Re: An Arab Spring for IT.

The Article…

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Alan Cohen, VP of Marketing for Nicira, a disruptive startup focusing on altering the IT networking landscape, recently wrote a guest post for TechCrunch suggesting that an “Arab Spring” of sorts is occurring within IT. Reader comments have indicated a significant distaste for the analogous use of Arab Spring in comparison to IT – the one involving the loss of human lives, the other changes in business structure and Mr. Cohen has apologized for the offense some feel at the branding. I don’t think it was the best title for the post – but there has already been rampant discussion of that fact – and I would like to focus more on the content of Mr. Cohen’s post.

Cohen suggests we are seeing a seismic shift in the IT sector – similar to that which occurred in the 1970’s with the advent of the personal computer. He notes early innovators like the iPhone (antecedent to smartphones), VMWare (virtualization), and Salesforce (SaaS). While I agree with his historical evaluation of the situation and also that a seismic shift is occurring within the IT sector – I do not share his optimism about the nature of this change.

Cohen states, “If IT providers do not supply what the end users want, the latter, like the brave individuals who took the streets of Cairo, Tunis, and Tripoli, will take matters into their own hands.” He deems this “shadow IT:” “Bring your own device is shadow IT. Most SaaS applications start bybypassing IT and going directly to functional groups (managing sales through Salesforce or sharing through Box.net).”

Now, working outside the box with one’s own devices/services concerns me enough (e.g. smartphones, file sharing), but Cohen then suggests that it is time for revolutionary employees to step things up a notch – implementing their own infrastructure: “If IT does not provide the end user with the infrastructure they need, the latter can rent it, by the hour or month from companies like Rackspace or Amazon. All you need is a credit card and no approval from IT.”

Cohen concludes by challenging those within the IT industry, “But if you are in IT, you have to ask yourself: What side of history will you wind up on?”

Problems with the Article…

I do work in IT. I’ve been a geek practically since I was born and have worked full-time in the industry for the past six years. But this isn’t about my IT credentials…and it shouldn’t be about defending IT as IT. Truth is we have our weaknesses. Many of us who work in IT are a bit antisocial, introverted, ADD, OCD, or (append acronyms here). We aren’t always the most flexible folks to work with and there is certainly room for growth in our lives and skills…That said, I do think there are some serious problems with the sort of revolution Cohen is endorsing here…and I think his IT guys probably grimaced reading this article as I much as I am now.

Lets talk for a few minutes about the dangers inherent in this sort of “revolution:”

Reduced Productivity

While using a device familiar to the end user may be a pleasure and expedite that individual’s productivity, it may result in a decrease to organizational productivity. For example, if one finds an Apple iPhone easier to utilize than the company provided Android or Blackberry devices (or whatever might be the standard) it is very likely that generally you will not require IT support in utilizing your phone…but then there come those times when you do…

  • When the device craps out and refuses to boot.
  • When you can’t get the company email/calendaring software to sync with your phone.
  • When someone steals your phone and you really, really need to have that sensitive business data remote wiped.
  • When you sell your phone on eBay and someone pulls sensitive data off the storage because deleting data isn’t enough.

At these times stress goes up and productivity goes down – for you and for the IT department. In time that could have been spent deploying five new computer systems only one thing is now accomplished – getting a non-standard piece of hardware working again (or wiped or whatever).

Reduced Security

There is significant danger in the use of non-standard equipment and services for achieving business goals. It is hard enough for IT to maintain complex password requirements on the variety of internal systems any organization utilizes, let alone managing password requirements on non-standard devices. This is especially true of file sharing services. A handy example would be the recent takedown of MegaUpload. While largely used for illegal purposes, numerous individuals used that site for personal or business purposes – to manage their files. It seemed “safe” – and now it isn’t. Doesn’t matter how hard your IT department tries – if you put your files on a system that is raided by the feds, say goodbye to that data – even if it is important financial info. for the management of your institution.

Reduced Effectiveness

Cohen greatly oversimplifies the simplicity of the services currently available to perform complex functions. Amazon, Rackspace, nor even Salesforce are “insert your credit card get your DVD rental” simple services. For the last few days I’ve been spending a decent number of hours pouring over books and documentation on Salesforce – and it isn’t a piece of cake. Do you want to set up Users? Roles? Profiles? Groups of Settings? Are you sure that the way you setup the permission inheritance will prevent Sally Jane from seeing everyone else’s social security numbers? Do you want to use Salesforce? Force? Heroku?

Valid Pain Points…

I understand there are real pain points for end users in organizations. Not being able to share files in a simple and efficient manner is frustrating. Using outdated and clumsy software to manage customer relationships is frustrating. Learning new technologies and devices outside your comfort zone is time consuming. These are real issues and IT needs to pay better attention to them…but…and this is a big BUT…looping around IT will not decrease but instead increase these pain points.

Sure, you might be able to happily use an iPhone even though IT says no and never have a single problem…but then again…and as the complexity of the device/service increases the issues exponentially increase.

Finding a Road Forward…

Now the real question is, what is a workable way forward? How can end users and IT cooperate to achieve optimal effectiveness, productivity, and security? Well, it isn’t an easy or short road…but then again, real revolutions never are. I’d suggest that the consumerization of IT is a short-term bandaid fix for the real needed change. Too often we take the easy way out rather than working through the difficult decisions that really need to be made.

Communication

IT needs to get better at communicating what they are doing in their little forests of IT solitude and why we aren’t really just sitting around playing video games and watching youtube. On the other hand, we need end users to get better to actually listening to IT. So frequently folks ask me, “How did you do that?” But they usually don’t want me to tell them…b/c as soon as I open my mouth their eyes glaze over and their fingers drum impatiently on the desk. Now, I know I’m using some technical terms – but I’m willing to explain them if you are willing to ask questions and listen. Maybe with time you’ll learn more about the tech terms I use and I’ll get better at describing technology in clearer terms.

Prioritization

One of the biggest challenges facing everyone everywhere is the constant call to do more simultaneously and faster. Oftentimes the issue for IT is not lack of desire to improve a given service to the end user, but lack of time. This means the organization as a whole and its individual departments need to determine what projects are most important – and what projects (in spite of being so important) are less important.

Consideration

IT needs to consider not only what is the best technology but also what will have the greatest net positive effect for end users. Meanwhile, I’d recommend instead of bringing in new devices and services to circumvent IT folks ask IT, “what can I do to have the greatest net positive effect for you?” By focusing on those areas you reduce time IT has to spend in them and free IT to focus up on working on those devices and systems you really want.

Forgiveness

We can all be nasty at times…and if you haven’t personally been nasty to someone, I guarantee someone else in your department has. A lot of us walk around with a heavy bundle of war wounds. You walk into an IT person’s office (or vice versa, into an end user’s office) and a single word, your position, or what happened earlier today may cause that person to dive underneath their desk as if someone just shouted that mortars were incoming. Getting along means letting bygones be bygones and when new items come up, dealing with grace and humility – for both sides.
What do you think? What is your experience working with IT folks? Or working with end users? Is consumerization of IT really the way forward? If not, what is the alternative?

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