“I wish I was 20 years younger only so I could have an extra 20 years as a technologist and really see what we will be able to do with what is currently available, and what will follow.”
Let me start by making a request - can we please stop treating digital like a special case, the Radical of Technology? Yes, it is revolutionary, but just like many revolutionaries there is a point in time when you become mainstream.
The initial coining of a term parallel to traditional IT was necessary for many organisations. Where, after 2002 in the aftermath of Gerstner’s forward thinking statement about “technology as a Utility”, IT departments had been turned into exactly that, utilities. With their focus on YOY cost cutting and managing CAPEX, it was seen difficult to trust these IT (or even worse ICT) leaders with something novel that seemingly required a new breed of innovative leaders, free of the shackles of traditional IT, processes and governance.
For many of us "traditional" technologists and by traditional technologists, I mean those of us who were in the profession before 2002, this was a very frustrating time. Most of us who joined the profession between the late 70s and 90s tended to be on the creative side of the spectrum, full of the "art of the possible" and more glass half-full than half-empty. A number of new terms were coined to give digital the credence of a discipline to differentiate it from traditional IT. To name just two of my favourites: bi-modal and CDO.
So, why is time to stop treating digital like a special case? Let's distil it into four key reasons why I believe digital technologies need to be seen and managed as part of the overall technology estate, not as novelty piece on the side.
These four reasons are: clouding, contracts, data and people. Out of these four, three are topics that have been talked about a lot. The lesser spoken about topic, more seen in the remit of traditional IT - contracts - is, let's be honest, boring. However, we cannot ignore that there are more words written about tech contracts than there are about clouding, data and people in tech. However, it is important to note that all four topics are interconnected and for those who have been a technologist for a while, can see the patterns of repetition.
Let's start with clouding.
The maturity of clouding is a key driver for digital going mainstream. Small independent SaaS solutions that have dominated the scene for quite some time have been joined by the big players such as Microsoft, IBM, SAP and Oracle. SaaS is now the norm. If you can cloud SAP, you can cloud anything, and with ERPs, and with other heavyweights moving into the cloud, there will be an ever-increasing number of services plugging into these heritage solutions. It is effectively the same cycle we saw with data-warehouse and BI/MI plug-ins and SOA 10-15 years ago. Remember when data-warehousing and SOAP (simple object access protocol) APIs were going to give us the "single truth" from the data and simple integration, that the ERP solutions and their reporting tools could not? Yes, having REST (representational state transfer) APIs (application programming interfaces), web-protocols and services-based architecture makes plug-ins and integration easier, but all of this is a process of evolution, not a special breed.
Moving the back-end systems (mode 1) into the cloud also impacts the concept of shadow IT. Shadow IT has been the domain of the smaller stand-alone SaaS solution providers, often sold to groups of end-users as efficiency and collaboration tools. I see shadow IT as just another form of outsourcing. Instead of outsourcing to a service provider, we are outsourcing the internal end-user groups, who want to use systems they know and love, which is great. Outsourcing has its pros and cons but it still needs to be managed. And as it becomes easier to connect systems, we will connect systems. It is in our DNA. We will connect Slack to our monitoring and alerting systems, or will hook up Salesforce or Wrike to Oracle. And suddenly the previously stand-alone SaaS solutions become business critical.
Which brings us to the topics of data and contracts. Let's return to the example about connecting previously stand-alone systems and making them a critical part of our processes. Y Data management has always been a challenge, it has just got a little bigger and more complex but the principles are still the same, regardless of how the data is organised, there can only be one master data source for a unique piece of data. And let's be honest here, how many organisations can say that their business is driven, by real-time dynamic data? Most of us have a leadership hierarchy, share-holders and management reports determined by corporate governance. This human construct on risk and opportunity management will always require data management processes.
The third reason why I think we should mainstream digital is contracts. When SaaS solutions first appeared on the scene, each contract was hand-crafted to meet the client organisation's needs. It was all about sales, relationships and in-year revenue, not about standards and 3-year pipeline management. That is all changing now. How many non-technology business units have signed a contract with a SaaS provider and have been caught out by the annual increase clauses or the annual chopping and changing of the functionality pricing changes? The contract models for SaaS solutions are increasing in complexity. Who among us has not been caught in the classic Oracle "number of users, functionality packaging, number of environments, CPU" 150-page renewal reviews? The SaaS providers have been watching, learning and hiring those who have experience in what model works best to maximise revenue.
Let's be clear here. I am not bashing digital. I think all technologists should be really excited and proud to be in our profession. I wish I was 20 years younger only so I could have an extra 20 years as a technologist and really see what we will be able to do with what is currently available, and what will follow.
I have touched on clouding as the item that has hugely extended the availability of technologies, ideas and opportunities. But having more doesn't make the need for the basic goals of integration, system and data architecture and management go away. It just makes it a little, or a lot, more complex. Contracts, likewise, are still there, and with more integration, contracts are becoming more complex. All of this knowledge is transferable from "traditional" to digital.
"The biggest change I believe is in people."
The biggest change I believe is in people. We as an industry have created more new role descriptions than any other sector. And this trend looks likely to continue, as technology becomes a more integral part of every job; the line is blurring. The more roles and jobs we create, the more important it is to ensure the "traditional IT" professional is not marginalised to running a utility service. By treating digital as a step in the technology evolution, we ensure the knowledge and skills transfer that is necessary to provide a robust, efficient and fit-for-purpose technology estate. As creative beings we all are motivated by the opportunity to learn and create. The more we share our skills and knowledge and have common goals to work towards, the better we will weather the next stages of the inevitable evolution.
I leave you with the thought that as technologists, we are custodians of future potential, not owners of a system or a given piece of technology. As leaders we are responsible for ensuring that we provide the vision and opportunities for our colleagues to evolve with, and fully utilise, forthcoming changes rather than segregate them from business reality.
And this, in my view is the key reason to stop treating digital as a radical and a special breed. Digital is now the norm, so let’s get over it.