IT Lacks Engineering Discipline and Rigor

Every week we read the news about new, spectacular security breaches. This has been going on for years, and sometimes I wonder if there are any organizations left that have not been breached.

Why are breaches occurring at such a clip? Through decades of experience in IT and data security, I believe I have at least a part of the answer. But first, I want to shift our focus to a different discipline, that of civil engineering.

Civil engineers design and build bridges, buildings, tunnels, and dams, as well as many other things. Civil engineers who design these and other structures have college degrees, and they have a license called a Professional Engineer. In their design work, they carefully examine every component and calculate the forces that will act upon it, and size it accordingly to withstand expected forces, with a generous margin for error, to cover unexpected circumstances. Their designs undergo reviews before their plans can be called complete.  Inspectors carefully examine and approve plans, and they examine every phase of site preparation and construction. The finished product is inspected before it may be used.  Any defects found along the way, from drawings to final inspection, results in a halt in the project and changes in design or implementation.  The result: remarkably reliable and long-lasting structures that, when maintained properly, provide decades of dependable use. This practice has been in use for a century or two and has held up under scrutiny. We rarely hear of failures of bridges, dams, and so on, because the system of qualifying and licensing designers and builders, as well as design and construction inspections works. It’s about quality and reliability, and it shows.

Information technology is not anything like civil engineering. Very few organizations employ formal design with design review, nor inspections of components as development of networks, systems, and applications. The result: systems that lack proper functionality, resilience, and security. I will explore this further.

When organizations embark to implement new IT systems – whether networks, operating systems, database management systems, or applications – they do so with little formality of design, and rarely with any level of design or implementation review.  The result is “brittle” IT systems that barely work. In over thirty years of IT, this is the norm that I have observed in over a dozen organizations in several industries, including banking and financial services.

In case you think I’m pontificating from my ivory tower, I’m among the guilty here. Most of my IT career has been in organizations with some ITIL processes like change management, but utterly lacking in the level of engineering rigor seen in civil engineering and other engineering disciplines.  Is it any wonder, then, when we hear news of IT project failures and breaches?

Some of you will argue that IT does not require the same level of discipline as civil or aeronautical engineering, mostly because lives are not directly on the line as they are with bridges and airplanes. Fine. But, be prepared to accept losses in productivity due to code defects and unscheduled downtime, and security breaches. If security and reliability are not a part of the design, then the resulting product will be secure and reliable by accident, but not purposely.

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