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How bad BI could dampen innovation

We all know BI’s ostensible price tag: the software, the hardware and the peopleware. But a new essay by Paul Graham, author of Hackers and Painters, programmer and venture capitalist, suggests that poorly managed BI might have yet another cost: the cost of thwarting creativity and zeal.

In business, we try to control what we must. We watch, deliberate, reflect and predict. We’re often neurotic. With BI, we watch more closely than ever.

Graham talks about how these “checks”—such as procedures to verify a vendor’s solvency—inflate the cost of software. He writes that programmers are especially sensitive to checks, which can drive them out of their minds or out of the company.

For good programmers, one of the best things about working for a startup is that there are few checks on releases. In true startups, there are no external checks at all. If you have an idea for a new feature in the morning, you can write it and push it to the production servers before lunch. And when you can do that, you have more ideas.

At big companies, software has to go through various approvals before it can be launched. And the cost of doing this can be enormous—in fact, discontinuous. I was talking recently to a group of three programmers whose startup had been acquired a few years before by a big company. When they’d been independent, they could release changes instantly. Now, they said, the absolute fastest they could get code released on the production servers was two weeks.

This didn’t merely make them less productive. It made them hate working for the acquirer.

He writes about software and programmers, but you know this happens in many other industries. More people than we realize are like those programmers. Most people can’t flee to a startup, so they smother the inner artist and gear down.

If, as Steve Jobs has been quoted, “Artists ship,” then artists hate it when they can’t ship. Programmers are particularly vulnerable to checks, writes Graham. “These guys would have paid to be able to release code immediately.” He goes on, “If you don’t let people ship, you don’t have any artists.”

There we go again: It’s the soft stuff that matters.

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