For many years, Robin Leach showed the world the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, which introduced to us the concept of “The Best of the Best.” The show ingrained that The Best of the Best should be something we strive to achieve. The fashion industry told us about “The Best” clothing and accessories. The automobile industry told us which vehicles were “The Best.” The restaurant industry catered to “The Best.”
And so did the IT industry.
Throughout the years, we have built data centers using the very best point solutions our budgets were able to tolerate, hired the best technicians to manage each of those point solutions, and worked tirelessly to develop customized management and monitoring solutions. These efforts help us understand how “The Best of the Best” of IT infrastructure, software, services, management and cloud components interact.
Through these initiatives, we've learned that“The Best” isn’t always the best for a specific business. Too often, we sacrifice operational efficiency, ease of integration and ease of management to accommodate features the business may not need. We may create complex designs when, as Occam observed, the simplest solution is usually the best.
For many, this seems like a rudimentary approach to building IT infrastructure and services, and some might note, “That’s fine but it won’t work here.” Yet, public cloud providers have mastered this approach. These providers have learned that a highly homogenized infrastructure including hardware, software, services, processes and skill sets enable the most flexibility, the quickest growth and the most efficient approach to delivering applications to the business. The question is how? To answer this, we need to examine some of the principals involved in building out a homogenized, flexible and scalable solution.
One of the most important efforts mature IT organizations may undertake is the effort to rationalize the environment, which includes hardware, software, tools, maintenance, processes and skill sets. This discipline may require further improvement. Often, this is much easier to undertake extrinsically since we all tend to have a pride of ownership involving our achievements and service to the organization.
One very important consideration here is that the best answer to a given challenge changes over time.
Brilliant, dedicated employees devise solutions to business challenges based on their personal experiences and education, available tools, coworker input and budget tolerance. These solutions quite often work wonderfully. However, as business and technology change, these solutions may require development, or may become business challenges. These also require dedicated caring and handling, which often limits flexibility over time.
As an example, one of my favorite clients is a large financial firm. Their team is loaded with some of the best and brightest I’ve ever met. One business problem they solved early in our relationship was the integration of their collaboration platform with their internal systems. Without going into too much detail, their solution was quite elegant. It completely integrated voice, video and more with their systems for sales, enterprise resource planning (ERP) and billing.
As their systems grew, so did this software interface. After about a decade, it became a primary business system unto itself, complete with operations and development teams. It became an intrinsic component of every change request, the limiter of every software upgrade and the enemy of efficiency.
At some point, we were asked to provide developers to assist the client in maintaining the platform. Once we engaged, we quickly realized that every function performed by the platform had been slowly introduced by the collaboration vendor within the first 24 months of its inception. Within 90 days, we migrated off that platform and began to use the intrinsic features of the collaboration platform.
Today, some might say, “Our problems are more sophisticated.” And that may be true. This is the primary reason we recommend that rationalization efforts be cyclical. Many larger clients perform these each year as a part of their Enterprise Architecture cycle. More often, however, the EA team reviews business cases and approves whatever tools the subject matter expert or team requests.
When undertaking a rationalization engagement, there are several areas to note: business requirements, Venn diagrams, budget cycles, maintenance costs, product ecosystems, roadmaps and KISS (keep it super-simple). Understanding business requirements is key. Everything we do, as IT professionals, needs to benefit the business first. After all, the function of IT is to provide applications to the business and its stakeholders. All of our actions must be in support of that goal.
In order to best understand the strategy, business requirements should be tiered into “Needs,” “Wants” and “Would Like to Haves.” Additionally, we need to examine each technology in our environments based on a strategy of Invest, Amortize or Retire. Once that evaluation is complete and we actually understand the business requirements, we may wish to start with an examination of which vendors offer the largest number of requirements in a single ecosystem.
This is an area requiring a fastidious study. Vendors often grow through acquisition in the same way their clients do. Hence, many vendors maintain separate ecosystems for different product sets, which have not yet been integrated under a single suite. The most efficient and effective manner in which to examine these attributes is with an independent partner. In the same way that a Ford dealer believes the answer to every question is a Ford product or service, manufacturers and many integrators are likewise lacking the experience, flexibility and independence to effectively recommend how to best rationalize and homogenize the environment.
There is no single set of recommendations that will work well for every client.
This is because we all have unique histories. Every company has a unique set of people, processes and technologies. These attributes, along with the business plan, profitability, leadership and vision combine in new and distinctive ways. The answers for each client are highly customized and tailored to their business goals.
Once we have determined the business requirements, assessed our investment approach and narrowed our field of vendors, we may begin to analyze these options based on the percentage of features vs. investment. Using Venn diagrams, we may be able to demonstrate these concepts to the business.
We may wish to standardize on the fewest possible number of vendors and ecosystems needed to meet the requirements. This approach has many benefits to the business, including ease of automation and orchestration, increasing efficiency of spend and minimizing maintenance spend since we have more leverage over cost and lifecycle management. The largest benefit of this approach is that we’ve also enabled cloud capabilities and improved scalability.
As we transform our technologies, we must also keep our most important resource in mind: our people. The constant change in the IT industry puts pressure on employees. Over time, many feel they are no longer able to keep pace with change, which can lead to pigeonholed positions and a lack of job satisfaction. This, unfortunately, drives attrition.
As technology evolves, waning skill sets around mainframe, storage and other disciplines are still hugely important, but often require fewer hours of labor. Problematically, we may lose employees who have spectacular local knowledge. But the rise of new skill sets such as cloud auditor and service Intermediation also provides an the opportunity to retrain valuable personnel assets.
Processes must also adapt to change. Many of our most successful clients are migrating towards LEAN, Agile and other new approaches. Developing flexible frameworks that use industry standards to maintain compatibility with business partners becomes important. Kanban, fail-fast and DevOps cultures become central to the success of our business. Six Sigma project managers, project leads and other efficiency strategies may benefit the entire organization.
As we become more homogenized within IT infrastructure, software, operations and management, we also increase our ability to innovate. Our teams become more effective as team members are able to augment each other’s skills and responsibilities. This improves our responsiveness to the business enabling our businesses to grow or transform more rapidly and more dependably. Of course, this may require training, professional development and re-focusing on the shifting skill sets within IT, but these become positive challenges which lead to better overall career trajectories for our staffers, as well as high job satisfaction.
In summary, the blistering pace of change in the IT industry requires practitioners to adjust our approach to developing and deploying solutions to the challenges of the business in the cloud era. As technology changes, our teams must look to design cohesive, easily manageable, scalable and flexible solutions and at the same time, continue the best tradition of IT: doing much more with less.