Innovation is in the air. Everyone talks about it. Companies hunger for it. Nations pursue it. But how does it happen?
I firmly believe that we are in the midst of an IT-enabled deluge of innovation. One high-profile Silicon Valley resident, Mark Andreessen, famously penned a Wall Street Journal piece titled "Why software is eating the world," noting that IT is invading many traditional industries and upending them with software-driven innovation.
Left unsaid in his piece is the fact that, as the saying goes, one man's meat is another man's poison. Consequently, while many may embrace the disruption this new mode of innovation, others are threatened and will resist it with all their might.
At Maker Faire, IT Innovation Is Literally Everywhere
Over the past two weeks, I had the opportunity to catch an eyeful of that innovation and also witness what happens to those who find it intimidating. Somewhat surprisingly, it is often those most connected to existing IT arrangements who most strongly battle it. Odder still, the resistance is of a particularly beguiling approach—while offering lip service support to the innovation, the actual behavior is to stonewall it as much as possible.
Of particular interest is the role cloud computing plays in this innovation dynamic.
I got the first glimpse of this innovation at the local Maker Faire. This is its sixth year; attendance is now up to 120,000 people over the course of weekend. Maker Faire, if you're not familiar, celebrates the creativity and innovation of hackers and hobbyists. While many of the participants put forward extremely silly things, I was astonished at the level of innovation many other participants were showing off.
The setting of the Maker Faire is, put charitably, a bit shabby, resembling a Depression-era county fairground. The displays are raffish, unpolished and often unsophisticated. The Maker Faire is a sprawling, anarchic, noisy mess of chaos and whimsy—but also a hotbed of creativity and innovation.
Right at the entrance there was a really interesting display of how inexpensive tech is dispersing design into new markets—specifically, kids. Autodesk has rolled out a free iPad app that kids can download and create new designs. (Anyone can download it, of course, but an Autodesk rep on site told me the program is targeted at getting kids involved in design.)
Great, right? What is really cool is that the designs can be downloaded and taken to a local TechShop, where the designs can be cut into cardboard sheets and assembled. This gives the designer the experience of seeing his or her designs in physical form. By way of example, the dinosaur behind the Autodesk rep in the picture on the next page was created in this fashion.
The opportunity to go through a product lifecycle—creating and iterating a design, manufacturing and assembling it and learning about incremental improvement through experimentation—is hugely rewarding. It also teaches a number of life skills, including the discovery that new skills can be learned.
The Maker Faire had some extremely practical innovations in the education arena as well. In fact, it had a whole building devoted to education. Among its displays were a number of education-oriented startups creating apps and products designed to help students learn math, English and other subjects. A number of these apps took a game approach and ran on the iPad. (Seeing a pattern here?) All of them used the immediate engagement and level advancing approach of gaming to build skills in important educational areas.
Education is a field desperate for innovation. Professionals in the field talk about improving the area constantly, but their approach is typically one that reinforces the existing one-to-many, teacher-led, hierarchical institution of the past 150 years— and I say this having worked pretty extensively in the field. This occurs despite the fact that new capabilities and learning techniques that operate more effectively and leverage technology for convenience and cost advantage are available today.
Cloud Computing: The Groundhog Day of the IT Conference Circuit
The opportunities to leverage technology to enable peer learning and self-pacing are obvious. However, new approaches are commonly slimmed down or deemed too disruptive for existing arrangements. The most common reservation I've heard about the challenge of unleashing tech into this field is the fact that many teachers are uncomfortable and inexperienced with technology. This is a clear example of how institutions resist innovation that disrupts established methods and practices, instead insisting that existing approaches must be maintained and reinforced to ensure successful outcomes.
Turning to IT innovation, I attended three conferences over the past two weeks. Two were mainstream IT conferences with cloud computing as their focus. The third was Gluecon, a developer-oriented conference focused on emerging technology trends. The contrast in the way the two types of events approached innovation could not have been different.
In both mainstream conferences, many sessions could be summed up with one question—"How can you make cloud computing safe and palatable?"—that has been asked over and over again in presentations and discussions in the past four years. Frankly, it could have been Groundhog Day, given how much this year's cloud conferences resembled 2008. The overall impression was that, while everyone acknowledged the importance of cloud computing to IT innovation, the pace of adoption should be gated by what IT finds acceptable and deployed only when IT is good and ready.
