The parable of the 56k modem

My uncle held on to his 56k modem for years. We tried, and tried, to persuade him to switch to broadband, but he was absolutely convinced that 56k was all that he would ever need or want. It wasn’t about the money, or the hassle, or an intentional desire to limit his internet use – he had a system that worked well enough, and didn’t see a reason to change it.

Until, of course, his modem broke, and it was faster and easier just to call the cable company and get a cable modem installed. As you might imagine, he was blown away when the web suddenly became something that could be used without constantly waiting and watching hourglass animations.

My uncle is smart, highly educated, urbane, witty. He isn’t an engineer, but he’s reasonably tech-savvy. It’s easy to laugh at the mistake, but you and I, and most everyone we know, are also holding on to something that’s way past its expiration date. It could be a tool, a technology, a process, a team, an aspect of your company’s culture, or the company itself.

  • The engineer who eschews an IDE in favor of emacs or vim, because of the investment she’s put into her macros and her comfort with its commands
  • The engineering manager who insists on spending half her time coding, even as her growing team’s needs start to suffer
  • The CEO who refuses to fund an expansion of the operations team, even as the rest of the company and its operational needs swell
  • The project manager who continues to use Excel spreadsheets to track projects with increasingly complex interactions
  • The engineer who stays at a company way past the point at which it’s her best option

In general, this happens with something that was a good choice, once. You got used to something, or have a sense of being locked in (I’m looking at you, emacs users), and got trapped in a local maxima. Sometimes, a certain enforced minimalism can be empowering (George R R Martin famously does his writing on a 30 year old word processor on a computer without spell-check or internet access), but generally only when it’s a conscious choice, not the result of a blind refusal to learn something new.

The funny thing is how easy this is to see in others, and how hard to see in yourself. I try to make a point of listening when someone tells me that there’s a better way, but you also can’t second guess yourself on everything and still manage to get anything done between waking and sleeping. It’s a tough balance, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that somehow, in ways I can’t even begin to guess, I’m still on dial-up.

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