TDWI Upside - Where Data Means Business

Remembering and Honoring Our Past

We IT professionals are in danger of losing our history if we don't make the effort to remember the contributions of those who went before us.

At a recent technology conference I had lunch with some attendees. One attendee was 38 years old. One was 51 and one was 60. These were well-informed, intelligent people. We talked about a wide variety of subjects concerning our industry.

I mentioned that Ed Yourdon had passed away earlier this year, and I was amazed to find out that no one at the table (other than myself) knew who Ed Yourdon was.

Quite frankly, I was shocked.

If you program or perform design or practically any form of systems work, you owe a big debt of gratitude to Ed Yourdon, whether you recognize his name or not. He pioneered many of the standard development and systems practices of today. He tamed the Wild West of development, design, and analysis by introducing structured programming, structured design, and structured analysis. Functional decomposition, data flow diagrams, and flow charts are all thanks to Yourdon's innovative work.

A wide audience of modern professionals feel the direct influence of Ed Yourdon, but the gentlemen I had lunch with had never even heard of him.

There is a peculiar trait among computer professionals that dictates that individuals immediately forget anything that isn't fresh and new. This mentality says that if it isn't brand new, then it is old and therefore not worth anything. The contributions of those who preceded us are immediately forgotten or discarded as soon as possible because those contributions are old.

Where does this "old is forgettable" mentality come from? Why don't we acknowledge that everything we have today was built on the shoulders of our forebears? Why don't we recognize and acknowledge the accomplishments of those who preceded us?

One group that reinforces this attitude is technology vendors. These vendors are so hot to sell you the latest technology that they disparage all older technology regardless of its merits. The biggest selling point of most new technologies is that they are new. Newness sells, so vendors discard and trash the old as soon as possible.

Relational enthusiasts disparaged older database technology. IBM belittled IMS when DB2 came along. Remember how disk storage vendors said magnetic tape was dead? The proponents of SQL denigrated COBOL, FORTRAN, and other established languages when SQL became popular. Today, big data vendors deride today's database technology that has served us so well. Likewise, 4GL vendors scorn decision-support processing. These obvious examples are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the computer industry's propensity for tearing down the old in the face of the new.

I believe there is another, deeper, more pervasive source of this "old is irrelevant" attitude. Consider that the computer profession is immature. Here I use the word "immature" not in the pejorative sense but in the historical sense. The computer/ high-tech profession has been around since the 1950s. Other professions have been around much longer.

Perhaps our fascination with only the new is a manifestation of the immaturity of our profession and the attitude may shift as time passes. Whether it's engineering, mathematics, science, accounting, medicine, or law -- mature professions respect their elders. Only the high-tech profession seeks to hide, marginalize, and malign its pioneers.

Most people well outside of the medical profession know the name of Jonas Salk who gave the world the polio vaccine, yet computer professionals know little or nothing about the founders of their own profession. Few people know the names of Charles Babbage, Grace Hopper, or Gene Amdahl or the advances they made. Yet these people (and many others) made enormous contributions to the world of technology as we know it today. As technology professions continue to be central to modern life, hopefully the pioneers of computing will take their place among the well-known pioneers of other professions.

Even the Bible says to respect your elders "that thy days may be long upon the earth." Stated another way, if you want to have a long and prosperous life, listen to and learn about the people who paved the way for you. High-tech professions can only become mature when we let go of the attitude that we have to hide and forget our history.

It's time we gave our elders their due.

About the Author

Bill Inmon has written 54 books published in 9 languages. Bill’s company -- Forest Rim Technology -- reads textual narrative and disambiguates the text and places the output in a standard data base. Once in the standard data base, the text can be analyzed using standard analytical tools such as Tableau, Qlikview, Concurrent Technologies, SAS, and many more analytical technologies. His latest book is Data Lake Architecture.


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