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Weekly Column

IT Wars: When we fight over IT, nobody wins.

Status: [CLOSED] comments (92)
By Robert X. Cringely

Last week's column on Gartner Inc. and the thin underbelly of IT was a hit, it seems, with very few readers rising to the defense of Gartner or the IT power structure in general. To be fair I probably should have said that Gartner isn't totally worthless, but I think their specialists should be more specialized and they shouldn't promote technologies or products without being darned familiar with them -- a lot more familiar than they seem to be at present. But the bigger question is why IT even has to work this way at all?

I don't think it has to.

Most of the problems of IT start and end with bad management. I speak fairly often to technical audiences and one question I like to ask is simple: If you were hit by a bus tomorrow, could your boss do your job?

The answer is almost always "no." By "almost always" I mean 97-99 percent of the time.

It's a question I have been asking for 15 years and the answer hasn't changed in that time. It would appear bosses aren't becoming more accomplished, at least not yet.

The implications of this answer are profound. It either means that IT managers aren't being promoted from within or, if they are being promoted from the ranks, they lose their technical skills almost immediately.

If we drill down a bit further some real truths start to emerge. Whether IT managers are promoted from within or brought from outside it is clear that they usually aren't hired for their technical prowess, but rather for their ability to get along with THEIR bosses, who are almost inevitably not technical. For every John Reed, who rose from IT to run CitiCorp (and ultimately failed), there are a thousand CEOs who want nothing to do with computers.

It might be easy to say that IT, as a staff -- rather than a line -- job simply isn't seen as critical to the success of the organization, but that's crazy. IT touches every employee and customer every day. Most of what's accomplished in business these days is ordered, fulfilled, paid for, and analyzed through the use of IT. We can't eliminate it because now government expects -- even demands -- that it be there. If something is so important, then, why do the big bosses understand it so little?

For the most part they are kept in the dark.

Since the early mainframe days there has been a priesthood of sorts in corporate computing -- a level of executives who felt that their power would be enhanced by keeping technology mysterious. "It's much too hard for you to understand, Mr. CEO, even if you started out long ago as an electrical engineer. Electrons are different now you know."

"It's complex and mysterious, this IT stuff, and dependent on people who don't think like you or I do," the CEO is told and he/she believes it because the alternative is laboriously becoming an expert in an area they don't like or thought that they had outgrown. This leaves IT in a bit of a vacuum but it is a vacuum with some power. And in most organizations power ultimately manifests itself in head count, so IT organizations grow like crazy, becoming ever less efficient in the process.

The typical power structure of corporate (which includes government) IT tends to discourage efficiency while encouraging factionalization. Except in the rare instance where the IT director rises from the ranks of super-users, there is a prideful disconnect between the IT culture and the user culture. It's the AV kids from school versus the "normal" kids. IT organizations often disrespect users and users often disrespect IT. This is not good for either group.

One of the real miracles of the PC revolution was that it often was led by super-users -- enthusiasts who had a PC at home before they had one at work and who led their co-workers as much through example as skill. Well those days of the 1970s and '80s are long gone and IT is today as entrenched and isolated as it was during the mainframe era of the 1960s.

In time this will end through the expedient of a generational change. Old IT and old users will go away to be replaced by new IT and new users, each coming from a new place. This is the same challenging effect I wrote about a few weeks ago for education. A generational change will completely alter our cultural approach to information technology. And it can't happen soon enough for me.

An analogy we used to make years ago was comparing the PC industry to the early U.S. auto industry. There were hundreds of companies in both businesses at one time (in the 1920s for cars and the 1980s for computers), but each eventually consolidated into a dozen or so major brands and a few hot rods. Our problem using the auto analogy today is that we haven't let it evolve. Where IT may have once been like the 1920s auto industry, now it is becoming more like that same industry in the 1980s.

This transition goes far beyond simple brand consolidation. When was the last time you worked on your own car? You could change your oil, probably, but you don't, right? And you haven't done so since the late 1970s or early 1980s. Same for IT today, where the do-it-yourself attitude of the 1970s has given way to a do-it-for-me attitude. I'm not saying this is bad. Indeed, I think it was inevitable as the market broadened from just PC enthusiasts until it today encompasses everyone.

