Dave got his start in media, but moved to the public sector when the Government Digital Service hired him as a technical architect. He worked his way up the ranks and is now the CTO for the Ministry of Justice.
In his various positions in both the private and the public sector, Dave has come to learn that hype around innovation is probably just that–hype. We talk to him about how falling in love with “hype technology” (the hot new tech of the moment) may actually hinder an organization’s efforts to innovate.
Dave also points out that the opposite of hot new technology, legacy technology, is problematic for organizations large and small. He refers to this as the “toxicity of legacy”. Toxicity caused by older software and systems that are poorly supported, hard to update, poorly documented, non-compliant or inefficient.
You can find Dave on LinkedIn.
Legal Tech Founder Segment: Crawford Appleby of Rulings.law
Things we talk about in this episode:
Started In Media and Entertainment Industry
In today’s episode, we talk to Dave Rogers. He is the Chief Technology Officer and interim Head of Digital at the Ministry of Justice in the U.K. For our Legal Founders segment, we talk to Crawford Appleby about his app “rulings.law.”
In this episode, we are very honored to have Dave Rogers as our guest. Dave is the Chief Technology Officer and the Head of Digital at the Ministry of Justice in the United Kingdom. For us yankees, the Ministry of Justice is kind of like our DOJ. I reached out to Dave about being a guest on the podcast after reading an article on Medium. The article he wrote is entitled, “Hype Technology is Killing Innovation.” The gist of the article is that innovation is very difficult, and sometimes easy to fall prey to the innovation façade. That is, adopting the technology flavor of the month to create the appearance that something is actually being done to innovate. Come to find out, Dave has a lot of good articles on Medium, and I encourage you to check them out. We’ll post a link to some of them on the episode page at tlpodcast.com.
Before Dave moved over to the public sector, his background was in media where he worked in both print and television, or as they would say on the other side of the Atlantic, “the telly.”
Dave: I came to London to join The Guardian newspaper. That was my first kind of proper job, I guess, and I was a software developer there. I was learning a lot about how to do agile software development. I was doing a bit of programming. It was a really exciting environment. I was only at The Guardian briefly, but I learned a lot during that period.
Then went of the BBC, and did several different types of software development role, and moving into kind of technical architecture and technical leadership. That was running through lots of different productions at the BBC. So I was involved with a lot of radio and music stuff at the beginning; that moved into things related to T.V. programs. The most exciting point at the BBC was towards the end, so I did loads of work around the 2012 Olympics. So we built lots of data platforms, lots of APIs and data processing pipelines, and we were just trying to get all that data that was flowing through from the live event, getting that out to the website and the T.V. data visuals. And then, towards the end, worked on a really interesting project around modeling data for T.V. programs. So that was using a lot of weird and wonderful knowledge representation technology, semantic web technology.
And then, it was around about 2013, I saw a talk at QCon, the conference was running in London. It was by Matt Wall, who at that point was working for Government Digital Service, and he was kind of selling this idea that really hadn’t occurred to me before, which is: you can work for government, but actually do that in a way that you were using a lot of very modern software practices. I think he was explaining that that was a very hard thing to do; there was a lot of complexity that you had to clear out of the way first. But that was first point at which it clicked to me that you could do some really valuable public sector work, without having to kind of go back on a lot of those principle that I’d learned in what were then more progressive technology organizations.
Moved to Government
Chad: Did you have an interest in government before you saw this talk and it clicked with you?
Dave: I’ve always kind of tried to choose jobs where there’s a mission I believe in, and I don’t think I’d honestly thought about working for government until that talk. I probably had started to hear some of the buzz around Government Digital Service, which peaked my interest.
Chad: And for the non-U.K. listeners, what is the GDS?
Dave: The Government Digital Service, that was founded around 2011-2012 I think, it was a kind of foundation of an entirely new organization that had never existed in government before to lead on technology. And then this kind of newish word, “digital,” obviously the word “digital” had been around for a long time, but it had a kind of new meaning, and it was about bringing internet era thinking into the government sector. It’s things like agile software development, things like user set to design. Some of these things were largely new to the public sector, and it was an organization founded on some very strong principles that started to bring those ideas into government.
