by Iain Smith

It’s time to talk about IT talent

Apr 12, 2016
CareersIT JobsIT Leadership

Many IT functions are not equipped to meet the higher expectations that cloud offerings have triggered. CIOs must develop a talent strategy and implement a talent roadmap.

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Credit: Thinkstock

“I used to deal with service providers and suppliers all the time, and I hated it. Why? Because I always felt the provider was in charge.”

CIOs and IT managers murmured their empathy as they heard the ex-CIO’s words. They’d been there. You ask about the price of a new MegaServSys 5 and what do you get? A barrage of “information”: benchmark results, backward compatibility, future-proofing, a technology roadmap, software options. So you put the question again and the sales guy eventually quotes thirteen possible price points, adding, “it depends which option is best for you.” Suddenly you don’t feel like talking anymore …. Ever feel in someone’s gun-sights? Ever feel out of control?

The ex-CIO speaking on the conference platform was in fact Werner Vogels, now Amazon AWS’s CTO, and he certainly knew how to sell the AWS offering. His proposition: you can buy and use AWS without ever having to deal with a sales guy. Now that’s a deal that REALLY gets IT managers excited. Studies among HR people who support IT functions suggest that IT managers’ weakest area is vendor management: most hate doing it and are rarely good at it. And that’s a big reason why cloud infrastructure services like Amazon’s AWS and Microsoft’s Azure are growing so quickly: they have engineered people out of the sales process, and in their place put control panels.

Control panels show you the same options and prices that everyone sees and pays. And because they do not rely on sales people registering the sale and setting everything up, they can give you stuff now, not in weeks. With AWS or Azure you just select a processor, click on the operating system you prefer and start using the hardware within minutes. No “coulds” or “mights” or “maybes,” no sales talk, no special deals: just cold, dehumanized selection and implementation. Now.

The convenience factor: the hidden influencer

It’s partly the control issue that Werner Vogel identified. But it’s also about personal convenience, not something employees are taught to prioritize. Managers are told to do whatever’s best for shareholders and customers. Decisions, they are taught, should be made rationally based on factors like economics, customer preferences, security, compliance, strategic fit. Rarely, if ever, will the sheer, selfish, personal convenience of using public cloud be the criterion that formally swings decisions. But could the simple convenience of public cloud infrastructure be a key reason behind its success? Could AWS’s breakneck growth be explained by something they don’t talk about at Harvard Business School?

IT: time to look in the mirror?

IT people could usefully think about the attractions of the control panel when they themselves build systems: what are they themselves like to deal with, as experienced by business colleagues? Are they as frustrating as suppliers’ sales people – making everything unduly complicated and slow? Truth is, IT functions are often no easier to deal with than suppliers, despite the absence of the commercial pressures that drive many sales people’s behavior. This comment from the earliest days of IT is worth reading, even in 2016:

“You software guys are too much like the weavers in the story about the Emperor and his new clothes. When I go to check on a software development the answers I get sound like ‘We’re fantastically busy weaving this magic cloth. Just wait a while and it’ll look terrific.’ But there’s nothing I can see or touch, no numbers I can relate to, no way to pick up signals that things aren’t really all that great. And there are too many people I know who have come out at the end wearing a bunch of expensive rags or nothing at all.” –A U.S. Air Force officer quoted by B.W. Boehm in Datamation, 1973

Communications difficulties like those partly explain the success of cloud-based business applications like Salesforce, SuccessFactors and Workday which can be easily bought and quickly implemented often without much of IT’s input. Again, as with cloud infrastructure, cloud applications are replacing people by control panels. These give less flexibility than custom-built applications, but business people will trade that in return for greater convenience and control.

The people problem … we need a plan!

The obvious message is that if you can dehumanize the interface, people will love it, whether that’s ordering a cab, a home delivery meal, some server capacity, or configuring an HR system.

But there’s a problem. It takes deep thought, and lots of complexity behind the scenes, to create a great, “simple”, interface whether it’s public or private cloud or whatever. Many IT teams are simply not up to it. How many infrastructure teams could rival, in a private cloud, what Microsoft, Amazon and the like have already done? And the depth of the applications challenge is illustrated by the failure of so many online selection and recruitment systems – universally hated by those who use them. People nowadays want solutions that give them control and are only just as complicated as they absolutely have to be. To deliver, CIOs’ teams need strong players, highly motivated, well managed and led in every role. How many can say they’ve got all that in place? And the gap can’t be plugged by a hiring campaign. What’s needed is a set of complementary actions that upgrades the whole IT function: hiring, retraining, leadership and management development, new HR processes, better reward and recognition practices, a culture of innovation. And underpinning all that, a people strategy and roadmap. It’s time to talk about talent.

Werner Vogel was speaking at the AWS Summit, April 15, 2015

This US Air Force quotation was reproduced in Writings of the Revolution: Selected Readings on Software Engineering, Edited by Edward Yourdon, Yourdon Press, 1982, p. 263