Thursday, March 13, 2014

NIH

This may be a bit deep, but I just finished folding laundry at a nearby laundromat whilst a group of over-caffeinated high-schoolers pretended it was audition night for "The Voice" and "Tosh.O" in the same place.  After getting home and putting the goods away, I did dishes and consumed a tasty Dogfish Burton Baton and now my brain needs some playtime.  You've been warned.  Sit down.  Strap in.  Enjoy the ride....


To many folks, the term "NIH" means National Institutes of Health.  But to many folks in the legal field, particularly those specializing in intellectual property issues ("IP" law, that is), it means "not invented here".  It's a uniquely-American term, but the concept predates America itself actually.  Allow me to digress...

I learned this while doing some contract work in that field a few years back; patent drawings and technical procedure writing actually.  "NIH" refers to a policy some renown international corporate entities (I won't name any) have towards how they approach dealing with intellectual property.  This encompasses copyright, patents and trademarks, obviously, but it also includes service marks and more.

In basic English: If the item was "not invented here" they don't want anything to do with it.  In most cases, they mean "at all", as in "not in any respect whatsoever".  For example, if you invent some cool toy, and approached some particularly HUGE toy manufacturing corporation to negotiate some kind of "deal" (I'll leave their actual name to your imagination), and they adhere to the NIH policy, and you are not a direct-employee of that company, they will very likely ask you to leave.  If you continue to insist on a discussion, they may call security to help you find the door.

I am not joking.

So, during a recent discussion I had with some colleagues (past and present) about the subject of "why do so many IT organizations seem to abhor the idea of their own staff daring to develop their own tools for their own needs and then being so brazen as to ask their employers if they'd like to join in on the party?"  Keep in mind that this is not about selling the invention to the employer.  It's about asking the employer to put some elbow grease into it and help launch the airplane off the flight deck with a little more "umpf!".  Of the six or so folks present, and their recollection of some two dozen secondary contacts and colleagues, not ONE of them could recall ever hearing of a successful effort in that regard.

Not one.

I am very familiar with this, as I have been, without planning or expectation, in the center of such situations, many times.  At my last four employers in fact.  I was present during the putting-out of some particular fires (metaphorically-speaking), in which there were NO available "off-the-shelf" solutions to be had.  None.  So we built our own (or I built my own).  Like many contraptions, mechanical or otherwise, which are conceived to solve a "real" problem, they tend to gain a life of their own.  Problems, it seems, tend to recur so having a tool which is custom-fit to solve it tends to be very appealing.  Especially when that tool or solution was provided at no "additional" cost to the parties involved.

Yes.  No additional cost.  Translation:  It was conceived, built, tested and applied using existing funding and task vehicles (that's beancounter speak for "it was part of my job duties, so I did it").  Even the technologies involved with building the tool were 100% "free".  Things like built-in API's, and SQL Server Express, IIS, scripting, etc.  Aside from the already-paid cost of the operating system license itself, there were no additional costs required or incurred.

So, why the fuss?

That's a good question.  A lot of theories were discussed around this one key aspect.  Everything from businesses shying away from stepping outside of their "core competencies" to "perceived risk" to "obligatory support liabilities" and so on.  Blah blah blah.  Fear.  It's just fear.  I add laziness to that, but fear and laziness go together like hookers and politicians.

Then it dawned on me that it's really about NIH.  I realize that fear+laziness nearly equates to NIH in most respects, but it has a different sauce poured over it.

What's even more interesting about this entire mess is that in none of the examples we could cite were there any alterior motives on the part of the employee/developer.  It was all above-board and in good faith, in which they not only accomplished the item in question, but in how they approached and engaged their employer.  The employer however, no matter how the approach was toasted, garnished and served-up, consistently took a hostile, defensive stance in regards to their reaction to the employee.  As if indicating their distrust in the employee; probably assuming the employee concocted the whole idea just to negotiate a deal in the same sense as a blackmail operation.  Holding them hostage.  Whatever that could mean.

But the question remains: why?  Why not actually hold detailed, sincere discussions with the employee, rather than closing the gates and shooting arrows off the guard towers?

Legal risk.  Once again, attorneys, and their corporate financial overlords (retainer clients, usually) have successfully cultivated an atmosphere of risk-avoidance.  Risk avoidance is another name for "fear of innovation".  Imagine if Henry Ford were told that challenging horses would land him in court?  I'm sure someone tried it, but what if he actually caved in to that?  Oh boy.  You can argue that the environment would have fared better today than it has already, but think of the wider ramifications of that.  Now, start that idea-clock in motion today and imaging where it will be in 50 or 100 years.

It's already too late to save our federal government system from the corruption of corporate PAC influences.  Let's not let the rest of the baby go down the bathtub drain as well.  There's a few companies and entrepreneurs out there still taking risks (Elon Musk, Richard Branson being just two of them), so maybe there's still hope things will turn around in favor of imagination and risk-taking.  It can only work when it's cooked in the same pot as the money comes from though.  It seems those of us stirring around in the bottom ranks of the IT world are going to have to fight our way out day by day, in spite of the risk-averse surroundings.

But I digress.  Sweet dreams! :)
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