Chad: And that piqued your interest with your tech background, I take it.
Dave: Really piqued my interest, yeah. Because I remember in the early days of my career working on projects, and seeing all these problem emerge, and not really realizing that it was because of this thing called Waterfall that I’d never really heard of, this kind of up-from-planning way of creating technology.
Chad: Project management. Waterfall Project Management, right?
Dave: Yeah, yeah. Waterfall Project Management never really grappled with the uncertainty of technology. It’s a very complicated, unpredictable medium to work with, particularly like digital technology. And yeah, those principles really struck a chord with me when I first came across them principally at The Guardian. And then to see those kind of brought into government was a real eye opener for me. It’s like, “Oh, brilliant. I feel like I can contribute in that space.”
Chad: So in 2013, Dave made the jump from the private to the public sector when he was hired by the U.K. Government Digital Service office as a Technical Architect. As Dave explains, the agency is charged with helping to facilitate and implement the use of technology by government agencies to create a better user experience for its citizens. Dave worked his way up the ladder, and is now the CTO and acting Head of Digital for the Ministry of Justice.
Dave: I’m Chief Technology Officer, which is what you might say is my main job, and I’ve been doing that for a couple of years now. And that’s leading the technical strategy across the department. I’m also wearing the Head of Digital hat right now, which, I’m covering for the very awesome Helen Mott, who’s currently on maternity leave. And that’s kind of pushing my role into areas like the delivery of a range of services for different users, whether that’s staff or public users.
We’re also really getting under the skin of what our digital strategy is. So, what are our priorities going to be around how we transform what is still very much a paper-based industry, the industry of justice? And there’s a huge number of paths through bringing technology into justice, and that’s kind of what the digital strategy is about: understanding where those priorities are, what opportunities we should be seizing. So it goes beyond technology into, really, the transformation of the organization and the wider justice system.
Chad: For people that might be listening outside of the U.K., at a real high level, what’s the jurisdiction for the Ministry of Justice, or how does it compare to, in the United States, the Department of Justice?
Dave: So the Ministry of Justice is kind of a family of organizations oriented around a kind of corporate center. So that family includes prisons and probation, it includes the legal aid agency, which is about giving legal aid for various eligible parties, it’s the office of the public guardian that deals with things like the lasting power of attorney, where you dealing with its use of lost mental capacity, and the criminal injuries and compensation authority, which is an agency that provides funds to victims of crime. And then, finally, and there’s slightly more independence in this space, there’s the Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service, and then onwards to the judiciary, who are obviously a kind of fully independent entity that we work very, very closely with. And that covers all of our court processes, both things like family court, but also criminal courts and tribunals of various persons. So it’s quite a broad room.
Chad: And your responsibility is to head up digital for all those different areas of the MoJ, right?
Dave: To head up the digital strategy, yes. It’s gets a bit more complex in terms of delivery, so we’ve kind of got three centers of digital delivery at the moment, or actually arguably four. So there’s three that are part of the center, and that is our, we’ve got an awesome team in Sheffield who are doing mainly prisons and probations-focused work, we’ve got a couple of teams that are largely London based, but also working in Birmingham, and they’re focused around legal aid agency of the guardian, and then our kind of core central digital that does a kind of range of activities that relate to kind of cross-justice or kind of staff-facing services. And also, we have another great team up in Glasgow, Carole Oatway’s team, but that’s the criminal injuries and compensation authority.
Tech used by the Ministry of Justice
Chad: It goes without saying, as Chief Technology Officer for the MoJ, Dave is involved in the development of tech used by the organization, tech used by both the general public and by government employees. The MoJ has several apps, including one that can be used to schedule prison visits, and another one that’s used internally to locate other government employees.
