I’ve been in the IT industry professionally for quite some time now, and even longer as an avid enthusiast. I’ve seen so many companies come and go as they evolve with the fast paced ever changing technology world and that’s lead to a great understanding of some of the fundamental rules that don’t seem to change. One of these such rules is the constant upgrade cycle, e.g. the release of new versions of products on a fairly regular schedule , in order to take advantage of the latest developments from other companies. The interesting thing about these cycles is that usually they can’t be too drastic lest you alienate your customers who’ve created expectations of the product that will cause a revolt should they not be met.
Take for example some of Microsoft’s products, most notably their desktop operating systems Windows. From Windows 3.1 to Windows 7 there’s a kind of baseline familiarity that users have developed with the products and, for the most part, they’ve remained unchanged for the better part of almost 2 decades. Granted it would be quite a shock for someone who’d been using Windows 3.1 to move straight to 7 but that’s usually never the case. More most users would be ushured along onto the latest product from at most 2 generations previous, usually when they can’t do something that everyone else in their social circle can.
Most major players in the IT world have mastered this idea of product cycles. From Apple to Dell to AMD you can bet your bottom dollar that they’ll release a new product on a predictable timeline, usually timed perfectly to be right smack in the middle of their competitors cycle. If there’s any phenomenon that’s to be held responsible for the IT sector’s almost ubelievably fast movement speed it would have to be this culture of ensuring that your company is providing the latest and greatest features and products to its consumers, always making sure that you keep on eye on your competitors. It is basically a massive game of one-upmanship.
Sometimes however, the product cycle does not go quite as planned.
You see I’m writing this blog post to you today on what should be considered an absolute dinosaur of the IT world: a Windows XP machine. Released late in 2001 I can remember fondly my first experiences with it, blue screens abounding and most of my hardware behaving in ways that I never thought imaginable. A couple months saw it come good with the various manufacturers catching up with their drivers and Microsoft patching the more obvious flaws in the system. It was a rocky start for Microsoft’s attempt to bring some of the better parts of their server line to the desktop but eventually most companies relented and XP found its home as the defacto operating system for the majority of computer users worldwide.
5 years later, Microsoft would attempt to do it all over again.
Now before we dig into Microsoft’s next product cycle let’s take a moment to think about that last paragraph. Think about where you were 9 years ago and compare it to today, worlds apart right? Just imagine if I told you that I’d bought a top of the line phone back in 2001 and I was still using that today, you’d think I was pretty bonkers since even a $50 phone today would be better in almost every way. Whilst I’m sure there are people doing such things (my Dad is using a phone from 2004) the simple fact that technology moves so fast means that most products have an effective life of around 2~3 years. Windows XP, for some reason, seems to be completely immune to that idea.
Partly that’s to blame with the long development cycle that plague its successor, Windows Vista (codenamed Longhorn). Initially planned for release a mere 2 years after the initial release of XP its original intention was to function as a stop gap between XP and the next major release codenamed Blackcomb. Due to feature creep that saw Longhorn encroach on Blackcomb’s territory the two finally merged together under the Vista title and the release date slipped by over 3 years. This lead to one of the longest time between releases of Windows versions in almost a decade, and the markets reaction was nothing short of devastating.
Windows Vista, for what its worth, was not a bad operating system at heart. Like its predecessor it was plagued with the job of attempting to support legacy systems whilst at the same time trying to innovate in any way it could. Consequently neither part could be done very well as legacy support inherently holds back innovation, leaving Vista to languish in a kind of no man’s land. Again like XP before it Vista attempted to do things in a completely new way which broke the compatibility with numerous bits of hardware and software further stifling its adoption rates. Overall the industries first reactions to Vista were ultimately its death knell and I never found a workplace that found the idea of switching to it appealing.
Microsoft managed to make the system quite usable in the years following Vista’s initial release. I myself ran it on my personal computer for quite some time and so did many of my technical friends. Still the damage was done and many corporate departments decided that XP suited their needs aptly and left it at that. It wasn’t until late last year that Windows 7 made its triumphant debut, hoping to be the knight in shining armor to pull the damsels of corporate IT away from the darkness that was Windows XP.
