IT Doesn't Matter: What every IT pro needs to know to survive in the cloud era

Nearly 10 years ago, Harvard Business Review published the now infamous report, "IT Doesn't Matter." IT pros the world over were disgusted by the perceived inference; however for business leaders, this article and the principles it shared were an epiphany they have continued to build upon to this day. To me, this statement is the epicenter of business/technology alignment - any IT pro wanting to survive and advance his or her career in the cloud era needs to understand exactly what it is about IT that many business leaders feel just doesn't matter.

Over the past 10 years those of us in IT have seen offshoring and outsourcing go from affecting mostly factory jobs and turn close to home, affecting many of us on a personal level. We have seen years of companies trying different things like outsourcing their entire IT staff so that the same people work the same jobs in the same building, but as employees of an outsourcing firm. We have watched as help desk jobs that used to be a key stepping stone for beginners to get into IT roles moved largely offshore. And in my past several roles with Silicon Valley leaders, I have seen a massive movement of IT-related research and development dollars going abroad. And if all this weren't enough, IT is now seeing several trends accelerating that can be frightening. First is the combination of increasingly simple software with increasing ability to automate the tasks that are helping to keep you employed. Second is the movement towards cloud-hosted services and their generally greater economies of scale over internal IT. And not just a little automation or scale benefits, Microsoft has stated that Azure’s IaaS cloud can provide an admin-to-server ratio of ~1:30,000…whereas they state the average enterprise has an admin/server ratio of between 1:50 and 1:100.

Background: Will the cloud take my job?

While these trends are scary, we can see clearly how much more pervasive Information Technology is becoming in all aspects of life and in all businesses, from garbage collection to farming to NASA. It is important to remember that every major industry transition in the past has had simplicity and efficiency improvements as a hallmark, yet humanity's insatiable desire to continually increase our relationship with technology has kept us employed through these transitions.

An important aspect of significant industry transitions is that, while change can bring fear, it also provides the opportunity for us to change the things we don't like about our jobs. The simple reality is for many of us that, as we have grown in our job responsibilities, we have gone from rookies to experts. And it is generally this expertise that makes us feel secure in our jobs. And in times of great change, we tend to cling even more to our greatest areas of expertise…but this reaction may be the exact opposite of the actions we should be taking. Every great change has a positive side, the people who the change benefits, and a negative side - the people who get left behind afterward. And clinging to one’s expertise in a time of change can be a surefire way to end up on the negative side.IT Doesn't Matter. I remember the day the article was first published. It was like a shot heard round the world for IT, causing an immediate firestorm where the response of most in IT was to defend against the remarks as unconscionable. I took a different tactic; I viewed it as an opportunity to learn more about the mindset of the people who cut the checks…and in hindsight it was among the smartest career moves I have ever made. This is the new IT.

These are some of the key points I draw from Nick Carr's excellent article, 

The net-net of my point here is - do you personally want the work that you do to be considered something that is strategically valuable to your organization? I would hope the answer is yes, but today many IT pros are currently working and honing their expertise in areas that your business leaders do not find strategic and, worse, hope to shed. I don't mean to imply these roles are doomed, but rather that there is a lot of change right now and a lot of times our business leaders don't know exactly how to convey the best actions for these roles. They know a lot of IT processes need to be modernized, and so we have a choice to either proactively modernize them ourselves, or wait for business leaders to do it for you, which is a high-risk option. I think most of us want to modernize our roles in a way that the business would appreciate, but first we need to thoroughly understand what it is business leaders really want out of IT. We all are experts in our own business processes and we need to take a more proactive role in helping to rapidly innovate the processes we are experts in. New ‘cloud’ technologies will mean that a lot of the things you do now may become automated or cloudsourced - but this does not have to be bad. Today your business is moving from needing people who simply know how to operate a Microsoft or Cisco interface to needing people who can help the business understand how to strategically use technology to its advantage.

I was fortunate to have been able to attend one of the best graduate programs in innovation in the world, the masters degree program in technology commercialization at the IC2 institute of the University of Texas at Austin. Despite 'technology' being in the name, this is a business degree that is basically aligned with the job of a venture capitalist, to analyze early-stage technologies and develop strategic marketing and business plans first to guide market-focused product and concept development, and then to launch innovative new technologies. I distinctly remember one of the first exercises we went through, where the focus of the conversation turned to how often engineers prioritize technical excellence over business relevance. The program was an executive-ed program and I was the youngest and most inexperienced there. My cohorts all worked as line-of-business leaders (not in IT)  and I was shocked to see how common the perception was that engineers often focus in the wrong area. One of the main things we did in the program was judge business plan competitions - there are dozens of them that happen every year. Typically, teams enter from graduate programs around the world and are attended heavily by venture capitalists and angel investors. And in this experience, my entire cohort noticed a very similar thing - you could almost always tell when a team was entirely or predominantly made up of engineers as opposed to business students, as these teams consistently focused more on technical excellence and whiz-bang technical features than they did on the needs of the users. 