Dave: So in terms of public-basing tech, we’ve got… Some of our earliest services we’ve delivered are things like the prison-visit booking, so allowing somebody to arrange to go and visit someone in prison. Similarly, there’s a kind of service to be able to transfer money to people in prisons so that they can buy the basics for themselves in prisons. We’ve got services that relate to very specific processes like applications for lasting power of attorney. We’ve got our partners over in HMCTS are delivering things like the emerging, kind of online divorce services. And then you’ve got a kind of huge range of informational services.
So we produce every kind of, very carefully designed content to help people navigate through some of the hardest points in their lives, whether that’s separating families, or people who are trying to seek access to legal aid. In effect, the ambition there is for any process that somebody needs to go through a court, which will sometimes involve legal aid, and for criminal courts may end up with people in prison or probation, we want any public interaction to be available online, and be as simple and accessible as possible for people. That’s the ambition. And I guess on those things I described, are kind of, those on the foothills of delivering that.
Chad: What’s an example of some internal-facing tech that the team is working on, that helps people working there at the Ministry get their daily jobs done?
Dave: One of the products we build is a very simple product. It’s called “People Finder.” It’s a service that allows you to look up anyone that works in the organization and access the basic details about them. So, I.D., a photograph, it might tell you what building they’re located in and what days of the week they typically work. And we found that an enormously valuable service for people to be able to find each other in a huge organization like the Ministry of Justice. We’ve got about, eighty thousand people work here, I think.
And I think one of the reasons we went for a service like that is, underneath the surface of this very complex multi-agency organization is quite a lot of different technology, and it’s often very hard to join that all together with single-enterprise solutions, and so on. So we felt that the idea of finding people was something where we could make a real difference in the organization.
And then, we’ve got from very specialist technologies that help with very particular government processes. So, for example, we built some technology around responding to Freedom of Information requests, or dealing with Parliamentary question, which are kind of part of the… One of the formal processes that exists in the kind of British democratic process.
Legal Tech Founder Segment: Crawford Appleby of Rulings.law
Chad: It’s time to step away from our talk with Dave Rogers for a few minutes, because now it’s time for our Legal Tech Founders segment. Today we talk to Crawford Appleby of rulings.law. But before we get to Crawford, I wanted to take minute and let you know that for each episode at tlpodcast.com, we have a dedicated page. Episode pages contain contact info for our guests, transcripts of the episodes, and links to all the stuff we talk about. So if you hear something in today’s episode that peaks your interest and you want to learn more, I encourage you to visit tlpodcast.com.
Also, if you want to get in touch with me for any questions, comments, concerns, we’ll accept praise, too, or if you want to learn more about my company, Percipient, you can e-mail me at email@example.com. That’s firstname.lastname@example.org.
Okay. Without further ado, let’s get to our Legal Tech Founders segment. Today we talk to California attorney Crawford Appleby. Although he’s still a practicing attorney, he also launched a legal tech website called rulings.law. It’s a database of tentative rulings handed down by judges from the Los Angeles Superior Court. Although the site at this point is limited to decisions from Los Angeles judges, I like his story, and I hope it inspires others to create their own legal tech apps or products to solve problems they see in their own practices.
For those of you outside of California, the concept of a tentative ruling may be foreign. I only know about them because I started my practice as a lawyer as a litigator in Los Angeles. A tentative ruling is a decision handed down by a judge prior to oral argument on a motion. In the old days, they were printed out in hard copy and either left for counsel on the counsel table in the courtroom, or more often than not, outside the courtroom doors, posted on the wall.
Lawyers would rush to the courthouse before their motion hearing to see what the judge had ruled. If both attorneys agreed with the tentative ruling, often times there’s no argument. However, if either of the attorneys disagree, they have the right to go before the judge and argue their motion, and try to change the judge’s mind, and change his or her decision as laid out in the tentative ruling.
In the early 2000s, tentative rulings were posted online the day before a motion, so the attorneys could let the court know whether or not they wanted to argue the motion. But the decisions were only kept up a day or two around the time of the motion, and were later deleted. This is where Crawford’s app comes in.
Crawford’s app collects all these opinions, and creates a searchable database of tentative rulings so lawyers can go and search them, and figure out how the judge may or may not rule on any particular motion.
