How to be an IT rock star

The recent spate of band reunions and Glastonbury illustrates the longevity of rock music.

But the software industry seems to be stuck on finding the next big thing. Who would ever describe Windows 3.1 as a “classic”? Yet there are some products that somehow get the basics just right, and later releases do not really advance the tech innovation.

The question is how does one go about predicting what technologies will have longevity. There is a lot of industry hype and it is easy today to jump on the artificial intelligence bandwagon or focus on Bitcoin or internet of things. But a quarter of a century ago, there was no such thing as blockchain or Bitcoin and the closest people got to artificial intelligence was at the movies.

Macros and DOS configurations

The big thing then was WordPerfect and config.sys files.

Back in those days, Bruce Momjian, co-founder of the Postgres Core Development Group and chief database architect at EnterpriseDB used to worked as a Unix admin at a law firm, and recalls a story about one of the IT people who also worked at the firm. “There was one guy who created config.sys files and he was an expert in WordPerfect. I’m sure he does nothing with config.sys and WordPerfect macros today. It’s just about trying to figure out the hacks and it is not foundational. While what I learnt as a Unix admin is still relevant.”

He says there is a risk that chasing after what’s hot today may mean you end up with a skill that is not so hot in the future.

“If I wanted to be successful, why would I spend a bunch of years playing with a free piece of software? It doesn’t make any sense. I should have been working on WordPerfect macros.”

Doing practical things works in the short term, but he urges young IT folk to “do the crazy thing” and really look at how they should invest in their long term careers. “It takes a certain insanity and a certain disregard of practicality. It’s not about looking at the technology in order to try to get something done today, but instead understanding the full stack. I say, ignoring today and look to find answers just because you want to find an answer.”

Why system tools are boring

And while everyone know Linus Torvalds, in general, says Momjian, “If you are a creator of an infrastructure tool, you sit in an office and maybe you’re at a conference once every other month.” He argues that no IT decision maker really plans their IT strategy around a scripting language, a compiler or a text editor, or base it around some of the virtualisation tools out there. “They are interesting, but not a core part of a business process in organisations,” he says.

But compared to the early 1990s when Momjian was a Unix admin, proprietary Unix systems are on life support. Compare the proprietary Unix vendors  to the like Microsoft and Oracle, who are still selling relational databases. Since the early 2000s, Momjian has been a database man. “There is a lot of people who find databases really interesting,” he adds.

For Momjian, the database industry is a good industry to be in. And there are some people in the open source community who are jetted around the world to speak to thousands of delegates about their contribution to  database technologies.

For Momjian, these are the true rock stars of the software industry.

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