I found especially dispiriting one exchange I had during a session I was leading on cloud TCO. I had no sooner started than an attendee put up his hand and asked, "What about security?" It wasn't said in a tone of, say, "How can I address any security challenges I may encounter while placing workloads in a cloud environment?" It was a skeptical, mulish attitude implying an implacable resistance to any kind of public cloud adoption.
After I responded to his question, he followed up with a question about rogue IT. I noted that one person's "rogue IT" is another person's "getting my job done." He responded, "It's all about governance," his tone implying that eventually those loose cannons would come to their senses and docilely come back to an on-premise arrangement controlled by IT—one in which the only cloud being used would be the one installed and operated by IT, thank you very much. Overall, both mainstream IT conferences had an unmistakable air of IT dictating the pace of cloud adoption, with nothing happening until IT is satisfied that everything's OK.
By the way, lest you accuse me of overstating this attitude, let me direct you toward a blog post by Richard Whitehead of Novell. Whitehead quotes an article that uses the mnemonic PASTA to describe IT's approach to Shadow IT. What does the first "A" stand for? Let me quote: "Amnesty—Give employees a chance to "come clean" without fear of reprisal. That way, you'll know what cloud applications are actually being used." Dictionary.com defines amnesty as "an act of forgiveness for past offenses, especially to a class of persons as a whole." I think this captures the attitude quite vividly.
You Can't Solve Tomorrow's Problems With Yesterday's Methodologies
Gluecon, on the other hand, was the Maker Faire of IT. The conference sessions focused on advanced techniques to manage highly distributed, disconnected, asynchronous applications that manage enormous volumes and scale. Unlike the conferences that featured Dockers and neckties, Gluecon was jeans and T-shirts all the way. Participants were unabashedly techies—developers and hackers.
The conference could have been summed up as "all APIs, all the time. John Musser of Programmable Web gave a keynote address titled Open APIs: What's Hot, What's Not. One slide identified APIs that receive a billion (!) calls per day. Scattered among the list were Web 2.0 companies such as Facebook and Twitter, along with such corporate stalwarts such as Sabre and AT&T.
However, this was no collection of technology-obsessed geeks gathering to share a joy of programming. Rather, this was a group focused on solving technology challenges on the frontier of engineering—trying to figure out how to build applications that can support enormous scale and dynamism. The established design patterns of enterprise apps—clustered tiers of stable software stacks—are completely inadequate to underpin this new class of applications. They're as outmoded as a Model T at today's Indianapolis 500.
The interesting thing? There was virtually no mention of cloud computing at Gluecon at all. No one said anything about using a cloud environment. The availability and use of vastly scalable, highly dynamic shared resources was just assumed—just like the fact that someone going out for a walk in the morning doesn't bother mentioning that one will be able to breathe. It's obvious that air will be available.
Incumbents Fear Disruption of IT Innovation, Demand Conformity
The contrast between these events could not have been more stark. The cost of IT has plummeted, which has led to entities, even individuals exhibiting at the Maker Faire, being able to develop incredibly innovative uses for technology. Meanwhile, the established institutions struggle to respond, enchained by established processes, people and products unsuited for a changed environment. Having witnessed the responses of the incumbents, I can't help but feel that they are trying to will the disruption into line, insisting that it conform to what already exists.
There's no doubt that the incumbents face enormous challenges in trying to respond to the new developments in IT—trying to maintain current practices while incorporating new ones that make the previous ones obsolete is incredibly difficult. However, there is a palpable sense of inevitability present in the disruptive events. Their progress is irresistible.
Trying to stubbornly resist the tide of change is pointless and invites obsolescence and irrelevance. Innovation will win out. What remains to be seen is what the "institutions" ultimately look like after the disruption plays out.
Bernard Golden is CEO of consulting firm HyperStratus, which specializes in virtualization, cloud computing and related issues. He is also the author of "Virtualization for Dummies," the best-selling book on virtualization to date. Most recently Wired namd him one of the Top 10 Cloud Influencers and Thought Leaders. Follow Bernard Golden on Twitter @bernardgolden.