The Long and the Short of it

Carbonnier in French means charcoal maker. So it’s not surprising that I would come from a long line of foresters. My father is a forester, so too was his father before him and his father before him.

Having ended up working in the financial technology industry (sadly, none of my siblings have continued the family tradition either), I sometimes marvel at the forward planning involved in forestry.

As a youth, I remember my father once showing me a plot of land in Sweden where he had planted oak trees, which as saplings look little sturdier than long twigs. ‘These, my son,’ he said proudly, ‘will be ready to harvest in about 80 to 90 years.’

The concept baffled me. He was making an investment that he knew he wouldn’t live to realise. In fact, I would be very lucky to realise it. He was laying a nest egg for my children’s generation. Perhaps this was the kind of planning that prompted John Maynard Keynes’ famous quote: “In the long run we are all dead.”

Whatever it was, the idea was completely alien to me. And is completely alien to the world I work in. In finance, even though market sages like Warren Buffet would counsel otherwise; most traders and investors look for ever quicker returns from shorter holding periods. And in technology, there seems to be a steady stream of new platforms, protocols, programming languages, computing paradigms, and devices – all waiting to make this years’ ‘state-of-the-art’ look like a collectors’ item a few years from now.

In the world of IT marketing, the term ‘future proof’ is often bandied around. But in a field that seems to evolve so quickly, can anything even be remotely future proof?

When it comes to devices, the pace of evolution is frightening. I had the misfortune of giving my phone to my 18 month old son to play with, and promptly smash, not so long ago. And while I sent it off to be repaired, I dug an old Sony Ericsson k800i out of my drawer to tide me over. It seemed like a relic. I’d completely forgotten how to text using a numeric keypad (even though I remember doing it without looking at my phone back in the day). How can you possibly plan for that pace of change?

Sadly, I don’t have the technical expertise to answer. So… I pose the question to technical experts that might read this blog. Could you ever make an investment in financial IT that would last the best part of a hundred years? If you knew that your code base would still be in use, even thirty years from now, would you write or architect it differently? If so, how?

I would suspect there are still saplings of code from the first iterations of MS DOS that still live today as oaks planted on my laptop. How can you make your code stand the test of time? And on a broader, organisational scale – how can you make sure your business is still around in 100 years’ time?