When the Dead Come Back to Life

When I was a kid, the legend of Chrysler’s “Hemi” engine was intriguing to me. The Hemis of 1950s grew into the racing legends of the next two decades, and seemed to fade into obscurity for a while, seemingly eclipsed by newer technology, only to re-emerge in the early 2000s and still in widespread use today. The newer generation of Hemis had the same basic elements but had several technology improvements that repositioned these venerable power plants for the modern day. When they disappeared from Chrysler’s marketing after the 70s, many loyal fans were disappointed, and the marketplace chatter had the Hemi down for the count.

About 25 years ago, in 1992, Microsoft released the ACCESS database, and by the late ‘90s many were foretelling its demise. Like the Hemi, ACCESS, and its simplistic and limited capabilities, was not on the front line of Microsoft Marketing, which was promoting SQL Server, a much more powerful and robust database solution. Similarly, when Microsoft Publisher was released in 1991, about 6 years after Adobe Pagemaker had its debut, skeptics foretold its imminent retirement, based upon its simplistic approach and limited functions.

Yet here we are in 2018, the Hemi is alive and well, and ACCESS and Publisher seem likely to be around for some time to come. Makes one wonder about what the secret of their longevity could be.

One element that the three seem to have in common is the simplicity of their core offering. Over the years each of these products have experienced many tech enhancements that provided new capability while not diminishing the core functionality. There’s a lot to be said about the basic design of a product that has a large and loyal user base, and around each product a huge user community has grown, providing user support, hacks, and application assistance.

In construction, each year we see more new technology than the previous year, and it is all attractive and intriguing to us. Yet, we cannot ignore the reality that there are many of our internal operational support systems that still may be using legacy technologies, that are still the workhorses of our business. The challenge we have as business managers is to understand not only the complex mix of technologies we have in house, but also recognize the capabilities and limitations of the staff we have to operate and maintain them.

Back in the ‘60s I had an aunt who worked for Bendix Corp., and they were provided a 427, cu.in. Mustang GT to experiment with. Be3ndix engineers developed an electronic fuel injection system that increased the Mustang’s horsepower by an order of magnitude, and almost tripled its fuel efficiency. After the prototype was tested, it got packed up and sent to Detroit, where it apparently sat until almost 10 years before coming back in a new format, enabled by computerized controls.

My observation is that it often takes time for industry to synchronize tried and true (but not sexy) applications until the critical elements have aligned to enable the next generation technologies to emerge. You may want to consider this if considering throwing out all of the old stuff in favor of the new stuff. There may be lots of life in the old stuff.

Just like the mainframe has weathered all the epic technology changes, the gems in your technology collection could be the very thing you’re thinking of replacing.

Jim Kissane is a retired construction industry veteran, having served the design/construction industry for more than three decades. He can be reached at jim.kissane.tampa@gmail.com