What’s New: Fads and Lasting Value

We’ve all seen it: a new, trendy concept or buzzword gets some press coverage, and suddenly it’s the only thing anyone can talk about. Whether it’s relevant or not – and it’s usually not – the new apple of everyone’s eye gets brought up incessantly in any conversation, being shoehorned into discussions it has no business being a part of.

Technology is especially ripe for new, trendy concepts and buzzwords to get a lot of mindshare very quickly, due to its focus on identifying and developing the next big thing. The problem comes when these ideas are applied so indiscriminately that they lose all meaning.

Anyone who’s watched almost any area of technology over a period of time will have seen this phenomenon play out, often multiple times. Suddenly every problem could be solved if only everyone adopted this new buzzword, right now.

In networking in particular, technology has an odd cyclical quality. There is a solid argument that very little is really new in networking: the majority of concepts and technologies spun as ground-shaking innovations by vendors today are either natural progressions of age-old concepts or new implementations of ideas that didn’t work 20 years ago.

One of today’s biggest buzzwords is machine learning, or the ability of algorithms to ‘learn’ from datasets rather than having to be explicitly programmed to reach a desired outcome. A few minutes spent looking at industry news will show plenty of headlines about how seemingly any problem can be solved this way, even those that have little to do with the advantages the technology can provide.

This is not to say that machine learning doesn’t have many very useful applications – it certainly does, and applied correctly the technology looks to be a very powerful solution. I bring it up not to disparage its use or attempts to better solve pressing problems, but it exposes a classic example of hype that can be damaging to the future of a technology.

If too much hype is attached to a technology that then fails to live up to it, many will write off the technology as a fad, a flash in the pan that wasn’t worth the time spent writing about it. And in some cases, this is warranted: if a technology doesn’t solve the problem it was intended to address, then it should rightfully die off.

But often, as is the case currently with machine learning, a new technology is used as a buzzword so consistently across areas that it has no fair chance or intention of solving well, and when to little surprise it fails to revolutionise those applications, it is judged more harshly than is fair, if its original design intent were properly considered.

For example, a new bicycle isn’t expected to match the acceleration of a sports car, but it has many other attributes that for some applications, make it far more desirable. It would seem silly to recommend a bicycle for travelling 70 miles per hour, but that’s often what hyperbolic headlines in the technology press (and equally hyperbolic statements by those in the industry) are doing.

 Whether designing a network, a product, a service or anything else – there are two ways to achieve success:

1. Be at the forefront of a large shift in technology or society, and capitalise on it better than anyone else by executing a forward-thinking vision that no-one else sees.

2. Identify a problem, devise a way to solve it that uses a solid understanding of what people will really value, and execute on it well.

Of these, the first is far more attractive – who doesn’t want to be the wizard who saw a tiny spec of an opportunity and made it into an industry-shifting phenomenon? But it’s also far less common and far harder to achieve. The second is the path to repeatable, consistent success, but it’s often difficult to keep focused on it with buzzwords flying around.

Here is a clue: if your idea is simply to use a new technology or buzzword that you’ve heard, you are going down the wrong path. When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail as the saying goes: and if all you have is IoT, machine learning or another recent media darling technology, suddenly it too will appear to be the answer to all your problems, and those of your potential customers.

Nothing will cause you to lose faith in a technology faster than attempting to force it to solve problems it was never designed for. Suddenly you feel as if the technology has let you down – but really it was your fault for trying to use it improperly. Technology is a tool, not a holy grail; it matters what you do with it, not that you merely have it or talk about it.

In your next network design or product concept, if you’re thinking about a problem and a new technology looks to be the way to solve it most effectively: by all means integrate it into your design. Remember that solving the problem is your goal, not how many buzzwords you can use in a sentence to describe your new design.

If, however, regardless of the problem, that new technology flashes with a neon sign in your mind telling you it’s the answer to everything: beware. The chances are you don’t fully understand the technology or its real implications, the problems it is trying to solve and more importantly, those it isn’t trying to solve.

Tried and tested ways for creating lasting value may not be as trendy as trying to incorporate the latest buzzwords, but they are far more consistently effective. When the shine has worn off the latest technology, and perhaps it’s even been replaced, a design incorporating it to solve a well-defined and applicable problem is no less valuable.

A design merely using it because it’s the flavour of the month, however, will be in serious trouble.

Design and execute for lasting value, and the rest will fall into place. Ignore fads wherever you can.

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