Peter Bye, December 2017
On 6th December, I called Elf Tietokone, the CIO of SantaSystems which, you may remember, is the IT arm of SantaPrise in Lapland. I picked the date to say ‘Happy Birthday’ to Finland, because it is 100 years since it gained independence. As I expected, there were sounds of a considerable celebration – the elves were obviously enjoying themselves. However, Elf found time to have a very interesting discussion about some of the things he has been doing and his future plans.
When we last talked, he said he had been struggling with the planning of Santa’s Christmas Eve route. It’s an example of the Travelling Salesperson Problem (TSP): how to compute the shortest route between all the destinations going through each only once. Even with the aid of the supercomputers now installed, the problem remained intractable. A group at the University of Waterloo in Canada had managed to solve the problem for about 100 times more stops than any previous attempt. The group used a dataset of 24,727 pubs in the UK. However, that number is trivial compared with Santa’s itinerary.
Elf had decided to look at quantum computing, to see if it could help, but found that the TSP cannot be solved using quantum computers, at least based on what is currently known. It’s not that we don’t yet have a big enough quantum computer; the class of problem appears not to be amenable to quantum computation. However, factorisation of large numbers is amenable, which is likely to lead to breaking RSA encryption. Elf had started investigations two years ago to find an alternative approach. Quantum encryption may come to the rescue; it’s already in some commercial use.
What else has been happening? SantaSystems has started several projects with ClearPath® Software Series, for test and development, and production as well. Early results look very positive.
And thinking of projects, Elf has decided to capitalise on SantaSystems’ many years of experience in project work by providing consultancy to other IT organisations. He says that there are four conditions that must be met to maximise the chances of success. Putting it another way, if some or all of the conditions are not met, the likelihood of failure is raised.
The first condition is that there must be a clear and agreed objective – what the project is intended to deliver. In addition, all those involved should want the project to succeed. This includes not just the people doing the work, and their management, but also those who are expected to use the result. For example, a project to deliver a system for people providing healthcare should get buy-in from the doctors and others who are expected to use it.
The second is that the people doing the work should know what they are doing; expertise really does matter. This includes all the people involved, not just technicians. Those making purchasing decisions, for instance, should understand what they are buying or they are likely to succumb to what he called the ‘lowest cost shoot-out’.
Next, there should be sufficient resources available for implementing the project, and during its life after completion. Resources obviously include time and money to pay for the people, facilities and products required. They may also include the provision of trained staff to ensure that the project continues to deliver what is expected.
The final condition is that there should be a willingness to report problems and to deal with them as quickly as possible. There is always a danger that problems could be swept under the carpet because they are inconvenient. Those pointing out difficulties are sometimes discouraged from doing so and even penalised. The right approach is to encourage people to raise doubts and questions at the earliest opportunity. The only offence should be failure to report difficulties.
Elf says that this seems obvious, so it’s surprising that many projects start and continue without meeting the conditions. In particular, the final condition – responsiveness to problems – is all too often ignored in IT projects. The result is that the industry does not learn from its mistakes. This is in stark contrast with civil aviation and the nuclear power industry, for example, where every deviation from the expected, up to and including serious accidents, is investigated and lessons shared across the industry.
That’s all for 2017!
Hyvää Joulua ja Onnelista Uutta Vuotta from Santa, Elf Tietokone and all at SantaPrise!