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Summit or Mirage? The Misrepresentation of Tech Progress Through the Mountain Metaphor

A woman in rugged adventure attire, wearing goggles and a red scarf, stands triumphantly on rocky terrain with a dramatic yellow and orange background.

What you should know: I am currently working for Orbit Cloud Solutions as Cloud Advisor, but any posts on this blog reflect my own views and opinions only.

Rough winds, temperatures so low that team members lose their toes, the constant threat of falling into a crevasse if you take a wrong step, low oxygen levels, and exposure you did not think possible. Then you reach the top of the mountain and realize that the journey is over. You can look back at the dangers, hardships, and exertions and enjoy the expansive view from the summit. Isn’t this an inspiring story about overcoming obstacles, hard work and heroism? It certainly is. And that’s one good reason why mountain climbing is a popular trope and a common metaphor for long and arduous business transformation projects and programs.

Typical Mountain Climb Illustration

But in the technology space, it paints a dangerously false picture. It suggests that there is a point you must reach and then the journey is over. You are then done, and all is well. You can return to “business as usual”. As we have learned the hard way many times in the past, technology is constantly moving and evolving. There will be no state of permanent equilibrium that will make all these technological pains go away forever.

The dangerous thing about this metaphor is that it does not just fool us technologists into thinking that we just need to complete this one project, even if it means losing part of our team in the process. We are also telling stakeholders a false story: that there is this one ultimate goal that we can achieve. And that the program, initiative or project we are proposing will bring them closer to that goal. We know that the goal will be different when we are done. We will need a different program to achieve it.

Mountain tops do not move; they are a great guide for a static point to reach. But we live in a VUCA world. Constant change and the need to adapt must be part of our nature and mindset. The solution we built today with the hottest technologies and methodologies (serverless, microservices, DevOps, platform engineering – you name it) will be a legacy environment tomorrow, occupying the same place in our hearts as the ugly IBM mainframe beast in the basement. What we need are evolutionary architectures and systems designed for change. Our teams should be made up of people who are willing to remain curious and adventurous.

There are so many other metaphors that are more honest and accurate than climbing to the top of a mountain. The “crawl, walk, run” metaphor is a great example: as a child, you need to learn to walk and then run; you need serious training to build the endurance for a marathon. And if you neglect this training for a while, you will be unable to run longer distances.

The metaphors we use should reflect that we in the technology industry will always have moving targets and that there will never be a magic formula that solves all our challenges for years to come. So do not fool yourself or your stakeholders by using the metaphor of climbing a mountain. Choose something more appropriate that everyone can latch onto. Instead, look for a metaphor that communicates the idea of continual progress and adaptation; something that resonates with both the technical and business sides of the industry.

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