And then we did another simple but effective exercise that really stood out to me. The professor asked us to answer a survey, not based on our own opinions, but she asked us to guess how we thought the average consumer would respond. And we had an entire group of mostly seasoned business executives who all failed miserably. The point of the exercise was to highlight how often we think and assume what is really wanted from our customers, and we all often have a tendency to substitute our own opinions. Today, IT must treat other business units as potential customers and IT will have to fight to win these dollars. Gartner, for example, recently noted that "By 2015, 35 percent of enterprise IT expenditures for most organizations will be managed outside the IT department's budget." Nearly every business invests heavily and works hard to create a culture where the customer is always right, but IT often presents itself as the place where all business units simply must go because they are part of the company. But for your Chief Marketing Officer, they are simply looking for the best marketing apps and if an XaaS provider is offering a much better value, why should they choose IT? We need to get to the root of why and how computer and information technology is strategic to the business.

Let us first examine when, how and why both technology and the classic definition of "Information Technology" can be valuable in helping accomplish the key goals of your business.differentiated, both companies' widgets and widget services are still equivalent, and the investment didn’t help them steal the others' customers. Worse, investors did not approve the big IT investment just for an ROI; they did it so their investment could grow at a faster rate than the competition. And now the board is really unhappy that the IT investment did not generate the expected growth. This analogy reminds me of a quote I read recently: "only two things grow for the sake of growth: businesses and tumors."differentiation for the business. That is not to say they are not important, but it is important to understand exactly how these investments are strategic to the business and have your own understanding and strategic plan for how to evolve a technology in line with the company’s business goals. Most COTS technology and many IT initiatives are general purpose technologies, and this category of technology has a particularly strong benefit from economies of scale…so if you are an expert in administering a COTS platform, the knowledge you have may be non-strategic to the enterprise and probably something your business leaders would ideally like to not have to pay someone to do.

Consider two fictional businesses: Acme Inc. and Duff Inc. Acme and Duff are both in the business of making and selling widgets, and offer an array of widget-related services. Both of these businesses exist for the same reason as any business - to provide valuable products and services to society. Initially, both Acme and Duff are successful, but both of these businesses want to grow, and to do so, they have to compete and try to create the perception that their widgets and services provide a better value to their target customer than the competitors' product.

So Acme and Duff both call in the leading tech firm uber-megasoft, both invest a lot in robust ERP and CRM packages, both purchase top-notch infrastructure packages and follow the best practices for implementation. And the end result is that both companies now have much better technology, but both are still locked in a dead heat. Both now provide better services, but because the technology was not

One key point from the story thus far is that commercial-off-the-shelf technology (COTS) investments do not provide

A lot of IT people realize this, and often respond with a tactic that simply digs the hole happily continue to support poorly documented processes and not do anything about it. Often we are not encouraged to bring change proactively, but we have to step up and do it or it will be brought upon us one way or another. Many IT people today feel secure in their jobs because they know the company would be in a bad place without them due to their unique knowledge of the company’s technology operations. While experience is valuable and business leaders need to do a better job at recognizing this, experience that is valuable primarily because it relates to poor documentation is the enemy of your business leaders and is something they are trying aggressively to stamp out. Don't put yourself on the wrong side of a business continuity plan - there are much better ways available to create value.

It may seem counterintuitive, but my recommendation is to document, automate and turn your role into a well-oiled machine and make it as simple as possible. Make it so if you got hit by a truck, your business could keep moving forward without a hitch.

Now, some may say that this could make you less valuable, and in some cases inept leaders may not properly value this type of effort, but it is exactly what most business leaders want from IT, and doing this is one of the best ways to show your business leaders your innovation and leadership skills. I remember my first role as a senior network engineer. My job was to manage >300 WAN sites on a network dedicated to a specific application. When I walked into the role, it had been caught up in the common reactive management cycle. There were no standard processes when we had to deploy a new site; every new deployment was a one-off. Late-night calls for outages were almost a daily occurrence. So over my year in this role, I created a very simple and largely automated process to deploy new sites and different standard architectures for differently sized deployments. I created a simple manual but algorithmic lifecycle for maintenance. I replaced all of the equipment in the field with a few common models with consistent configurations. I captured data on the most common outage types, identified the steps that were common and consistent in troubleshooting, turned them into a simple checklist and moved the vast majority of troubleshooting to the L1 help desk. And none of this was necessarily my job…what I was hired to do was simply keep the network running. Instead I turned the role into a tightly tuned set of simple, replicable processes and when I was done, I had built tremendous credibility and upward mobility both within the business, and with business partners enabling me to move into a position where I doubled my pay and got into what I feel has been a much more rewarding career path. I believe when you help pursue the goals of your business leaders and proactively demonstrate business-centered innovation and process improvement, this will make you more valuable and upwardly mobile than almost anything else. 

Background: Job Satisfaction: It’s not Just About Happy Employees; It’s About the Very Survival of Business

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