Tuesday, November 19, 2013

IT Virtualization & World War I Strategies

I have quite a bit to say about the coming tidal wave that is IT Virtualization.  But before you quit reading or think it's going to be boring, let me start off with some historical context.  Since we'll be discussing strategy, you can expect that we will use a little military history to set the scene.

In the early 1600s, the age of firearms started first in Europe and quickly across the world.  I use the word 'firearm' because projectile weapons didn't evolve into actual rifles until 200 years later.  Soldiers in armies would be equipped with a projectile weapon and then marched up to the enemy where both sides would drill away at each other until one or the other would run away.

You'd think that this would be a clumsy way to conduct warfare, and it was for about 100 years.  But with humans being the intelligent creatures that they are, the "art" of infantry tactics advanced quite a bit.  One of the most proficient countries in firearm warfare was Great Britain.  They got so good at it that they equipped their soldiers with red coats (Paul Revere, anyone?)  The purpose there being to present easily visible targets to their enemies in order to both mock and intimidate them.  It was like saying, "Here we are - we're coming for you - take your best shot!"  Napoleon Bonaparte took the art even further by developing tactics that massed men into a small area in order to deliver tremendous firepower against opposing troops.  He was so good at this type of warfare that he actually dominated all of Europe and western Russia for a short time.  His tactics were still very much the norm during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

So there was a basic idea of massing men with firearms together and using that formation to overwhelm the enemy.  HOWEVER, that entire set of tactics was completely based on the technological limits of the tools at hand.  It was understood by generals and countries alike that the best trained soldier could only fire 3-4 aimed rounds per minute.  And you can guess that after a few battles, well-trained soldiers might be in short supply.

Fast forward to World War I.  The technology of warfare had changed dramatically but the tactical ideas had not.  At the outset of the war (1915-1916), estimates put the total number of soldiers killed in actual combat, just in Europe, at over a million men.  In just one year an entire generation had been almost completely wiped out.  Why, you might ask?  Well, the generals were still massing men and charging them at the enemy.  But rather than being able to shoot 3-4 rounds per second, the armies were equipped with a new technology called the machine gun.  These rifled guns could put out 200-800 rounds per minute!  Can you imagine the carnage??

Eventually the generals of WWI adapted, but much too slowly.  Never before in history has humankind paid such a steep price for trying to solve the problems of today with the solutions of yesterday.

In the IT, we are on the precipice of just such a moment.  No, I do not think personal lives are at risk but the futures of companies are definitely at stake.  If you are a doubter, let's take a look.

In 2010, just three years ago, as a CIO there was very little of my core infrastructure that I could virtualize, let alone applications.  What I mean is that at that specific point in time, there was no "Cloud" that I could harness.

Today I can utilize one of at least a dozen different cloud-based providers to service every part of my IT portfolio.  By no means am I running a completely virtualized shop.  I still have plenty of servers located in a data center.  But the fact remains that I could go completely virtual if I wanted to and if done right, my user community would never know the difference.

By now you might be asking how this all ties into the WWI story.  The first thing to know is that very few companies and their CIO/IT heads are fully embracing the cloud.  They are still making major investments in hardware, data center facilities, and application services that are physically present and available to them.  While not everything can fit into the virtual world, especially in the financial services sector, much of it can.  By failing to even consider the lower costs, higher availability, and scalability of vitualizing IT, these companies are spending money on commodities that should be spent on innovation and differentiation.

The penalty these companies pay can be illustrated by a simple example.  Imagine two companies, "Firm A" and "Firm B", each of which has $10 to spend on IT.  Both Firms are expanding globally and need new distributed IT services in a hurry.  Firm A decides to implement SAP and spends $6 on the necessary infrastructure to run it.  Firm B also goes with SAP but spends just $2 to implement it out of the cloud.  If everything goes perfectly, Firm A has $4 left over for other services and innovation.  Firm B, on the other hand, has $8 to spend.  Who is going to gain the competitive advantage over whom?

