Hanlon’s Razor   Leave a comment

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”Wikipedia article

Pete Yost of the Associated Press reports (via law.com) on the now-infamous loss of a large volume of email from the Whitehouse email archive. Although many believe the loss of this data to be suspiciously convenient for the Bush Administration, the description provided in this article leads me to believe that this is all-too likely explained by simple idiocy. Some money quotes from the article:

“I would call this negligence,” said Mark Epstein, director of technical services for Cataphora Inc., a California company that specializes in retrieval and analysis of electronic information.

The White House e-mail troubles began in 2002 with a decision to upgrade electronic message capabilities and move from Lotus Notes to Microsoft Exchange.

“This is the first time I’ve personally run across this kind of process for archiving; the White House relied on human beings to do specific manual processes on a regular basis and I would not recommend it,” said William Tolson, who has consulted on e-mail problems for hundreds of companies and state and local governments.

Computer experts point out that the switch to a new system that the White House botched is successfully accomplished every year for e-mail systems that serve much larger numbers of users than the 2,000 at the White House.

Having done a few transitions from system A to system B, and seen several others in practice done by various people in various sets of circumstances, I can all too well imagine how this project managed to befoul itself. Moving from one monolithic system (Lotus Notes) to another (Exchange) requires a well thought out transition plan, which requires either (a) someone well versed in both monolithic systems, or (b) someone who will manage two people who are well versed in each monolithic system and keep outside agendas from placing pressure on either of the two experts. Finding someone well versed in both Notes and Exchange is pretty hard; finding someone who can keep two experts focused on the transition while dealing with outside pressures is just as difficult.

Monolithic systems transitions all too often are less concerned with preserving data than they are with the functionality desired “post-transition”. This is understandable: the whole point of moving from one system to another is to get where you’re going, and get away from where you’ve been. Managing this process intelligently requires you to step back from this pressure and figure out not only where you want to be, but how you don’t lose the good parts of whatever you’re discarding (e.g., the old data).

It’s a pretty rare transition where you can just discard the whole kit n’ kaboodle of the old system.

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Posted March 3, 2008 by padraic2112 in management, tech

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