of substance to write about. I've seen discussion forums set up with several hundred registered users and only a dozen half-serious posts because the forums lacked focus and purpose. And I've seen developers deploy applications no one asked for because they just felt like building something with a new software kit they got their curious little hands on.

All those projects eventually died for the same reason: The authors knew what they were doing, but they didn't know why they were doing it. They simply did it for the sake of doing it. And when you lack a goal or destination, it's no surprise you get lost.

This lack of awareness and purpose-driven development is somewhat perpetuated by the technology industry itself. Consumers feed on new technology; they crave it like a shark that's caught a whiff of blood. And the industry's more than happy to fuel consumers' desires and impulses with the latest so-called must-haves. The last thing the industry wants is for consumers to ask existential questions of "what" and "why". Instead, they bank on consumers' love of what's new and hope that the shine blinds them to all else. The magic of marketing isn't about what you need; it's about heightening consumers' desire and enthusiasm and dulling their reason and logic.

If you're sitting in your basement and you play around with technology in your spare time, more power to you. But if you work with technology in a professional capacity, this "doing it for the sake of doing it" mentality—whether consciously or sub-consciously—can have far-reaching and long-term consequences. Continuously deploying technology that goes unused will affect users' perception not only of the tool, but also of its author.

Users will view you as someone who likes to occupy him- or herself with busywork, dishing out tools no one asked for or wants. Every time you try to introduce something new, users will acknowledge you with the rolling of their eyes or a nudging of a colleague's elbow, whispering, "He's (or she's) at it again." Perhaps they will disregard you entirely as though walking past someone handing out flyers on the street advertising budget root canals. Try to get rid of that stigma.

New tools must have a reason for existing in an organization—whether it's a free online service, an in-house application, or an off-the-shelf tool. If you don't learn to ask questions as to whether some technology is really necessary before implementing it, sooner or later some higher-up is going to ask these questions about your existence within the company.

Copyright © 2009 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.