Crawford, thanks for being here today. I really appreciate it. Thanks for being a listener to the podcast. So tell us a little bit about your app and website, rulings.law.
Crawford: Thanks, Chad. Thanks for having me. Yeah, I’m very excited about this, mostly the fact that I was able to make it happen. It’s not easy when you work full time as an attorney, and that I’m also a new father, too, so I’ve got a seven month old at home. So I’ve definitely got about three jobs going right now.
But yeah. The way I that I came up with it, basically, was, I work in civil litigation in Los Angeles. Plenty of our cases are in Los Angeles Superior Court, and in that court, which I think is kind of unique to the courts of California, the judges will issue what’s called a tentative ruling before the hearing on a motion. Basically, and you’re familiar with this from when you practiced in LA, but for people who aren’t, a tentative ruling is basically just the judge saying, “Here’s what I think I’m going to do at the hearing on you motion. Just to give the parties kind of a head’s up.” And then, when they go in to do oral argument, they can make the most of it.
So these rulings, they’re not binding precedent. They’re just specific to that case, to that motion, and while they matter a lot the attorneys and the parties in that case, they don’t really seem to matter that much to everyone else. And I think that those ruling are really valuable information, and I was sort of learning through my practice that they can be really valuable, if you go back and you read them and you review them when you’re preparing a motion for a particular judge, you can get some insight. You can see what the judge… What kind of cases they like on that issue, how they tend to rule on the particular motion that you might be doing.
So I started trying to sort of collect them manually, and that ended up being a lot of work. There’s over fifty judges that give out these rulings and put them online every day.
Chad: You said you collected them manually. Did you actually go to the website and try to grab them by judge? Is that what you were doing?
Crawford: I did. I did. And for one judge in particular, I managed to do that for a whole year, so I had like a thousand pages of rulings because we had case in front of that judge that was important, and I wanted to have that as a database. And so, as time went on, I started to realize that this wasn’t really sustainable. I wouldn’t be able to do this for all the judges that post. And so I decided to do something about it, and I looked around and I saw that there were some other databases that had sites that were collecting them, but they were either sort of out of the budget, or they didn’t have rulings for all of the judges that I was interested in. And so I thought, “Well, maybe I can make this happen. Maybe I can do something that would be available to everyone.”
Chad: Do you have a tech background? I mean, what were the steps you took to get this done?
Crawford: Yeah. So, I do not have a tech background. The most experience I’ve got with tech is when I was in, like, middle school, I managed to cobble together a website a long time ago on Angelfire. That’ll probably bring some people back. So I understood sort of the basics of how coding works. I was really interested in it, because I feel like there’s a lot of parallels within terms of doing legal analysis, a lot of “if this, then that” sort of step-by-step procedure that you follow.
So I kind of had a basic understanding of how things could work, but I needed more help. So I reached out to a buddy of mine from law school. His name is Bill Bitner. And after he graduated, he went and learned how to code. And he said, “This sounds like a great idea. I’m going to help you get there.” So with his help, I was able to go and locate a programmer that I was able to hire sort of as an independent contractor. His name is Stephen Dodson, and he’s going to have a site up soon, bluegrass.media, for people who want to contact him. And Bill helped me vet a whole bunch of people who applied for the position, and helped me pick Stephen, and Stephen’s been really great, he’s been working really hard.
And so, I kind of had guidance from my friend Bill on that, and was able to sort of navigate this. And that’s kind of how I was able to hire a programmer and kind of get things going, so to speak.
Chad: And from start to finish, how long did it take you to get the site up and running?
Crawford: Yeah. So, from start to finish, let me see… I think I had sort of the light bulb for this in late October, and so I put together a scope of work. And then I was listening to a podcast with Sarah Schaaf, of the company Headnote, and she had recommended if you are looking to get into legal tech, and you have an idea, one of the best ways to do test-marketing is to just put up ads online, on social media, and see what kind of click-through rate you get. So I thought, “Well, that’s a great idea.”
