Last month, as part of our Nasuni CloudBound2020 virtual conference, I moderated a panel discussion of industry experts focused on how the pandemic has changed enterprise IT. Companies that had already embraced software-as-a-service applications were in a much better position to transition to remote work. Large organizations that were forced to rush to the cloud didn’t necessarily do so in the most efficient way possible. Big picture, the pandemic forced organizations to finally adopt everything that IT had been working on for decades. Overnight, unable to go into the office or the datacenter, we all adopted not only video-conferencing but SaaSified versions of everything from basic productivity apps to heavy-duty, industry-specific application workhorses.
One of our expert panelists noted that while many industries are probably hoping for a return to business as (almost) usual, this is going to mark a major transition for IT. The pandemic has ushered in changes and some of them will be permanent. Companies have invested time and resources to support their workers at home. These businesses might not want to write off that investment. The employees themselves might not want to return to the office as we knew it. How many people have you connected with who’ve mentioned how much more productive they are now that they’re working from home?
Work is going to permanently change for many of us. What is the role of IT is this new post-pandemic world? In a world dominated by SaaS applications and cloud services, what does IT look like? What skills does the IT leader of the next decade need to cultivate?
Broadening the Priesthood
Anything that was running on SaaS before the pandemic was a godsend because the change was seamless. These apps are designed to be agile and, for the most part, they passed the test. And now that they have proven themselves, who wants to go back to the old world? No one. Enterprises want pay-as-you-go, agile services that allow them to shrink their use of hardware resources as much as possible.
Every ten or twenty years, there’s a major shift in technology, and more powerful technology gets deployed to the people. In the early days, IT was a kind of priesthood comprised of expert geeks who provided technology to their uninitiated colleagues. As an employee, you had to go through the priesthood for IT services. Then we moved from mainframes to client servers to personal computers to app-packed smartphones. Today, an analyst at a financial services firm who’s struggling to share a spreadsheet with a colleague in another part of the world might just turn to Dropbox instead of asking IT for help. We went from only highly trained people accessing rarefied technology, and everyone working through this priesthood, to a scenario in which everyone has access to tools and services – and might even think they know better than IT.
This change has coincided with a shift in personas, too. Years ago, the people leading IT departments were career MIS experts, the types who build their own computers for fun. Today, you have a surprising mix of personalities and backgrounds. Some IT experts started out as architects or engineers or even financial analysts. This is no accident. The new experts are equal parts IT- and industry-specific knowledge of other technologies that are relevant in that sector. They are a broader, more curious bunch. We’re seeing a more diverse mix in IT because the job requirements are changing.
From Plumbing to Strategy
IT has a much more strategic role than it had in the past. It’s less about the bricks or the technological plumbing, and more about how you create new services for the business. Consider what we’re seeing with cloud technologies. All these solutions are offering companies direct access to very powerful apps and services in the cloud. These are disparate systems, and they all claim to be completely hands-off, set-and-forget solutions. Yet we all know it never works out that way. You’re not going to get this magical power of compute and infrastructure without any help from IT, even if that’s what the provider promises. Someone needs to turn the key.
But this is not as simple as turning a key. The new priestesses and priests of IT ultimately have to match what the business needs with the technical requirements or specifications of the service providers, and where there’s a gap, IT needs to be able to fill that gap. When there are multiple overlapping solutions, IT needs to find ways to converge them to suit its company’s needs. Maybe you have redundant systems, each of which manages file storage. How do you integrate these two?
The Programmable Data Center
The new IT is going to be more programmatic in nature. IT leaders will be working with APIs and writing code to negotiate that gulf between what this huge ecosystem of cloud services delivers and what their specific enterprise actually needs. It’s going to be a far more creative role.
We are moving towards a fully programmable data center. Automation and the right programming tools are critical. IT needs to be able to set up systems and get them running and keep them running, with minimal need for human intervention. If something fails, for instance, it won’t do to wait hours or even days for a fix to be instituted. Humans are the unacceptably slow link in the chain. The alerts and fixes have to happen through automated processes that take seconds, because IT will already be on to planning the next integrative, forward-looking project, and won’t really be in the business of fixing leaky pipes.
A Good Time to be in IT
To me, this is a tremendously exciting change. It’s a shift from a repair and maintenance mindset to a more creative and strategic role, and I think it’s going to have a major impact on how IT is seen within organizations. IT won’t simply be the team you turn to for finding lost files or securing more file storage capacity for your new project. Yes, IT is still going to have to adapt to constantly changing business needs and use the technology available to respond in creative ways, but it’s also going to have a more transformative role than we’ve seen before.
IT has never been an easy job, and probably never will be. But I do suspect that the SaaSification of infrastructure, the range of cloud services, and the changing nature of work will all combine to lift IT’s stature within large organizations.
This is a good time to be in IT.