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Hey, IT department! Sick of vendor shaftings? Why not DO IT, yourself

Let go of the shopping trolley and skill up, popeye

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Want an example? Data science

Start-ups use prototyping to get ideas across. Enterprise IT departments use PowerPoint. No points for guessing which one is more effective. Why don’t IT departments use their “secret” knowledge to create more stuff? Build a thing. Make a prototype. It would be quicker and less painful than some of the PowerPoint sociopathy that is inflicted on the business. IBM built its business on the back of business processes prototyping. Some impeccably dressed men with neat hair would ask you a stack of questions about how a business process worked and then would return some weeks later with a fancy tabulating machine to show you the process you described being performed digitally.

How does this work now? If it is not “Go and buy me this thing I Googled” then it is “go and buy me a thing that does this” and the IT Guy Googles it. Unless it is something really boring like a corporate portal for which IT runs the whole process because the business doesn’t care and don’t plan on using it anyway.

The best example of this I have come across recently has been the data science boom from finance departments.

An insurance business was working on new ways to model data using some of the parallel processing tools (Matlab and R on CUDA for the curious). Three months of IT involvement into the project the strategy document was handed to the business sponsor of the project for sign off upon which he was told “Don’t bother, one of the grads put it together weeks ago”.

The IT department didn’t do the wrong thing, they were very thorough in their preparation of the strategy document. They had ensured the price and availability of external resources, they had performed an assessment of the different types of hardware available but what they didn’t do was give the finance department a thing to play with whilst they got the project off the ground.

The IT skills that are in demand today are not the skills that one finds in a traditional IT department: As a matter of fact the skills you are most likely to find are the least desirable or useful.

We can’t all be “Director of Big Social Cloud Data Innovation map reduction learning analytics”, there still needs to be a strong service delivery arm that keeps the racks fed & watered, fixes that possessed multi function device on the 8th floor, explains to the new finance director that it wouldn’t be as good an idea as he thinks it would if he had his very own SAP environment. All of these repetitive, everyday tasks have to be carried out well in order for the CIO to have any credibility when submitting a budget that has this mystical beast called discretionary spend.

Long has it been rumoured that in the days of yore (1996) our technology ancestors were given small amounts of capital to spend on hunches they had about how technology could change the business for the better. I am here to tell you that these rumours are true. Back then IT was the most exciting place in business and articles in respected magazines (remember magazines?) like the Economist had headlines like “CIO to CEO” and “Own the Bytes, Own the bucks”.

Sadly we blew it. Spend got out of hand, capex bombing runs were followed by opex avalanches. Developer teams arrived at wildly ambitious projects that either crashed and burned completely or never came close to the business justification. ERP budgets started to represent a larger and larger slice of IT spend and we came to the realisation that, and I realise the magnitude of the generalisation, great IT guys don’t make great business leaders, we don’t even let IT guys run IT companies anymore.

Being a developer in 1996 was a pretty tough gig. You had wildly ambitious CIOs drunk on a giddy mix of magazine flattery and hardware vendor junket spend coming up with unnecessarily complex business processes that they wanted you to make digital. With C++ comes great power as well as great responsibility, and before long there were great gouts of barely controlled ones and zeros erupting across the business.

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