So I basically got some Clipart, and I managed to put up a landing page through GoDaddy that I was able to do myself, and I ran test ads on Facebook and LinkedIn for a week, and I did pretty good. I got like, between like a one and three percent click-through rate, and I got some people in LA who signed up to hear about when the site would launch, and I thought, like, “That’s enough interest to give this a shot.”
So I began with that. And so once I had that, that I realized that there were other people who liked this idea, I went ahead and hired Stephen to do the work. And he started in November, and the site began collecting rulings officially at the end of January. And then we were able to launch it officially in late March.
Chad: And without giving away too many trade secrets or secret sauce-
Chad: How does it work logistically?
Crawford: Well, the good news is, is that Stephen has done the heavy lifting on that and knows the technical stuff, so even if somebody were to torture me, I don’t think I could tell them what they wanted to know. But I do know, for example, the way the site works is that the tentative rulings get posted every day, and then they disappear. So once the hearing is over, they go away, and the court doesn’t maintain any kind of publicly accessible database. So what rulings.law does is it goes on the site, and it’s a web scraper, and it saves the rulings, and then it puts them in a database and organizes them so that they’re assigned to the judge and courthouse that posted them. And then the site is publicly accessible. It’s free for everybody. And so, anybody who wants to go on and read the judge’s old ruling is able to do that.
Aside from this being something that I wanted to have, an important goal of mine with this was to make it free, so that, in my mind, this is kind of an access to justice thing at the end of the day. We all, who live in California, we pay taxes, and those taxes cover the court when you need it. And I used to work at the court, actually. I was a law clerk there for a few years. And so, I took a lot of pride in my work there in thinking that I was sort of giving people their money’s worth when I did a good job.
And so part of this for me is, sort of, giving everybody this advantage, not everybody that has the financing to be able to pay for a database of these rulings. Now everybody can have them. And so that helps solo and small firms, and individuals. Kind of levels the playing field.
Chad: Well that’s cool. Before I let you go, I always kind of take this pole for attorneys in LA. What is your record in convincing a judge to change their ruling from whatever they ruled in the tentative?
Crawford: That is a good question.
Chad: If you had to guess. To be-
Crawford: If I had to guess?
Chad: To be frank, mine is not good. I find that nine times out of ten, what you see the tentative is what you’re going to get.
Crawford: Right. No, that’s true. And to go back for just one moment about tentatives, people probably wonder, “Well, what’s the point? It’s not the judge’s final ruling,” but as you pointed out, most of the time it is. I’d say almost all the time that it is. It’s-
Crawford: It’s real difficult to change their mind. You know, I’m trying specifically if I have an example of it. I don’t recall. I don’t know if there was ever-
Chad: That’s good.
Crawford: A time when I was able to change it. I will say, though, that we’ve won quite a bit of motions based on taking this approach and sort of doing that I call “judge-specific writing,” where you focus on the individual judge and what they care about, what case law they care about. That really helps to win motions, I think.
Chad: That’s a great point. It’s a tool I wish I would’ve had, because it gives you insight about that judge before you even bring the motion, to see if it’s even worth it.
Crawford: Exactly. Exactly. And people are doing exciting things with these tentative rulings, too. They’re creating analytics. Obviously there’s a lot of analytics out there now. And that can be a useful tool for gauging strategy, and how you want to proceed with your case.
Chad: Well, that’s cool. Again, Crawford, appreciate your time. People can find it at rulings.law, correct?
Crawford: That’s correct. That’s the site, and if they want to reach out to me or reach out to us about the site, then you can do that through the site itself. There’s a contact link. But also, my e-mail is email@example.com.
Why Hype Technology is Killing Innovation
Chad: Okay, let’s get back to our talk with Dave Rogers, Chief Technology Officer for the Ministry of Justice in the U.K.
As I mentioned at the top of the podcast, I reach out to Dave after reading an article in Medium about the innovation façade. That article is entitled, “Why Hype Technology is Killing Innovation.” I love the article, and thankfully, Dave agreed to talk to me about it.
