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James Martin - guru?

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James Martin popped up on BBC Radio 4's Start the Week yesterday, mapping out technology futures.

I go back a long way with James Martin - not personally you understand, although I met him once. His seminal book on Computer Database Organisation was largely responsible for me becoming a DBA instead of a programmer.

With hindsight, I came to think that this work was less than prophetic, certainly in its details, although I suppose it did predict the current ubiquity of RDBMS. I suspect it was, even then, a compendium of current knowledge given a predictive slant, although it was a pretty solid piece of work, even so.

Next, I came across the James Martin factory, generating thick books and expensive seminars for IT managers and business executives trying to take control of IT. Remember Information Engineering (IE), the CASE toolset, and James Martin Associates (JMA)? As I remember it, JMA wasn't exactly all that much to do with James Martin in its day-to-day operation when I met it, but it still had a massive portrait of James Martin hanging, Mao-like, in its stair well.

And JMA's IE was actually dangerous - as I remember it, you couldn't proceed to the next stage in this version of IE until every jot and tittle of the previous stage was documented and validated in the Repository. This was the opposite of Agile and was probably the ultimate source of the damaging distrust of automated model-driven development shown by leading Agile practitioners today.

The theory of IE was, in fact, more or less right - but the JMA implementation was fascistic and unworkable - or so I told my employers at the time, if not in quite those words. Admittedly, it lightened up a bit later. Modelling was important, but Tom DeMarco was already pointing out more agile ways forward.

With a little more insight, IE could have been part of this movement earlier: as it was, I think it (or rather the JMA version of it) helped delay Application Lifecycle Management and MDA approaches by about 10 years. Oh, and I found that we could get affordable, interactive, non-prescriptive mentoring on the DeMarco approach from the Atlantic Systems Guild.

Mid-sentence

Around 1996, I actually met James Martin at one his seminars, courtesy of a press invite to promote his book, Cybercorp - The New Business Revolution. The very expensive seminar was quite something – a sort-of brain dump of conventional (although forward-looking) wisdom, delivered at a gallop. When time was up it stopped dead, almost in mid-sentence, as I remember it.

However, something was obviously working because when I interviewed Martin in his penthouse flat overlooking the Thames, the decor was to die for and he was surrounded by a bevy of gorgeous PR and research assistants. Obviously, he is far richer than I'm ever likely to be (when Martin Banks met him, he was apparently renting an Irish castle for a year, just to write another book).

And he was very bright and well-informed and happy to talk about how he was now producing all those authoritative books – with teams of researchers producing works that simply needed to have the franchise "badge" applied. I think he was even happy to admit that there was little new in his futurology output, just a smart retelling of what everyone else "in the know" was saying.

So, is this a problem? Yes, for the reasons I touched on with IE. Managers attending seminars given by industry gurus probably aren't listening to their own staff, who can probably gaze into the future too, but with their feet more firmly on the ground.

Good ideas sketched out in expensive futurologist's seminars can have horrendous practical implications that the guru simply skips over – and when your troops do fall over these (and their managers, having heard the guru, are far from sympathetic), good ideas can be abandoned or put back for decades.

Obviously, you don't want to be stuck with the status quo forever, but gaze into the future with care. Beware of personality cults (that around Bill Gates just as much as that around James Martin). And if you must get advice from gurus, try people like Tom DeMarco (who has some practical humility), who also provide (affordable) mentoring services (and, ideally, with some sort of enforceable SLA) to help get you from where you are to where you want to be.

And if you do get a glimpse of The One True Way, discuss it with the technicians and influencers back at base. And don't impose your new-found vision on them; really listen to what they say, because the people at the sharp end really do know things.

Martin Banks has a story from another engineering field illustrating just this point. Many years ago, his father was in charge of repairs at De Havilland Aircraft – when one crashed, he had to sort it out and, if it could be repaired, organise the engineering design work.

Martin's eldest brother started working for his father and, when a plane had a small prang, Father sent son to sort it out. "But father," says son, "What do I do, or say or...anything?"

His father's reply was simple.

"Stand there with the engineering drawings, a pad, ruler and pencil. Go 'hmmm' and walk round the plane a few times. One of the resident engineers will ask 'would this work?' or 'could you try that?' Write down what they say, for they will be telling you the answers."

Sure enough, son comes back to office, goes through the suggestions, draws up the engineering repair spec - and at the end the customer sends a letter saying: "What a brilliant job, great engineering, just like his father." ®

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