Nostalgic for the Future

futuristic human

He described his partners as “nostalgic for the future,” like many computer hobbyists of the day, and their discussions were frequently those of visionaries.

Lee Felsenstein in “Fire in the Valley” by Brian P. Hogan

Cover image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

I recall being struck by that quote when I first read “Fire in the Valley” * several years back. “How could someone be nostalgic for the future instead of the past”, I thought to myself. Recently, I’ve realized that it’s not only a great description of how visionaries think, but also a slogan for making sound decisions in the selection of software platforms and methodologies.

* If you haven’t read the book, it’s THE best read on the birth of the personal computer.

Anyone who’s worked in software engineering, data engineering, or any related field will recall passionate debates on whether it’s time to move to a new library/platform/programming language or whether it’s best to stick with what’s in place.

Teams will pit the incumbent technology against something new, and battle lines will be drawn. Some team members will be skeptics of the new as “a fad” or “the same thing we’re doing now but with a trendy name”. Some will always criticize the older tech as “out of date” or “obsolete” despite the value it has and still delivers.

Personally, I’ve been on both sides of the argument over the years. I’ll admit my bias has shifted more to not rocking the boat as I’ve moved into leadership positions. It’s not that I don’t give the “next thing” serious consideration, it’s that I’ve seen the downside of choosing the wrong “next thing”. It’s more painful than I had imagined when I was a junior engineer. It’s also the duty of leadership to ensure that risk and reward are managed in the best interest of the entire team and organization.

However, it’s obvious that at some point you need to move forward or you’ll be stuck in the past. Taking risks on a new platform or development methodology is what makes some teams and organizations jump over the rest. Without voices on the team (or in your own head) that yearn for what’s next, you’ll miss out and realize only when you’re in a rut and it’s too late.

Nostalgia is Powerful – Harness It

The lure of nostalgia is some a kind of certainty, even a survivorship bias. The past often seems simpler, calmer and happier. Many former politicians don’t seem as bad as they did at the time because they didn’t actually start a nuclear war after-all. It’s the same with technology. It’s easy to fall into the trap of the familiar, even at the cost of progress.

Nostalgia can distort reality as well. “False nostalgia”, that of celebrating a time that never really existed, is dangerous in many contexts in addition to technology. When it comes to making decisions within the scope of technology however, it often comes into play in that you forget how much of an improvement the current solution was over the last. Imagine if you had never made that jump?

What I love about the idea of being “nostalgic for the future” is that the ideal state for your team or product is somewhere ahead of now. Unlike traditional nostalgia there is uncertainty as to how to get there, but you know that it’s in a forward direction. I don’t take such a sentiment to mean that new is always better. Rather progress is positive in the aggregate and I want to ensure I’m moving towards it rather than standing still.

Making Better Decisions

It took me some time to admit that my bias has shifted over the years to relying on the proven solutions. Knowing my own bias, I’ve been able to hear out the other side of the argument in a way that I struggled with not long ago. Perhaps your bias is in the other direction. Know that and adjust your reaction to the other side of the argument accordingly.

In practice, I like to take calculated risks and experiment with new tech and methodologies in the most modular form possible. In other words, instead of blowing the whole thing up I tend to give a new solution a try within a confined scope. If it does’t work, I can revert or try something new without too much impact on the rest of my tech stack, team, business, etc. Sure, there might be some deflated team members in the case of failure but we are all still employed and alive to try another solution.

Will that approach make me the visionary that I enjoyed reading about in “Fire in the Valley”? No, it won’t. But in the context of leading teams, it’s just the nudge that many of us need to stay on the cutting edge even if we’re not defining the edge.