Software is among the most advanced, rapidly changing fields of technology. Only the "kids" who grew up with the latest techniques seem to be able to master them. At the same time, really bad ideas spread through software groups like the plague; they take hold and resist cure, in spite of producing terrible results. How can we make sense out of a field that advances rapidly and resists change at the same time?
As I've pointed out, software people are strongly averse to learning about computer history. In some fields (e.g. physics), the very terms used are named after historical figures; in others, history is treated with reverence (e.g., Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."); in software, by contrast, we use the phrase "that's history" to dismiss anything that happened in the past as obviously irrelevant to the present.
I think studying history is the only way to understand the present, software included. I think we can understand the strange software phenomenon of rapid change combined with resistance to change by taking two examples from history: one in which new methods in technology were rapidly accepted by all concerned parties, and the other in which clearly superior new methods were resisted for many long years by the leading people in the field.
It would be great if software advances were adopted quickly, like the way steam technology rapidly overcame wind as a method for moving boats.
Vanderbilt started in business by running a sailing-boat "taxi" service from Staten Island to Manhattan. He transitioned into the rapidly emerging steam boat transportion business, not only as a captain and owner, but (surprisingly to me) as an engineer.
The public took to the new steamboats quickly. The reason is clear: speed. There was, at the time, no quicker way to get from point A to point B if there were a water route between them. The speed of the boat was immediately obvious to the simple observer, and easy to verify by noting departure and arrival times. To prove whose boat was the fastest, there were races.
Vanderbilt's steamboats were judged by a clear standard: whose was the fastest? The criteria were easy to measure.
The benefits of antiseptic surgery, as introduced by Joseph Lister, were clear: instead of a large number of patients dying of infection after surgery, they would live. Ego clearly played a role in resisting the adoption of the new method. But, to be fair, there is another important factor.
What made surgery different from steamboats? They were both major technical advances. They both involved major changes in what you did and how you did it -- more so with boats than with surgery! So why did steam catch on quickly, even though they required whole new boats of radically different design and operation, while the antiseptic method was resisted for decades, even though it was subsidiary to the surgery itself, which was left largely unchanged?
Boats and Surgery
The fact that steamboats were faster than sailboats was easy and unambiguous to measure, while the surgery outcomes were difficult and ambiguous to measure.
The time of each boat trip is easy to measure. It's just a time duration. When you watch two boats, anyone can see which one moves more quickly. By contrast, every surgery is different. The patient is different, the trouble being fixed is different, and the ultimate outcome may not be determined for weeks. Many surgery patients continued to die with antiseptic methods because it wasn't the only factor influencing the outcome. Furthermore, excellent surgeons who were dirty could save patients that would have been killed by crappy surgeons who happened to use antiseptic methods, since after all not every patient got infected.
In retrospect, it's completely maddening that surgeons failed to be swayed by the arguments and evidence in favor of Lister's carbolic acid methods, and ego certainly played a role. But the case of the rapid acceptance of the more radical change to steam in boats makes it clear that something more than ego is at work here. Simply put, it is how comparable and measurable are the outcomes of the new technology? With steamboats, you can tell the difference in seconds with the naked eye, and verify it with a stopwatch. No arguments. With surgery, the cases are not clearly and unambiguously comparable, statistics are needed, and there is major variability. There is room for arguments.
Software, steamboats and antiseptic surgery
Is any given advance in software like moving from sailboats to steamboats, or is it more like adding antiseptic methods to surgery?
That's easy: unlike straightforward competitions like races, every software project is different. In a race, the competitors take off from a starting line at the same time, and whichever crosses the finish line first is the winner. Simple! But in the real world of software, every project is different; you can always point to differences in requirements, conditions, deployment, or other things to explain why this project took more time and resources than that project. It sounds like software is kind of like surgery!
It is my personal experience and judgment that ego can play a significant role in explaining why many software groups stay mired in the same old methods, getting the same lousy results, year after year. But I think that if software projects were as comparable as transportation schedules, the evidence would simply force more rapid change, like it or not, on intransigent software groups. But because of how genuinely challenging it is to compare software projects to each other, it is at least understandable how only the most enterprising and eager-to-be-the-best software groups seek out and adopt the very best methods.