Make Maintenance Cool

Posted by / October 26, 2016

make_maintenance_cool.jpgMy name is Nathan, and I’m a podcast addict.

As far as vices go, it’s fairly benign. My latest fix is Freakonomics Radio, produced by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt. You might know them as the authors of four New York Times bestsellers, including Freakonomics and When to Rob a Bank.

The Freakonomics podcast brings Dubner and Levitt’s characteristic humor, academic rigor, and journalistic zeal to nearly every conceivable topic. Their latest episode, In Praise of Maintenance, asks a controversial question that’s particularly relevant for technologists: Has the obsession with innovation gone too far?

As I listened, I couldn’t help but question the weight we give innovation over the more mundane task of maintenance.

The Cult of Innovation

Innovation is embedded in our cultural DNA. The AV and IT industries constantly verify this fact. Just visit any manufacturer’s website or browse technology news to see our obsession with the “next big thing”. We practically shout it out from the rooftops, often in the most grandiose of terms.

This obsession takes many forms. It’s the “cutting edge,” the “future of collaboration/automation/data”, the “digital revolution” we all look to create. And if we aren’t creating it, we’re at least preparing for it.

We rarely, if ever, question the value innovation itself. It’s an unassailable fact we’ve come to accept: innovation rules. All hail the king.

Why We Keep Using These Words

You’ll find other phrases surrounding the praise of innovation. “Collaborative work”, “immersive environments”, and “digitization”, to name a few. But their function is entirely different. “Innovation” is the abstraction of an ideal, while phrases like “collaboration environment” refer to tangible products, services, and platforms.

We use these kinds of phrases all the time in the AV industry to distil raw facts into engaging concepts. The phrase “interactive collaboration hub” is more attractive than a list of product specs. It’s marketing speak, but it does a better job of describing the purpose of a technology than data alone.

The idea of innovation runs deeper. It has become our industry’s identity. When technology companies call themselves innovators, they imply a focus on progress above all. They make innovation out to be the most central aspect of technology integration. We rarely dare to second-guess that value judgment.

Why not?

Of Course, But Maybe…

Of course, innovation and technological progress are extremely important and it would be foolish to try to argue otherwise. And of course, it’s important to look forward and to constantly learn and adapt to change, which is inevitable in every industry.

But maybe innovation isn’t a panacea. Maybe too much focus on innovation can lead to a foolhardy optimism about new technology. Maybe that optimism blinds us to some of the risks we take when we adopt new technologies.

And maybe we often give too much attention and resources to the next big thing. Maybe we should invest more in improving upon what we already have.

Maybe we need maintenance just as much as we need innovation.

The Marketing of Maintenance

Maintenance doesn’t have a nice ring to it. It’s got no spark. Innovation, on the other hand, has an almost mystic aura.

Think of any great innovation and you’ll inevitably recall the mythic personality behind it—Galileo, Da Vinci, Tesla, Edison, Jobs, or Gates. But you probably don’t think about the untold thousands of men whose work laid the foundations for these giants of innovation to build upon.

And as far as I can tell, no one’s publishing “6 Key Pillars of Technology Maintenance”, or giving out awards for “Leading Technology Maintainers.” Why? Because maintenance doesn’t sell. Innovation practically sells itself.

You know what else sells itself? Weight loss pills, detox cleanses, supplement fads, and exercise gadgets. Products that claim to melt away unwanted belly fat fly off the shelves. No real scientific proof behind the product? No problem! Take a hard look at “America’s #1 Selling Weight Loss Supplement Brand” and you’ll see what I mean.

What doesn’t sell is what’s proven. Millions of people want to reach a healthy weight, be happier with how they look and feel, and gain more energy to do the things they love. But we already know how to do that. We’ve known for years. The thing is, you can’t sell caloric deficits or a balanced, nutrient-rich diet of whole foods or regular exercise.

Sometimes the best solution is better maintenance, not more innovation.

But the next big thing will make all of our lives easier!

It’s so much more appealing to simply latch onto that promise, even if it might not be true. So how can we market something like better technology maintenance, which sounds about as much fun as diet and exercise?

First, we have to change the conversation. We have to call for a holistic approach to technology integration. We have to be skeptical of claims that any one innovation will prove to be a silver bullet. Maintenance isn’t exciting—it’s drudgery. But maintenance is as necessary as innovation, if not more so, moving forward.

It Takes Two

As we continue to adopt new technology, rely more on Big Data, and rethink global collaboration, our systems are becoming more complex and difficult to maintain.

There’s so much focus in the media on the glorious future of Artificial Intelligence, automation, Virtual Reality, and the Internet of Things. There’s not as much focus on the disruption and other extreme challenges these technologies may bring.

One day, we won’t be able to pretend those challenges don’t exist.

The maintainers in AV and IT—the ones who design systems, keep them running, and make them secure—may always be our unsung heroes. And technological progress will never lose its appeal. But if we don’t remember the importance of maintenance, we’re likely to find ourselves overwhelmed by the effects of our own innovation.

Look, we all know innovation is cool. And I want more of it, really. I just don’t want us to lose perspective as we race towards the next, the new, the shiny. We should innovate selectively, not just follow trends for the sake of change. And we need to give more value to the work of maintaining the technologies we’ll continue to use for years to come.

As an industry, it’s time to find a better balance between seeking new solutions and taking better care of what already works.