On Digital Projects and the London Underground…

I just got back from a week in London. I was speaking at the First Line Software Summit, and I was able to bring my wife (thanks Marcus Portström).

Annie and I spent a few days seeing the sites. As such, we were on and off The Underground multiple times a day (the Shepherd’s Bush station was right next to our hotel).

I love The Underground. It’s like magic. Just find any station and you can get anywhere in the city. You disappear from one spot and appear in a spot a little later. We never had to transfer more than once.

(Yes, yes, I know. This is just good public transportation. But understand that I’ve never lived in a city with a commonly-used public transportation system. If you have one, don’t take it for granted.)

The system dates back to 1863. In the intervening 160-ish years, its grown to serve 272 stations on 11 lines. Three million people travel on it every day.

The whole thing got me thinking about The Underground as a complex, organic, evolving system. It has stocks and flows, decision points, branches, nodes and vertices, dynamic loads, etc.

Additionally, it’s a critical system which is never out of use. You can’t just shut the whole thing down to work on it. If you do anything to it, you need redundancies, backup plans, temporary procedures, etc. It’s not a system existing only in theory that you can tear down and rebuild for giggles. It’s something that simply has to work, regardless of your future dreams and goals for it. Its functioning at all times is a basic requirement you simply have to work around.

(Consider: how would you maintain a plane that could never land?)

And, like my observations about NYC a couple weeks ago, The Underground is under constant reinvention. It’s never…done. Different parts of it are being refreshed and improved at different rates and states of completion. Whomever manages it is really just riding herd over a collection of projects bolted to a never-ending service. It’s kind of a living, breathing thing that has to continuing functioning at all times.

You see where I’m going with this, right?

There’s a parallel here with our digital estates. They’re never done. They just keep evolving over time. And, sure, you can develop an individual property in parallel without disrupting the current version, but your digital estate in aggregate is a product that never goes offline – any constituent part of is just one branch with its own lifecycle.

When I was at Iowa State back in the 90s, there were a bunch of Englishmen there getting degrees in “Logistics.” They were going back home to work on The Underground.

I asked one of them what he was learning. He said something like, “We’re learning how to do a spinal cord transplant while the patient is walking down the street.”

That probably sounds familiar to a lot of digital managers. It’s a specialized skill. God bless you all.

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