Good principles make terrible laws

Technology projects often aspire to ideals like “reuse”. They’re so reasonable, so easily trotted out as justification for project direction. But left unexamined and unconscious, easy to swallow orthodoxy is choking. Time to look again.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

To quote George Bernard Shaw, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man”.

Let’s get unreasonable about the dogmas of technology.

Helpful becomes harmful

The world changed. We need to adapt. It’s a truism, but no less true for it. The ability to perceive your own preconceptions and question them with curiosity and without judgement is perhaps the single most valuable tool for our own development and progress and for the lives of those around us.

We all have beliefs about life and how things should work. Most of them are part-right and good for a time. The corollary is where we hold fast to un-examined, obsolete and broken beliefs, this keeps us paddling hard upstream. Looking busy, burning energy, pouring away time, trying to “do the right thing”. Serving the belief but yielding no real progress for ourselves. The idea may even still be partly true, but as the saying goes, “beware of the half truth. You may have gotten hold of the wrong half”.

However noble and well intentioned our principles, one thing you can count on is if you hold rigidly to ideas that aren’t absolute, bad things will happen.

Spoiler alert: no grand idea in business or technology is absolute. And pretty much nothing else we’ve come up with in human history is either. The sooner we’re able to understand the limits of an idea’s helpfulness, and back off when it becomes unhelpful, the less harm will come to us and those around us.

Each discipline we encounter seems to go through the patterned throes of human development: rise and fall, mania and remorse, devastation and rebirth. Politics, faith, finance, health, management, leadership. Diverse, but human. Tech is no exception. The community learns and evolves over time.

Thank goodness for a growth mindset. Fighting the inevitable is exhausting and exquisitely fruitless.

Questioning, learning and moving along your own path is challenging, but it’s a lot more rewarding than raging against the dying of your light. The world will in fact carry on quite happily without your opinion until the “obvious yet surprising” dawns on you. Then your next season of growth can begin.

Tech imitates life

The technology world is suffused with its own kaleidoscope of folklore, legend and cult followings. Travelling salesmen, motivational speakers and super-stars create reality distortion fields that the rest of us have to navigate. Each one campaigning for their particular brand, politics and worldview, none of which are entirely valid and some of which are more honest than others. “Information Superhighway!” “Big Data!” “Blockchain!”. That’s life.

Evolution is a messy business. Going through it with kindness makes it more human.

“Computer science” is a misnomer. Not only is it one of the most creative industries around, weaving the fabric of our modern world into an invisible sculpture of planetary scale, it’s also a thriving sociopolitical melting pot — the moreso because rational minds tend to be less adept at perceiving the emotions that drive them.

From hobby-horse arguments about “my programming language is better than yours” and whether tabs or spaces will lay out your code most beautifully, to the nuanced and effervescent issues of privacy, ethics and how code shapes our global society, it’s a landscape that aches with the burdens, large and small, of a myriad shades of humanity.

In this tumult, locked down beliefs about technology practice — maxims and platitudes that don’t look up to ask why and engage with hard questions — don’t work for long. Short-term, day to day survival, squeezing the teabag of of yesterday’s wisdom, is a pragmatic but short runway. Life gets weak if we don’t stop and wonder again under the night sky.

A new technology strategy

When the fundamental dynamics of a marketplace change, an organisation must redesign it’s strategy or it’ll keep on driving itself deeper into trouble. In the same way, failing to recognise the fundamental shift in the forces at play in building value with technology will lead to painful relearning.

Let’s be clear, I’m not advocating better principles. I’m pointing out that “many hands make light work” and “too many cooks spoil the broth” live in tension rather than in contradiction. Understanding the limitations of what was handed down to you — even understanding that those beliefs are there and can be questioned — will help you make better judgement calls.

No one’s perfect and perfection isn’t the point. We make progress through supportive hard questions from people we trust. Ultimately, let’s not make this a new orthodoxy. Good principles make terrible laws, so we need to be fluent in the language of our context to be able to name their limitations.

Looking again and consciously seeing what we take for granted, being honest with ourselves and listening to our inklings, considering how our own right answers change through time. That’s progress.

Hands-on culture and techology. Work hard be kind. Chief Engineer and head geek at Foundry4 (

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