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The new culture of IT echoes the industry’s earliest days.

In many ways, it’s back to the future – but we also need some things to change.

Reg Loby Reg Lo

IT cultureTo get a sense of what’s happening in IT today, it can help to have a long term perspective. Think back to the earliest days of computing, for example, and you can see that we’ve almost come full circle – a reality that underscores the major cultural shift that the business is undergoing right now.

When enterprise computers were first commercially available, companies used to buy their hardware from someone else but write their own software, simply because there wasn’t very much packaged software out there to buy.

Then by the ’90s or so, it became the norm to purchase configurable software for the business to use. That worked well for a while, as companies in many different industries deployed similar software, e.g. ERP, CRM, etc.

Today we expect software to do a lot more. Moreover, we expect software to differentiate a business from its competitors – and that’s returning IT to their roots as software developers. After all, the ability to create digital enterprise innovation requires software development skills. And so we’ve made a full arc from a software development perspective.

The Expanding Reach of IT

Now add another historic change that we’re seeing: IT departments used to just provide services for their business, their internal customer, but the advent of the fully digital enterprise is expanding who gets touched by IT. IT departments now need to reach all the way to the customer of the business, the consumer. When we talk about omnichannel marketing, for example, we’re expecting IT to help maintain connections with consumers over web, phone, chat, social media, and more. The same goes for the Internet of Things, where it’s not so much the consumer as a remote device or sensor out in the field somewhere that IT needs to be worried about.

Both broad trends have changed the scope of IT and both are making IT much more visible. More importantly, they mean that IT is now driving revenue directly. If it’s successful, IT makes the business highly successful. But if IT fails, it will directly impede the business revenue flow.

Becoming Agile Innovators

That brings me to my last point. Here’s what hasn’t changed from the past: for the last 30 years or so, the mantra in IT cultures has been “Bigger is Better.” Software Development and Release processes got increasingly bureaucratic and terribly slow (think of those epic waits for the next ERP release). The standard mind-set was to package multiple changes into a single release that they’d roll out every six months or so, if they were lucky.

But that culture is also something that we need to be moving away from, precisely because the relationship between IT and the business it serves has changed. Businesses used to perceive IT as just a cost center that should be squeezed for more and more savings. But when IT touches the end-customer experience directly, business needs IT to be both cheaper and faster – to support and enable the kinds of innovation that will keep the business one step ahead.

We now have the technologies (cloud computing, cloud-native applications) and methodologies (agile development, DevOps) to make smaller, much more frequent, incremental releases that are simpler, less likely to be faulty, and easy to roll back if anything goes wrong.

What we’re still lacking – which I still see when I’m out in the field – is the widespread cultural change required for it to happen. Most importantly, that means adopting what I could call a DevOps mindset across the entire IT organization. At its essence, this mindset views the entire work of IT through a software lens. It makes everything, including infrastructure, code.

For IT long-timers, in many ways that’s simply returning software to the centrality it once enjoyed. But if it takes us back to the early days of computing, it also points us to what we must change if we’re to succeed in a future that’s entirely new.

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Reg Lo is the Director of VMware Accelerate Advisory Services and is based in San Diego, CA.  You can connect with him on LinkedIn.