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The Democratization of IT


September 14, 2016

5 minute read

itisdead longliveit ftr

The IT Department is dead. Long live the IT Department.

The impact of the advances in technology are many and varied. The increase in processing power, as defined by Moore’s Law, brought advanced computing power down from room-size installation to the size of an A4 pad.

Cost spiralled down similarly to within the reach of millions of people. Storage capacities increased as hardware size decreased, and screen resolutions sharpened to almost analogue levels. All these advances are accessible not just in size and cost, but also in ease of use.

The reliability of hardware and software plus advances in design and usability broadened usage even more. So now, 66% of people in the UK have a computer in their pocket in the form of a smartphone, broadband usage is through the roof, and most major services, like government, utilities, banking, etc., are delivered online.

Technology has been democratized; most of us have access to it and it is integral to everyday life.

Counterintuitively, though, the more familiar we become to this new technology, the less able we are to deal with its failures. When your apps crash, access to your internet connection fails, or worse, your device stops working, we are less able now to resolve it.

Which means a call to your IT Department or Helpdesk.

But a strange thing happens here. Our newly evolved ignorance, coupled with increased digital reliance, equates to high levels of frustration–which tends then to be focused on those we look to for help. Why should this be? IT is no longer the mythic art it once was, governed by geeks with PhDs in computer science and low interpersonal skills.

Everyone is now an IT expert, and therefore no one is.

So those who work in IT, like the Helpdesk staff, network engineers, and system administrators, have lost their “art” and been reduced to the generalist, rather than the specialist. Anyone can do it, can’t they? Turn it off, turn it back on again. What’s to know?

Except when that doesn’t work.

Then we’re back to the scenario mentioned above. We’ve done the obvious, and we’re stuck. Why can’t we fix this stuff ourselves? Do we lack IT skills? Do we employ a particularly IT illiterate staff? We are a marketing services organisation with a low average age and a balanced ratio of men and women. We have millennials and generation Z’s coming out of our metaphorical ears.

These people were born with a smartphone in their mouths and a broadband-connected baby monitor keeping watch. They are the epitome of IT-savvy. Or rather, that’s what the media would have us believe.

What I think has happened, and this is at the root of it all, is that technology has become so easy to use, and so accessible to everyone, that they have forgotten what holds it all together.

There is no awareness of the real technology that underpins each element of the connected diaspora that comprises our digital landscape.

If somebody can’t access their cloud service for an instant, their conclusion is that the internet itself must be down. They have no conception of each of the myriad elements that connects the endpoint (laptop / tablet / phone) to the cloud service. Someone hits the “Send” button on an email, and expects its arrival to be instantaneous and guaranteed. They don’t realize that email is a “send and forget” system, relying on each of the “hoops” that it goes through to be functioning seamlessly and without error each time.

My children have little understanding of the difference between Wi-Fi and the internet. To them, it’s the same thing. So if one is down, then de facto, so is the other. The democratization and consumerization of IT has made us lazy thinkers.

This is not a criticism. It is a symptom of our success. In making such reliable and easy-to-use tech we have taken away the need to be knowledgeable about the tools we use and take for granted. In the same way that car engines have become sealed units of mechanical and electronic “magic” the ability to tinker has also been removed. It’s actually quite difficult to change a spark plug. We are actively discouraged from doing anything other than top-up the oil and fill up the screen washer reservoir.

As a consequence, when something goes wrong we are completely at a loss. And because we have come to rely almost completely on our devices and the huge infrastructure that connects them, when they stop working, for a thousand possible reasons, we need help.

Long live the IT department!

Unfortunately, there is another issue that the democratization of IT raises, and it’s one that I sincerely hope we can solve. As we become more dependent on our devices we also become more irate when they stop working. Now, you would think that we would then welcome the help that someone could provide to rectify the problem. And as I have outlined above, the average Joe, or Joanna, quickly runs out of the wherewithal to fix it themselves. What happens instead is that Joe or Joanna become exasperated and frustrated with the very person who is there to help them. This is obviously a generalization, but I see this directly myself, with my 78-year-old mother, wife, and children, as well as within my organisation.

They transfer their frustration on to me in the same way that the average Joe or Joanna transfers their frustration on to the Helpdesk engineer. And that sucks. Instead of being grateful to their knight in shining armor, the default reaction is to complain that it even happened in the first place

A lot of Joes and Joannas are incredibly grateful for the service given to them by their dedicated IT staff, but it would be one giant step for mankind if this could be universal, and the incredibly valuable work done by IT professionals could be more broadly recognized. If they weren’t there, productivity would plummet, revenue would be lost, and our businesses would stop functioning.

The IT departments (or data processing departments as they were once called) of the past are dead.

The IT departments of the future are needed now more than ever.

This is a challenge for those leading their respective IT operations: to properly sell the value their departments deliver. As the consumers of technology increasingly expect their tech to just work, it is our role as IT leaders to remind them, in all the positive ways possible, that geeks do still rule the world, and the value they deliver is greater now than at any point in the past. May we continue to keep you productive and profitable.

About the Author

Gavin WhatrupGavin Whatrup (@gwhatrup) started out helping people do innovative things with data. Nearly 30 years later, he’s now helping organisations protect that data, take advantage of cloud-based opportunities, and reimagine the role IT can play in the new age. An early adopter of virtualization and hybrid cloud, Gavin recently managed the migration of his organisation to Office 365, across 12 companies and 1,000 users. From small data analysis company, via marketing start-up, media and advertising agencies to marketing communications group, Gavin has tracked the rise and rise of IT as a core corporate function, which at its heart is a people-based service, doing amazing things on a daily basis.