Al Mandel, who helped market the original LaserWriter at Apple and later had several high-level positions at AOL, used to say that the step after ubiquity was invisibility, and that's where we are headed today with IT, which has become so pervasive that everyone uses it to the point where NOT using it is no longer even an option. The problem is our management of IT hasn't evolved as quickly as our assimilation of it. We'll probably still be fighting over who owns IT long after the IT resources, themselves, become effectively no longer ownable, except in our corporate minds.

I'm writing this column on an iPhone, for example. It isn't the easiest or best writing environment but, as Adam Osborne used to say, it is good enough. It offers the input, output, networking, and storage I need and almost nothing I don't need. I'm not saying the iPhone or smartphones like it are the absolute future of personal computing, but I AM saying the desktop PC is its absolute past.

We're in an era of transitioning business models. IT is shrinking in traditional terms and will continue to shrink as cheaper mobile devices replace more expensive desktops for some workers. Software will change from being a product to a service. And because the incumbent players in the software biz are especially uncomfortable as service organizations, we'll inevitably see some changes in that pecking order. Microsoft will go down and Apple, for example, will probably rise. Users will be changed forever as new paradigms emerge, but for a few more years at least, corporate IT won't notice, being too darned busy fighting its own internecine wars.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (92)

You want the CEO to make IT decisions? What the hell have you been smoking? Have you ever SEEN the mess that results when that happens? I have (before I abandoned humanity to be a hermit in a cave), and it's ugly. The IT person not only has to wipe up the mess without pissing off the CEO, she has to take the blame for the mess she tried to prevent.

You think the CEO started out long ago as an electrical engineer? You must be dropping acid, too! Here's the way business works, Bob: the CEO started out long ago as a young, greedy A$$ HOLE, and today he's a rich, lazy A$$ HOLE.

There ARE exceptions. I worked for a business run by a NASA electrical engineer who quit after helping investigate the Apollo 1 fire. You know what he said when I repeatedly begged him to buy a tape backup unit for his ancient server which has never been backed up in YEARS? Quote "I only pay you to give advice I ask for".

When the whole thing crashed a few months later, taking all the company records with it, he blamed ME for sabotaging it to prove my point (I didn't.)

CEOs making IT decisions?

No wonder you miss .429 of your predictions!

Faye Kane, Homeless Brain | May 30, 2008 | 4:26PM

"In time this will end through the expedient of a generational change. Old IT and old users will go away to be replaced by new IT and new users, each coming from a new place. This is the same challenging effect I wrote about a few weeks ago for education. A generational change will completely alter our cultural approach to information technology. And it can't happen soon enough for me."

What's your point?

Time changes our cultural approach to all successful technologies. My grandfather regarded the telephone as a novelty and regarded air travel, until his death, as the province of the wealthy. My father grew up with the telephone, considered air travel as a specific tool for a specific purpose, and generally avoided IT. I take the telephone for granted, grew up with air travel, and consider IT as a specific tool for a specific purpose. My children take air travel for granted, and grew up with IT. There's probably a technology that is foreign to me, that my children will view with some trepidation,and that their children will grow up with. Genetic engineering, maybe?

So it takes a true Master of the Obvious to suggest that IT will undergo the same type of generationally-induced cultural change as a host of other technologies. Ditto the observation that "the desktop PC is its absolute past." Apropos of last week's diatribe, you'll doubtless be thrilled to know that Gartner has been making the same claim for years ;-).

The trends variously described as SaaS or Cloud Computing may change the *nature* of the IT organization, but they don't affect the *role* of the IT organization as much as it might appear. You seem to believe that these utility-based models represent a threat to IT organizations. As a working CIO who sees 5 - 10% budget cuts yearly, I see these utility models as necessary to preserving the corporate bottom line. Your statement that "IT is shrinking in traditional terms" may be true, but who cares? My job is to provide a portfolio of services to the organization's business units. If I do that more cost-effectively by outsourcing our mail system to Google, isn't that the point?

Just how many CIOs do you actually know, Bob?

CIO | May 30, 2008 | 6:12PM

I urge every business person and IT person, management or staff, to get hold of a copy of "I.T. Wars: Managing the Business-Technology Weave in the New Millennium." Our project managers are on their second reading. Our vendors are required to read it (they can borrow our copies if they don't want to purchase it). Any agencies that wish to partner with us: We ask that they read it. Do yourself a favor and read this book - then ask your boss to read it - then ask your staff and co-workers to read it.

John Franks | May 31, 2008 | 8:15AM