In the article, Dave points out that innovation’s very difficult and elusive because it requires a change in the status quo. He notes, too, that to stay competitive, organizations must look like they are staying on top of changes and growing. As a result, this sometimes causes those in charge of innovation to buy into the innovation façade. That is, appearing to innovate with really changing anything.
One way the innovation façade is perpetuated is through the adoption of hype technology. That is, making grand proclamations about the adoption of the technology flavor of the month so it looks like steps are being taken to innovate.
Dave: There’s a huge pressure to innovate in any forward-looking organization. It’s very typical pressure on organization that maybe appears to be struggling, or is kind of, you know, understands that its technology’s not very modern, and it’s kind of looking for that spark to say, “We want our organization to be progressive,” and typically that will involve using some of the most modern technology.
The problem that emerges is that if you try and take too direct a route to innovating, what you typically do is you look around at the technologies that appear to be signifiers of progress. So at the moment, that’s artificial intelligence, it’s blockchain, it’s drones, it’s the internet of things. And if you look at those technologies and try to very directly introduce them to your organization, I think there’s a sense to which people feel that, intuitively, that’s a way to innovate. They might say to a team, “You know, I’ve heard about this artificial intelligence thing. It sounds awesome. Let’s have a look around. Let’s see if we can find ways in which we can use this technology in our organization.”And I think that for people who don’t work in technology, they maybe haven’t had that experience working with the design and creation of technology.
That feels like it’s quite an effective way to solve the problem. The thing that actually happens below the façade is that we’re presented with an extremely challenging situation with regards to how you should design things. It’s essentially the solution is being presented, and the problem is being solved.
If there are two absolutely fundamental design principles, I think the first one would be try and understand the problem before you start working towards a solution, and to keep a very open mind about what that solution might be.
Chad: So the old cliché, a hammer looking for a nail.
Dave: Exactly, yeah. And then the other design principle I think would be to keep things as simple as possible. Why seek a complex solution if a very simple tool can actually solve your problem? And that kind of push to very directly bring a specific solution into an organization, it can have some really unfortunate side effects because it’s going against those very fundamental principles.
And I think one of the ones I felt very directly is that people who really believe in those principles can feel quite alienated when those principles can be undermined by something that appears quite innocent. The suggestion of introducing a particular new technology.
So the innovation façade is when activities emerge on that basis, but they’re not truly innovating. They’re not truly having the intended effect of making the organization be more modern and be more progressive in how it’s solving problems. And that’s because those design principles are there for a reason, and you’ll often end up with scenarios where perhaps you’re implementing the technology just for the sake of it, or you’re misapplying it in some way that has unfortunate side effects.
Chad: That kind of leads into a great quote you have in the article. You say, “The reputational uplift of appearing to be innovative far outweighs the reputational impact of technology failing to deliver.”
Dave: So, that quote is in the context of technology consultancies, particularly in government. But to be honest with you, in almost any organization, some point you’re going to be dealing with consultancies who are trying to help you work with technology effectively, solve complex business problems. Now, the really tricky thing here is that if a consultancy is able to use an extremely new technology, let’s say blockchain for argument’s sake, if they can simply get an organization to agree that they’re going to run a blockchain trial of some kind, the way that the media works is that’s kind of instantly headline news. That is, “Consultancy X is using blockchain to solve problem Y.” That’s an exciting headline. I think a majority of people would be like, “Oh, there’s so much potential in that technology.”
If, six months later, that intervention fails, the proposed solution doesn’t actually deliver the expected benefits, that will not be something that will be high profile. And the problem that this creates is that you’ve actually got a kind of system-level problem there, where that enormous buzz from simply trying to introduce a kind of hype technology into a particular space is often going to outweigh the much longer term complex thing of actually achieving a genuine outcome with much simpler technology. You’re not going to end up with an article in the press of, “Consultancy X solves incredibly complex problem using really basic technology.”
Chad: This reputational impact, or the press, it also goes beyond consultancy, right? Because you see this in law firms a lot. There will be a press release that the firm marketing department puts out about how they’re going to adopt some new technology or do something differently, and again, it seems that that’s partly for reputational purposes.
