Saturday, October 23, 2010

Why Didn't I Do That?

You know how annoying it is when someone does something that is so blindingly obvious in retrospect you ask yourself the question “why didn't I do that”? I'm convinced that the next big thing is not going to be the invention of something radically new but rather a new use of some of the tools we already have. When Tim Berners-Lee invented the world-wide web he didn't create anything new. Internet protocols, mark-up languages and the idea of hypertext already existed. He just took them and put them together in a radically new way. What was the flash of inspiration that led to this and why did he do it and not someone else? After all that is basically the job of a Solution Architect, to apply technology in new and innovative ways that address business problems. So why did Tim Berners-Lee invent the world-wide web and not you, I or any of the companies we work for? Here are some observations thoughts.
  1. Tim had a clear idea of what he was trying to do. If you look at the paper Berners-Lee wrote, proposing what became the world-wide web, the first thing you'll see it has a very clear statement of what it is he's trying to do. Here is his statement of the problem he's trying to solve together with an idea for the solution: Many of the discussions of the future at CERN and the LHC era end with the questions - “Yes, but how will we ever keep track of such a large project?” This proposal provides an answer to such questions. Firstly, it discusses the problem of information access at CERN. Then, it introduces the idea of linked information systems, and compares them with less flexible ways of finding information. It then summarise my short experience with non-linear text systems known as “hypertext”, describes what CERN needs from such a system, and what industry may provide. Finally, it suggests steps we should take to involve ourselves with hypertext now, so that individually and collectively we may understand what we are creating. Conclusion: Having a very idea or vision of what it is you are trying do helps focus the mind wonderfully and also helps to avoid woolly thinking. Even better is to give yourself a (realistic but aggressive) timescale in which to come up with a solution. 
  2. Tim knew how to write a mean architecture document. The paper describing the idea behind what we now call “the web” (Information Management: A Proposal) is a masterpiece in understated simplicity. As well as the clear statement on what the problem is the paper goes on to describe the requirements that such an information management system should have as well as the solution, captured in a few beautifully simple architecture overview diagrams. I think this paper is a lesson to all of us in what a good architectural deliverable should be.
  3. Tim didn't give up. In his book Weaving the Web Berners-Lee describes how he had a couple of abortive attempts at convincing his superiors of the need for his proposal for an information management system. Conclusion: Having a great idea is one thing. If you can't explain that idea to others who, for example have the money to fund it, then you may as well not have that idea. Sometimes getting your explanation right takes time and a few attempts. The moral here is don't give up. Learn from your failures and try again. It will test your perseverance and the faith you have in your idea but that is probably what you need to convince yourself it's worth doing.
  4. Tim prototyped. Part of how Tim convinced people of the worth of what he was doing was to build a credible prototype of what it was he wanted to do. Tim was a C programmer and used his NeXT computer to build a working system of what it was he wanted to do. He actively encouraged his colleagues to use his prototype to get them to buy into his idea. Having a set of users already in place who are convinced by what you are doing, is one sure fire way of promoting the worth of your new system.
  5. Tim gave it all away. In may ways this is the most incredible thing of all about what Tim Berners-Lee did with the web; he gave it all away. Imagine if he patented his idea and took a 'cut' which gave him 0.00001¢ every time someone did a search or hit a page (I don't know if this is legally possible, I'm no lawyer, but you get the idea). He would be fabulously rich beyond any of our most wildest dreams! And yet he (and indeed CERN) decided not to go down this path. This has surely got to be one of the all time most altruistic actions that anyone has ever taken.

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