However due to the botch cycle of Windows Vista they were met with almost spiteful disdain. 8 years is a long time to go between refreshing your products and nearly all IT departments had grown accustomed to things working the XP way. Whilst many recognised that Windows 7 was not Vista (thanks to new and improved eye candy) they still couldn’t fathom the idea that anything but XP was required and were even more concerned for all those legacy applications they’d developed for their aging XP systems. Thus Microsoft, who really did so many things right with Windows 7, was left trying to market a product to people who were so entrenched in their habits that Windows 7 was almost set to Vista all over again. Windows 7 however is that good that its adoption rates are almost double that of Vista’s for the same time period, matching that of Windows XP.
There’s a couple lessons to be learnt from the Windows Vista story. The first is to repeat the old developer mantra release early, release often. Microsoft’s long development cycle for Vista meant that there was already quite a bit of inertia working against it. Whilst its quite understandable that something as complicated as an operating system takes time to develop they knew from the get go that a long development cycle would harm the adoption rates. They fell prey to some of the most common project management mistakes (read: scope creep) and their final product, whilst impressive technologically, was too far away from user’s current expectations. The original idea of Longhorn being a stepping stone to Blackcomb was sound and was proven succinctly with the success of Windows 7 which inadvertently used Vista as its stepping stone.
It’s always interesting to look back at the history of product releases and to see how customer behaviour influences company decisions. Vista was one of those oddities where the latest and greatest was wholly rejected by the community it set out to serve and only its rebirth under a new label and shiny facade was enough to win them back. It was also a demonstration of the market power that Microsoft has since a failed product cycle was the in for many competitors to swoop in yet as we can see despite their disdain for the latest offering Microsoft’s customers remained loyal, even if it was to the wrong product (in Microsoft’s eyes).
I should really update my machine to the new Windows 7 environment they’re offering here… 😉
In today’s rough and unforgiving economic climate many companies are seeking to reduce costs and improve their return on all previous investments that they’ve made. This, combined with several reports from market experts (Gershwin being a good example), has lead to an overall decrease in the amount of temporary workers hired and a push to bring a lot of talent in house. It would seem that the best option would be to secure employment now and skill up during these hard times and cash it all in when times come good again. You’d be crazy not to do it.
That is, unless you’re like me. I’m an IT contractor, and businesses will look at me first for the chop.
But what does trimming the contractors actually net for my employer? In my current position I’m doing what a contractor is supposed to be doing, filling a skill gap for either a temporary vacancy whilst they find a full time employee or bringing in additional skills required to implement various projects. Reducing your numbers of people like myself isn’t a bad thing, but it will reduce your capability to deliver on required projects. It would seem however that there are some places that are content to use contractors as full-time replacements. Using contractors in such a way is going to cost you much more than it would to properly fund the rightly skilled full time employee. However short term budgeting will show a cost saving with the contractor, since you’re not going to have to pay things like superannuation and insurance.
So what should employers be doing in order to whether these tough times? The answer isn’t what most employers want to hear, since they’ll be looking to reduce costs in the short term in the hopes that everything will come good. However, these are the factors that I have seen grab and retain exceptionally skilled people:
All these things will cost the employer something but in return they will get an employee who is loyal and willing to go that extra step for the company. I’ve seen many places with just one of the 3 above and they think that will keep their employees going. It will for a time but eventually they will start to desire more of these options, and if they’re determined they’ll find it.
I think this is why the Australian Public Service has a track record for keeping people for large periods of time. Whilst the salaries might not be the greatest (although they are pretty amazing for entry level workers) the flexible working arrangements and very clear career paths tend to keep people on for many years. I was a public servant for almost 3 years before I turned to private industry, and I couldn’t of done uni and full time work without the arrangements they had available.
After all this, if you still want to hire me remember this: I’m not a permanent replacement and I work for the highest bidder. It’s capitalism in its purest form, but I’ll be sure that you get your moneys worth.
I can’t guarntee that from all contractors though 🙂