Dave: Yeah. No, I would agree, actually. I think you’re right. I think, in terms of any way of communicating that you are doing this type of innovation, is going to create a very useful buzz. There is actually a very positive side to that. If you can project a reputation that you’re using the most technology, as the industry may define it, that’s a huge hiring magnet for your organization. It’s a huge potential funding magnet for your organization. Even if the actual outcome isn’t necessarily positive in terms of the introduction of technology, it can still have these very positive side effects. Those side effects are not in terms of delivery and technology themselves.
Chad: That’s an interesting point. I didn’t really think about that. So then it comes to the last question of this topic. How do you battle against, or how do you prevent the innovation façade?
Dave: I think there’s kind of several, several approaches to that, and it’s a hard problem to solve. The most important thing for me is to really value skilled professions in your organization, and I think this principle will extend well beyond technology specialists, as well. If you bring specialists into your organization, and you respect their kind of position on particular positions that your organization might want to make that relate to their expertise, then as an organization I think you’re going to make much more effective decisions.
Now, the MoJ’s been on a really interesting journey of hiring huge numbers of specialists into our growing digital and technology space. And that, I believe, has made us a much, much more effective decision maker around technology, and that’s whether you buy it or you build it. And I think a lot of people would recognize this pattern that the experts are often cynics. I work a lot with technologists obviously, and some of the people I respect most are extremely cynical about technology.
Blockchain’s a good example of that. I think blockchain went with quite rapid pace through the hype, certainly in my community. It dropped off quite significantly, to the point where I’m now skeptical that blockchain is actually useful for almost any problem I can think of. Yet, at some point maybe two years ago, I was probably still in that head space, a lot of people were like, “Oh, maybe this can solve some of those problems that we’ve been trying to solve for years. There’s some real, real potential in this technology.” And then that cynicism comes in and you start… I remember one of the earliest kind of discoveries was a long the lines of a very simple construct, like a Merkel Tree actually holds the true value of what a blockchain is.
But that’s an extremely widely available construct in most programming languages, so it was actually nothing new. And that takes all the buzz out of the hype technology. And I think I’m starting to see a similar thing happen with AI. I think the cynicism of the community is starting to erode that extremely visionary sense of what AI is going to do over the next few years.
But I do think there’s, I mean, I can’t remember the exact quote. There’s a quote along the lines of like, “Most of these innovations are very underwhelming in short term, but then surprise everyone in the long term.” So I do think AI will have an enormous impact on society. I just think perhaps it won’t be in the next ten years.
Chad: Which goes to your point you raise in the article, too, is you said, “One of the ways to protect against the hype culture and the innovation façade is to iterate.” What specifically did you mean when you mentioned that in the article?
Dave: Iteration kind of… The characteristic of iteration that’s so important is that you’re remaining very open minded throughout the design of the technology. That, combined with the principle of simplicity, means that the ideal outcome of delivering any technology is that you discover an incredibly simple solution. And if you iterate through the problem, and you remain open minded, and you understand and reflect upon your users’ experience of the technology that you’re delivering, you’re much more likely to land upon those simple solutions.
A colleague of mine used to work in Ministry Justice said that, “The whole of justice, in terms of what we might want to achieve digitally, is largely going to be characterized by taking strings, putting them in databases, and taking them back out again.” Justice at the moment is just quite a simple, transactional process, and the scale problems that we deal with are actually to do with the kind of almost fractal complexity of the human emotions, and different situations that people find themselves in the justice system.
So iteration helps us to kind of step through what are extremely complex service design problems. But in terms of technology, we typically end up with some very, very simple web technology at the end of it.
“Toxicity” of Legacy Software
Chad: Dave’s point about the innovation façade and hype technology is mainly focused on new and emerging technologies, but he also has some great insight about older and existing technologies, technology he refers to as “legacy.” But he also points out that there’s a risk with using some of this technology, and the calls the risk, “the toxicity of legacy.” “The toxicity of legacy” refers to software that is poorly supported, hard to update, poorly documented, not compliant, and inefficient. This “toxicity of legacy” can be a potential existential threat to both large and small organizations.
