Last week, the New York Times Magazine posted a fascinating article about the dichotomy of technology found in IT today: the push and pull between the young, entrepreneurial hackers who are looking for the next big thing and the older, more experienced engineers who have seen it all.
This article was interesting to me for several reasons, not the least of which was the fact that I am approaching the half-century mark in the next few years and I work with a lot of younger folks who don't quite see the work we do in the same way. I don't see that as a particularly bad situation; seeing and learning different perspectives is one of the things I like to do.
Another big reason for the interest in this article was the conclusion… that in all of the rush to get the latest and greatest Next Big Thing out there, a lot of shortcuts are being taken and technology quality suffers as a result.
"But the churn feels more problematic now, in part because it deprives the new guard as well as the old — and by extension, it deprives us all. In pursuing the latest and the coolest, young engineers ignore opportunities in less-sexy areas of tech such as semiconductors, data storage, and networking, the products that form the foundation on which all of Web 2.0 rests. Without a good router to provide reliable Wi-Fi, your Dropbox file-sharing application is not going to sync; without Nvidia’s graphics processing unit, your BuzzFeed GIF is not going to make anyone laugh. The talent — and there's a ton of it— flowing into Silicon Valley cares little about improving these infrastructural elements. What they care about is coming up with more web apps."
The New Shiny
Actually this is not a new phenomenon: People are always more interested in building or using the latest shiny automobile than fundamentally improving the roads on which that car has to drive. But as anyone who suffered through this Winter in North America knows, making sure the roads are in good shape is not something that should be a passing concern.
Infrastructure, by definition, is not sexy. If I build a better router or submit a nice patch to the Linux kernel, my efforts will be appreciated, but no one is likely to acquire my company for billions of dollars. But if I build a new app with vague social media potential and no revenue to speak of, well, then ka-ching!
But flash and cash doesn't drive every one. Red Hat, for instance, has done a pretty good job for itself working on and supporting Linux, which is, at the end of the day, infrastructure. Moreover, the company has fostered the development of a host of other infrastructure technologies, such as [OpenStack] (http://openstack.redhat.com/Main_Page), [Gluster] (http://www.gluster.org/), and [oVirt] (http://www.ovirt.org/Home), all by working with those respective communities in an open source way.
Working on infrastructure isn't going to turn a lot of heads, but it's the groundwork on which all of those entrepreneurs (and small businesses and enterprises and governments…) can get their ideas created and their work done. It's decent work, our parents' generation might say; something to be proud of.
Innovation still happens: Networks can get faster, roads smoother, pipes stronger, operating systems better. The team at my own project, oVirt, has done some nice things with virtual datacenter management that will knock the socks off of anyone looking for managing their own virtual machines, something that will be noticed even more when release 3.4 comes out soon. Being in infrastructure doesn't mean throwing innovation out the window.
Does oVirt get the same attention as the flashy start up in Silicon Valley? Nope, but that's not the point. Sometimes the point is to get things done and make it better for those who do.