Ministry of Prose: making words work for your business

One in a semi-regular series of ponderings, musings and contemplations on the interaction of words and psychology in business.

Reinventing the wheel

July 2017

It's fascinating to observe that no matter how much the world of technology is changing in some ways, in others it stays the same.

I recently had some in-depth discussions with a Berlin-based organisation that needs good content. The organisation has ideas about how that might work, but needs someone to take control of the entire process. That would mean planning/strategy, commissioning, editing, interviews, proofing, sub-editing and so on. It's a big project and I haven't yet decided whether to take it on, as it would reduce my availability to other clients.

But what's particularly interesting to me is the technology aspect. The further we dug into the details of the company's product, the more I realised that this was little different to technology I had first seen in the late 1990s. Obviously I don't mean the code itself or the programming languages used. That's all new. But the functions of the product are not; in fact in some ways they're inferior to those older tools. They lack some potentially useful or important features.

It's a situation I find myself discussing more and more with people who've been in the IT industry as long as I have, or longer. Chatting to a 50-something SQL analyst/engineer, for example, he was amazed that some of the problems he's working on in 2017 are the same ones he solved in the 1980s. Different systems, different companies, same issues.

Every generation of developer seems to reinvent the wheel. I suppose there's no real choice, since the tools change so quickly that retaining older knowledge is all but impossible. But it's like patients with severe short-term memory damage, who wake up each morning believing that today is their first day of life after emerging from a deep coma. To misquote an old saying, every generation thinks it's the first to invent remote database management.

So if the technology hasn't changed much, what has? The biggest leaps and bounds have occurred in the marketing of technology solutions. That's especially true for online text content, which is much harder to do well than many people realise. The companies that get it right are the ones that tend to succeed in the long term. The ones that don't tend to spike early, then fade away.

Recently, I've lost count of the number of people half my age who have told me sincerely that "content is king" without realising that I was writing those words while they were still in kindergarten. The words are true but they're not the whole story. Good content is king. Everything else is a waste of time and money.

Alex Cruickshank has been a professional writer since 1994 and refuses to write anything but good quality content.

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