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I came across a new phrase while reading description section of a webinar topic on Operational Best Practices in the Cloud here.

Excerpt:

Don’t pave the cow path. Cloud infrastructure is very different from traditional infrastructure and requires different approaches to really harness cloud value. From dev/test/prod lifecycle management to deployment automation, patch management, monitoring and automation for autoscaling and disaster recovery...

What does don't pave the cow path mean, in general and in this context?

I couldn't even find the meaning or an idiom entry in The Free Dictionary.

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It means Don't use makeshift (or ready-to-use) solutions.

I have tried to find the origin of the phrase and the only explanation I have found is is here ( in the comments).

Paving the cow path is an expression I heard first in the east coast of the US. The story as it was told to me is as follows:

When the city of Boston was new and unpaved the city fathers decided against laying out a regular street plan and instead merely paved the paths that had been worn by cattle. The implication is that this has resulted in a chaotic inefficient street plan that lacks logic. The admonition not to “pave the cow path” is supposed to remind us not to enshrine a makeshift solution.

Of course there are problems with this phrase. Cattle are actually a pretty good at finding the path of least resistance, which is often the best route for a road.

[...]

The Boston story basically matches the actual source. The phrase originates with a poem written by Sam Walter Foss (1858-1911) originally of New Hampshire, but he did live in Boston for a period of time, so the reference to Boston streets may be legit. The poem was called "The Calf-Path" and can be found if searched on the Net. Somehow Calf has turned into cow, so perhaps Foss was also aware of the inherent travel efficiencies of cows, and used the meandering of calves to make his point.

The poem The Calf-Path by Sam Walter Foss.

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  • 11
    It doesn't mean merely don't use makeshift solutions, but specifically don't enshrine makeshift solutions. Walking on the cow path is fine (just watch out for, um, gifts from the cows), but don't add a layer of paving and call it a road. (Somebody should've told that to PennDOT... but I digress.) Similarly, it's fine to use a quick-and-dirty solution in-house, but don't then add a veneer of user interface and release it as a full-fledged program.
    – Marthaª
    Oct 11 '11 at 14:08
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    Somewhat on-topic: I recall reading an article in a magazine (sadly, I can't remember which one) on Universities and other institutions designing paths for new large open greenspaces. They don't pave pathes across the lawn for a couple years, and let people walk where they want. After a couple years, they pave over the heaviest-worn paths, now that the people have shown where they prefer to walk. Unfortunately, the in-between time will probably be very muddy. Oct 11 '11 at 19:21
  • @FrustratedWithFormsDesigner It was a Californian state university, but I forget just which one.
    – tchrist
    Aug 17 '13 at 17:05
  • It is worth noting (although maybe half-off-topic) that some would suggest to positively path the cowpath - that is, adopt what is of common use and works instead of reinventing it in yet unpredictable ways. See for example the HTML5 Spec, probably the more "formal" use of the term.
    – brandizzi
    May 26 '14 at 17:13
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    Of course there are problems with this phrase. Cattle are actually a pretty good at finding the path of least resistance, which is often the best route for a road. For a road between towns, perhaps. Within a city, though, that can be a nightmare. Most American cities dating back to the colonial period are horrible to navigate in, because they went around "paving cow paths" with no thought to accessibility. The concept of basing a city on a simple square grid didn't catch on until approximately the time of the Civil War. Aug 6 '14 at 0:15
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I never heard of it before either, but a google search came up with this:

In the IT world, "paving cow paths" means automating a business process as is, without thinking too much about whether or not that process is effective or efficient.

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    It says "in the IT world", but I'm not sure many people in IT are familiar with this term. Just saying.
    – JoseK
    Oct 11 '11 at 11:07
  • @JoseK - I never heard it either. Still, if you know what cow paths are, there aren't too many other things it really could mean.
    – T.E.D.
    Oct 11 '11 at 13:11
  • @T.E.D., you are assuming that IT geeks know what cow paths are. I’m not sure that’s a safe assumption to make. ;-) Aug 17 '13 at 2:22
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The Calf Path is one of my favorite poems. To me it has always meant just because things have always been done a certain way does not mean they should continue to be done in that way if it no longer serves a purpose. Circumstances change and so must processes.

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When cows walk across a flat field with no obstructions they end up making a single deep path that meanders even though they could walk straight to the water. The path gets to be deep and well defined. Dont pave the cow path means dont just add to what is there just because it is there no matter how well defined it is

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In my eyes it means that you shouldn't use cloud services without considering whether your product actually needs them and will be able to use them.

Cows have feet made for walking on soil and grassy grounds but they're not made for walking on paved streets, like cars' tyres would be.

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  • I like the explanation of the metaphor.
    – Mark
    Oct 11 '11 at 9:20
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The meaning is simply making a choice between Automation vs Transformation. Automation does the same thing better. Transformation changes the way that things are done.

The connections to the Sam Foss poem and Regis McKenna are in my opinion the closest answers. Clayton Christiansen also touched on this in his "The Innovator's Dilemma". Each new general purpose technology (GPT) creates a revolution in capabilities. As new technologies are introduced, there is usually a productivity lag (Solow Paradox) as the technology is used to merely automate the existing processes and methodologies.

For example, introducing electric motors initially reduced productivity as they were being used to merely replace steam driven motors yet they were not as reliable. In this sense, electricity was being used only to do the same thing as before, but cheaper.

The alternative is to use the new technology to transform the way things are done. What does the electric motor really change? Steam engines were large & expensive and were used to drive many belts at once, so factories were placed near sources of water and coal and the labor and raw materials had to be transported to those factories. The steam engine also required that the factory be designed to be vertical with many floors that made the workers less efficient.

By using electric motors to 1) move the factory closer to the raw materials, labor market and distribution points and 2) redesign the factory to be horizontal instead of vertical, a radical improvement in effective productivity is achieved.

So, don't use the general purpose technology of the Cloud to automate the old ways of doing things. Use it to transform the way things are done.

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Regis McKenna authored a treatise entitled "Paving the Cow Path" in the late 1980's (I believe) which was the basis for Business Processing Engineering, focusing on totally redesigning the processes, rather than automating existing functions.

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