Yes, that example was slightly facetious but it truly does represent what is happening in business all over the world today, especially the 1st world.  It is not readily visible unless you know where to look, but companies willing to risk moving to the cloud for reasons of finance and agility are gaining a huge advantage over their competitors.  Don't think for a moment that ignoring new technology trends is a safe strategy.  Can you say "Blockbuster Video"?

To finish off on a strong note, do not let issues of information security deter you from moving to the cloud.  When asked, many company leaders state that a fear of data loss and theft are actively deterring them from moving information to cloud-based locations.  And yes, every so often you hear about Amazon (http://www.newser.com/story/151679/amazon-tightens-security-after-high-profile-hack.html), Sony (http://www.digitaltrends.com/gaming/sony-fined-almost-400000-for-2011-playstation-security-breach/), and TJ Maxx (http://www.informationweek.com/tj-maxx-parent-company-data-theft-is-the-worst-ever/d/d-id/1053522?) getting hacked.  But the fact is and remains, about 70-80% of all corporate information security issues are caused by internal employees.

If you are an IT leader or a business executive who depends on technology, don't ignore the cloud and virtualization.  If you do, keep your head down as you charge those machine gun nests.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Ripples In A Pond

There are a number of different stories, metaphors, and analogies about the effects of actions a person takes on both their environment and the people around them.  I've read a number of them from eastern-based philosophy and poetry.  Some are quite beautiful and meaningful.  One of my favorite mental images on which I center is that of a beautiful, placid pond.  This pond, in my vision, has raindrops falling on it, each of them casting ripples that intersect with one another.





Every person who lives, every person who fosters a career, is continually making ripples.  This statement is especially true when you view the impact of a leader.  As a steward of people, not just resources, a leader is constantly having an effect on everyone around them.  Keeping this principle in mind, it is important to consider just what kind of ripples each of us makes.

There is an axiom about management that says people leave their leaders, not their companies. (http://www.forbes.com/sites/louisefron/2013/06/24/six-reasons-your-best-employees-quit-you/)

If this is true, and it surely is, the "ripples" created by these types of people are very inharmonious.  Therefore if you aspire to be a good leader and someone who makes a positive difference it is very important to understand that everything you do has an effect on someone.  If you have been a leader for a number of years, have you ever had someone tell you what an impression you made on their life and you never even knew it?  One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was very similar.  As a first-time manager, my supervisor said, "Welcome to the club."  From now on, consider that everything you say and do will be recorded.  Because you are now "the boss", people will look to you as inspiration for all that is noble or, conversely, without virtue." 

What is the takeaway from what I've just said?  It should be easy to understand.  Try to be the best you can be, even when you think nobody is watching.  Every action you take is spreading out across all of the people around you.

From the perspective of your career the same is also true.  People I know who are experts in the Talent, Coaching, and Recruiting businesses all tell me the same thing.  Your future success, in part, depends on the people you've known and know currently.  In fact, the opportunities in life that come your way will also come from these same people.  The funny thing is that you can never predict just "who" in your circle of influence will generate the "what" in terms of opportunity.  So whether you think someone is below you in life, at your level, or a superior - how you act towards them, the ripples you send, will always help determine the direction in which your life will go.

It makes no difference if you're a "placid pond" or a "turbulent ocean", pay attention to the ripples you create (and you're always creating them).  The splashes you make today will resonate to the most unlikely of places.




Monday, November 4, 2013

Cassandra's Curse

While this is a post about, ultimately, managing morale within an IT organization, let's start with a little history.  Forgive me if I throw in a little mysticism, magic, and lore.

Almost everyone in the world that has a high school (or equivalent) education knows at least a little about the Trojan War.  After 3000 years it still holds enough interest and popularity that Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, Diane Kruger, and a whole other bunch of stars made a movie called "Troy" about 10 years ago.  Even Kobe Bryant knows a little about the subject, having torn his Achilles' heel ligament in the 2013 NBA playoffs. 