Dave: A colleague of mine, John Lawrence, came up with the term “firstable.” I think he was using it to describe data, but it really struck me as quite a powerful word to use around technology because… Well, the word “toxic” means, I guess, is very actively harmful, and I believe the majority view on “legacy” I think is still that it’s a very static thing.
So I think, you talk about legacy technology, let’s say in the banking sector, people probably think of these very peaceful mainframes that sit in the basement. They were built in the 70s; no one knows how to change them, but they don’t really have any kind of dynamism to them. Whereas I’m trying to describe a situation where technology is actually very much alive, even if it’s not changing. And what I mean by that is, the context around technology is constantly changing. So, if you take the cyber security context, a system that has remained unchanged for a year may now have a vulnerability that is know to the entire world. So even though the technology has changed, its relationship to the world has changed.
Equally, we’re seeing the instruction of new legislation. So GDPR is having an enormous impact in Europe, in terms of how we think about data privacy. And the point at which that law is introduced, the technology might not be keeping pace with that if it remains exactly the same.
So if you take those types of factors and reframe “legacy” technology as something that is more dynamic, and dynamic in the sense it’s getting worse over time if you don’t invest in it, then it has the feel of something that is quite toxic to your organization. And I think everyone can kind of recognize those patterns of what happens when “legacy” emerges at scale. You end up in a situation where you’re, every year you’re accepting more and more risk. You’re writing reports to explain that you haven’t patched, you haven’t been able to upgrade, you might start to be taking risks around emerging legislation and whether or not you’re going to be able to make things compliant, and I think, worst of all, you also see that you’re ability to change the underlying technology becomes harder and harder. A small change to a business-critical system might take six to eighteen months to deliver.
Now in that scenario, the technology is becoming truly toxic to your organization. It’s preventing changes to business processes, it’s preventing radical service redesign, and it’s effectively limiting your opportunities for change. And I think that refraining of “legacy” is not something passive and static, but something very, very toxic to your organization. For me, it’s the correct framing for “legacy” in order to raise its profile and get people to start talking about it, and addressing it.
Chad: And, speaking of addressing it, one of the things you say in the article is that, here’s the quote: “Design your technology organization, and budget around services, not projects.” Why do you think that helps?
Dave: So the thinking behind that, and there’s lots of threads that come together around that theme, I think there was a government digital service article some time ago called, “Fund Teams, Not Projects.” The service mentality gets you to think about technology as something that requires ongoing ownership, and ongoing ownership means that you start to think about the risks around “legacy” in conjunction with the delivery of new technology. And it allows you to consider things through the lens of a balance of priorities. So, should we be spending today working on upgrading a component to reduce a cyber risk, or should we spend today adding another feature to the system? And the answer isn’t clear in any circumstance, because you’ve got to way out the benefits and risks of different routes you might take.
The projects encourage a very different kind of framing. They have a start and they have a finish criteria, and once it’s finished, you do have concepts such as handing over to operations teams, or acceptance into service criteria, and so on. But they all seem to have a mentality of treating technology as something that is done, something that is now static, and worst of all, as something that is an asset to the organization.
And that starts to get into the way in which we financially treat technology. We treat technology typically as a capital asset, rather than this thing that might be better perceived as a liability to your organization. I speak to my boss, Tom Reid, about this yesterday, and he came up with a great analogy, which was, “If you have a broken boiler in a house, it doesn’t make the house more valuable. If anything, it knocks something off the house price.” We need to get that kind of mentality into areas such as accountancy and the governance of organizations so that we start treating that technology correctly.
Chad: Well, that’s a wrap for today’s episode of Technically Legal. As always, I really appreciate your support and listening. If you want to subscribe, you can find us on most major podcast platforms like Spotify, iTunes, Google, iHeartRadio, et cetera, et cetera. If you want to get a hold of me, my e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Cmain@percipient.co. Thanks again for listening, and this has been another episode of Technically Legal.