2nd edition foreword excerpt: The Inmates are Running the Asylum

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In my recent travels I have noticed a growing malaise in the community of programmers. Sadly, it is the best and most experienced of them who are afflicted the worst. They reflect cynicism and ennui about their efforts because they know that their skills are being wasted. They may not know exactly how they are misapplied, but they cannot overlook the evidence. Many of the best programmers have actually stopped programming because they find the work frustrating. They have retreated into training, evangelism, writing, and consulting because it doesn’t feel so wasteful and counterproductive. This is a tragic and entirely avoidable loss. (The open-source movement is arguably a haven for these frustrated programmers—a place where they can write code according to their own standards and be judged solely by their peers, without the advice or intervention
of marketers or managers).

Programmers are not given sufficient time, clear enough direction, or adequate designs to enable them to succeed. These three things are the responsibility of business executives, and they fail to deliver them for preventable reasons, not because they are stupid or evil. They are simply not armed with adequate tools for solving the complex and unique problems that confront them in the information age. Now here I am sounding like I’m slamming people again, only this time businesspeople are in my sights instead of programmers. Once again, to solve the problem one must deconstruct it. I’m questing after solutions, not scapegoats.

During the last few years of the twentieth century, as the dot-com bubble inflated, truckloads of ink were used to sell the idea that there was a "new economy" on the Internet. The pundits said that selling things on the World Wide Web, where stores were made of clicks instead of bricks, was a fundamentally different way of doing business, and that the "old economy" was as good as dead. Of course, almost all of those new-economy companies are dead and gone, the venture capitalists who backed them are in shock, and the pundits who pitched the new economy have now recanted, claiming it was all a hopeless dream. The new, new thinking says we must still be in the old, old economy.

Actually, I believe that we really are in a new economy. What’s more, I think that the dot-coms never even participated in it. Instead, the dot-coms were the last gasp of the old economy: the economy of manufacturing.

In the industrial age, before software, products were manufactured from solid material—from atoms. The money it took to mine, smelt, purchase, transport, heat, form, weld, paint, and transport dominated all other expenditures. Accountants call these "variable costs" because that expense varies directly with each product built. "Fixed costs," as you might expect, don’t vary directly and include things such as corporate administration and the initial cost of the factory.

The classic rules of business management are rooted in the manufacturing traditions of the industrial age. Unfortunately, they have yet to address the new realities of the information age, in which products are no longer made from atoms but are mostly software, made only from the arrangements of bits. And bits don’t follow the same economic rules that atoms do.

Excerpted from The Inmates are Running the Asylum: Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity (2nd edition)
Copyright © 2004 Alan Cooper
Published by Sams Publishing

Alan Cooper
Alan Cooper

Alan Cooper is the co-founder of Cooper and a pioneer of the modern computing era. He created the programming language Visual Basic and wrote industry-standard books on design practice like “About Face.”

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