King Priam was the monarch of Troy and had many children.  We know about Hector, Paris (he stole Helen), and even Aeneas, who the Roman author Virgil credits with being the founder of Rome.  What many people don't know or have just vague details about was his daughter Cassandra (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassandra).  As a princess of Troy, she was famed for many things including being almost as beautiful as Helen herself.  (Move over Scarlett Johansson)  But perhaps the most interesting and famous attribute of Cassandra was her prescience.  She was a prophet, imbued by Apollo, who could see the future with absolute clarity.  Sounds great, right?  The problem was that absolutely no-one would believe her.  She predicted the theft of Helen, the death of Hector and Priam, the purpose of the Trojan Horse, and her own capture/enslavement/death at the hands of Agamemnon.  Cassandra was the one person who could see everything and could have prevented the fall and destruction of the Trojan empire.  But absolutely nobody would ever take a single word she said seriously.  Is it any wonder that she always bordered on the edge of insanity?

So how does this relate to the world of IT?  Let's take a broad look at the whole function.  As a function, an IT group can and does see what happens in every single part of a company.  This is true from the smallest to the largest of entities.  As a matter of fact, it is required that IT has this purview because in this century all company/corporate functions are facilitated by technology.  Since IT is a service provider it is involved, intricately, in each business unit because the technology used by each area must continually function in order for business continuity.  That doesn't mean that IT knows the "secrets" of these areas but it doesn't need that information to be aware of what is happening at any given moment.  Additionally, unlike other parts of a company/corporation, IT can see the interrelations of each business unit, one upon another.  That is because people in IT can see how business processes move through the company's unit from start to finish.

Given what I've said, one should (or could) assume that IT staff and leaders are called up to collaborate deeply on strategic issues.  Right?  After all, that makes perfect sense because IT personnel are uniquely positioned to comment on the strategic ramifications of a given action plan.  From the purview of IT, these people will see the whole-company effects of a strategy. Yet, despite all of that, most IT leaders and talented staffers, if asked, would say that they are rarely (if ever) consulted on strategy.  The default approach to involving IT in strategic discussions, with a few exceptions, is treat them like a homeowner would treat a plumber.  When there is a leak, bring 'em in fast to fix the problem.  After the issue is resolved, put them back from where they came.

I am not exactly sure why things have developed this way in business.  But I see the ramifications.  Recently my friends at Computerworld shared the results of a survey they conducted on IT employees across a range of businesses.  One salient question that they asked:  "Do you aspire to be the CIO someday?"  The answer range came back - 32% Yes; 55% No; 13% Not Sure.  More and more IT people, especially younger managers, are beginning to see that IT careers do not lead to the top of companies.  The payoff, more and more, is that IT people are in demand, but as practitioners, not strategists.  Practitioners can make a lot of money but tend to be quite transient.  Several months back I wrote a blog about this called "Why IT Will Outsource Itself in 20 Years".  Practitioners of IT will always find work but, like law firms, their roles will be to deal with discrete problems, not ones in the abstract.

This brings us to the final point of this post.  From what I've said, how do you keep up morale within an IT organization when you're trying to grow strategic capabilities within people who are valued for their tactical execution?  First, contrary to the "institutionalized" model of management that calls for hierarchy, become an "organic" manager.  Especially as a CIO, spend a great deal of time on a personal basis with your staff.  That means inside of work, not outside.  Be prepared to over communicate and show emotion so that you can be viewed as a real person, more than just a title that resides higher on the org chart. 

The benefit to getting closer to your staff is that they will respond with greater loyalty, performance, and commitment.  The last quality is incredibly important in these days where IT tenure can be measured in months rather than years.  When the company/corporation does not nurture the strategic side of your team, that role falls to you.  With the right care and attention, you can still put the strategic capabilities of your team to use for your firm.  And by listening, unlike poor Cassandra you can help them keep their sanity.  When your team is "sane", you get the chance to build long-term, high performing teams.  We can all see the benefit in that.