Hey, IT department! Sick of vendor shaftings? Why not DO IT, yourself
Let go of the shopping trolley and skill up, popeye
Secret CIO Enterprise IT departments have been reduced to personal shoppers at best and checkout clerks at worst.
You want extra lock-in on those chips, sir?
I say this because IT departments just don’t make anything anymore. When was the last time you were required to actually make a new thing as part of an IT project? As the application development world continues to commoditise, why do enterprise IT departments still live by the “buy it off the shelf” mantra?
Lack of skills is the main reason. There are no longer enough enterprise IT people who understand enough about how applications are built to know that when a vendor offers them comfortable memory gel knee rests, a barrel and some brightly coloured silk scarves that they're about to sign a lock-in contract for a set of proprietary technology.
This unintentionally complicit behaviour leads to a great many “we can’t do that because of our contract with (insert service provider's name here)” conversations, followed by “the nerve of (insert service provider's name here) eh?”, tut-tutting and finally some fist-waving along the lines of “just wait till their contract comes up for renewal”.
None of which has any effect: The next contract with the next service provider is equally debilitating (“but this one has the grape flavoured astro glide”).
Of course technology vendors don’t help, they're the ones standing behind the CIO limbering up, stroking his hair and whispering “this means we can truly be together now, it won’t hurt a bit”.
Lock-in, which prevents the realisation of benefits from the commoditisation of technology, is the single biggest threat to the relevance of IT departments today and it is the one the least effort is put into combatting.
Too many CIOs use lock in as a reason why they can’t adopt public cloud but then once they are finished they zip back up the mouthpiece of their latex suit and climb back into the gimp box with (insert service provider's name here) on it.
There is not enough discussion on the extensibility of data. How many RFP’s have a section with “please provide documentation on all API’s available for us to use, for our own purposes, with this product”? The knowledge gap is gone. IT no longer has the “technical” badge all to themselves and this is a good thing as, sheesh, didn’t they go on about it!
We are seeing a tipping point where demands from the business are more technical than the retained IT function can handle.
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.
Maintaining an SQL 7 DB was like trying to service an old Aston Martin
Like an SQL 7 database on wheels
Closely coupled with these developers was a new breed of IT guy who got more of a kick from where the data was than what it did. These Database Analysts were being strapped to SQL 7 servers and were being tasked with taming the flow of data coming out of the developers' projects. SQL 7 people; maintaining a SQL 7 DB was like trying to service a classic British car. Each problem you solved resulted in two more appearing. There was only so much duct tape, hot melt glue and pop riveting one DBA could do, so before long a re-architecture project would be inserted into the original timeline of the project.
I only point out the bad old days because we have things so much better today - but we make less use of it. Why don’t we make things anymore? If an enterprise IT department had access to a good user experience designer, front end developer and a back end byte herder, what kind of decisions would they make differently? Would a CIO with these kinds of resources realise that Sharepoint has never been an answer to any question ever asked by a business person?
I think we are at a point in the IT industry cycle where it is now not only permissible but in some cases preferable for us to make things again. We have the tools to make simple and beautiful applications cheaply and quickly. We can show the business that we care as much about the brand as they do, and that IT is a relevant source of business focused innovation that is capable of uncovering new growth opportunities.
CIOs today are less likely than ever to come from a technology background but when everyone realises the opportunities that concepts such as DevOps and Service Oriented Architecture unlock, we will be back in the business of creating business value just like those heady days of 1996.
Let’s hope this time we don’t blow it. ®
Warren Burns has held senior global roles at Universal Music and the consumer goods giant Unilever, where he served as Head of Innovation and was responsible for leading the Global Innovation practice and was instrumental in delivering high profile projects such as the future Ice Cream Cabinet.
Warren also holds advisory board positions for a number of Australian businesses and is a research associate for the Leading Edge Forum Executive Advisory Programme.
His consultancy, BurnsRED, helps customers understand how emerging technology will impact their business.