Antje’s Editorial No. 1

Antje’s Editorial No. 1 20.12.2012 - I’ve never had a problem admitting that I've been wrong when it's true. For decades - half of my career as a project manager, in fact - I’ve been basing my assumptions on incorrect facts.

From the very first day that I was given project management responsibility to the present day, which finds me embroiled in a complex Asia-Finland-German project, I had believed that random occurrences were rampant weeds that had to be exterminated. Random occurrences. I had always viewed them as my enemy and waged a personal war against them. They caused too many hours of overtime. Too many costs. Too many complications. Too many unscheduled meetings. I genuinely wanted to rid myself of them entirely - so I spent a lot of time working with best practice models.

Then I read a sensational article. In a newspaper. Hidden away between the international news and the classifieds. “The situation is serious,“ I read, sipping my first cup of tea that morning. So what? Serious situations occur on a daily basis. Then I read the second crucial sentence. It said, “The world is running out of random numbers.“ I wondered whether I was about to enter the first unsurprising phase of my professional career.

I couldn’t help reading on. Did the author want to tell me that randomness was about to become extinct; that this project management enemy would disappear for ever? Like the oil reserves in Texas and plastic packaging for gummy bears? No, that’s not the kind of random I’m talking about.

Albert Einstein once said, “If God created the world, his primary concern was certainly not to make its understanding easy for us.” It was along these lines that the article explained the following to me:

• Random numbers are what make internet and e-mail encryption possible. Without them, there wouldn’t be any IT security. They’re a kind of padlock. If the numbers aren’t really random, a computer can easily circumvent any encryption.

• These days, there simply aren’t enough mathematically random numbers around for the IT sector. In fact, the shortage is now so extreme, that we’re having to use fake random numbers. Dutch mathematician Arjen K. Lenstra’s examination of public databases of 7.1 million public keys that are used for IT encryption revealed that they aren’t random enough.

• In the search for new random number resources, neither computers nor people are any use because they don’t act, think or operate randomly enough.

I immediately felt a rush of sympathy and seriously considered calling Greenpeace and asking them to include random numbers on their list of species threatened by extinction. But I hadn’t finished the article and I felt compelled to continue. As I read on, I started to wonder whether this might be a simple yet charming, PR ruse. After all, maths does have a bit of a dodgy image with the majority of the population. Remember those maths lessons at school?

The article’s conclusion was anything but random. It said that the Australians had already developed a method for generating almost six billion random numbers per second. So did they develop it at random? Let’s hope the random number generating process sucks in all the other randomness around so that we project managers don’t get any more random related headaches and I can really embark on the first peaceful and genuinely unsurprising phase of my career. In future, I’m going to double-encrypt all my e-mails!

Antje Funck, the IAPM’s EU representative with a long career in international project management behind her.

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