Discover PerformanceHP Software's community for IT leaders // March 2014
How IT leaders win by serving the business
Damon Edwards says that retooling IT ops for the software-driven era isn’t about tools at all—it’s about people and processes, and understanding what IT really delivers.
IT used to be seen as supporting infrastructure to be managed separately from the actual work of the business. Increasingly, though, IT has moved to the core of what an enterprise does. We book air travel and hotels through a browser; manage our checking accounts and credit cards with mobile apps; shop for books, music, electronics, even insurance, primarily online. SaaS and cloud are giving rise to business models that never existed offline. In sum, it’s a trend that’s being called the software-defined enterprise.
"I don’t see the software-defined enterprise as a technology trend, but rather as a statement of intent being made by the business," says IT automation and business process expert Damon Edwards, co-founder of consultancy DTO Solutions. "It’s a strong signal to the technology organization as to what the business now expects—there is a whole new set of expectations around what is acceptable when it comes to time-to-market, quality, and agility."
Edwards, a leading proponent of DevOps and Continuous Delivery principles, talked with us at HP Discover Barcelona about the pressures this new era puts on IT organizations. What emerged was both a philosophical approach to IT’s new prominence in delivering business value and practical approaches to adapting to new demands. Perhaps surprisingly, Edwards says IT operations needs to worry less about technology and more about people and processes.
Q: A new pressure on IT, and on IT operations in particular, is the demand by the business that IT move quicker and deliver faster. Are we seeing the business waking up to a new competitive reality?
Damon Edwards: We definitely are. When presented with the term "software-defined enterprise," most tech organizations might ask, "Hey, we’ve always been a software-defined enterprise. What’s different now?" Well, the difference now is the business’s fundamental shift in how it views the competitive advantage—or disadvantage—that IT can provide.
The business is realizing: "We’re going to lose if we cannot move quicker. We’re going to lose if we cannot respond to the needs of the market and find that right product–market fit. If we don’t learn quicker as an organization."
However, in too many companies right now, they are finding that IT is the rate-limiting step that dictates the pace of the business. Slow software lifecycles, bottlenecked organizations, multi-quarter release cadences—it’s become such an ingrained tradition that many organizations question if it could ever be any other way.
But leading companies are starting to flip it around so that the rate-limiting step of the business is simply how fast the business wants to move. As quickly as they can come up with new business ideas, they expect their entire organization, including IT, to respond in almost real time. And they’re getting it done.
Q: Why is this "software-defined enterprise" conversation more urgent today than, say, five years ago? Is it that IT is simply less cumbersome and can now move at that speed of business? Is it user-centricity, mobility… ?
DE: I think it just all comes back to the needs of business. The business is accepting that this is the reality that we live in and is being forced to do something about it. It’s getting to be sink-or-swim time. There are plenty of others who have documented at length the hypercompetitiveness and speed of information flow that are reshaping our business climate, so you don’t need me to rehash that.
However, I am going to challenge the statement that IT has, as an industry, become less cumbersome. We’ve seen that it can be. There are plenty of examples of people having achieved that, but to do so they’ve had to dramatically redraw their world. They’d already realized that the way they were designing their organization and processes, and the resulting self-imposed constraints, were suited to a different era. Companies that have torn things down to first principles and rebuilt their world in this new style are the ones that achieve the results. But those companies are far from today’s norm.
These trailblazers stand in stark contrast to the large number of companies who either bury their heads in the sand as to the urgency of these changes, or who think that just doubling down on the same old practices and tooling will get them to where they need to go.
The frequency with which I hear "that will never work here" is astounding. Digging deeper into a hole using the processes and tooling that got you into that hole in the first place isn’t the way out. But nonetheless, that’s the proposed solution I hear the most.
Q: How do we reverse that trend and make IT more responsive to the needs of the business? Is it new technology? Is it new processes that work better?
DE: Fundamentally, it’s about people and process change. Tools are only going to support and reinforce what’s going on at the culture and process level. It all starts with accepting that we need to rethink our approach to IT. Of course there are many things that IT has done right over the decades, giving us a massive community of practice to learn from. But to say that the answer to today’s problems is more of what got us into this position seems like wishful thinking.
First, we need to fundamentally rethink how we approach IT as an organization. How do we align our people? How do we empower those people? What are the measures of success? Have we gone back to first principles and rethought what the performance, security, and compliance needs of our business really are?
That will give us the lens through which we can actually start analyzing our processes and determining what is actually helping us, and what is actually hurting us. Once we sort out the people and processes issues, then we’ll know exactly what to do when it comes to applying the right technology and tools. It’s just straightforward, low-risk engineering at that point. Trying to do it the other way around and start with the tools will just lead to, at best, more of the same, and at worst, a giant mess.
Q: What would be your advice to an IT organization that wants to move quicker but can’t seem to find the place or the opportunity to start?
DE: First, "no sacred cows" and "no cargo cults." The worst enemy you can have is thinking, "Well, this is how we’ve always done it." We define this world. If our world is slow and siloed, it’s because we defined it to be slow and siloed. Start by getting your organization to realize that these are all man-made problems, and we need to challenge our assumptions.
The second step is to get your entire organization thinking about your problems and goals from a people-and-process perspective. Look to movements like Lean, Agile, and DevOps. See how people are redefining their organizations by teaching their people to collectively "see" their problems and potential solutions in a holistic, customer-focused way. Once you’ve achieved that alignment in your people, you’ll be surprised by how many problems they will fix on their own. Does wonders for morale, too.
Only after you get that worked out is it time to look at tools. I think the big trap for technologists is our love of tools. We love the latest gadget, the newest technology: "There’s got to be a better tool out there that can help us get to where we want to get." Resist the urge to even touch your tools until you can prove to yourself that you have an absolutely clear understanding of what you need to do at the organization and process level.
Q: So it’s not a technology problem …
DE: Right. We constantly see organizations that start out convinced they have a tooling problem. But when we get down to the root causes, rarely is the problem actually due to a technology or tooling decision. I’m not saying that there aren’t tech or tooling problems to solve. But it’s rarely the root cause, and starting there won’t get you lasting results.
As a tech organization, you need to create a culture that thinks of this first and foremost as a business problem. Finance, marketing, customer support, developers, operations—everybody needs to come together and ask: "How can we be better and quicker at delivering value to our customers? How can we better react to the forces of the market and win?" It’s a holistic business problem that needs to be addressed from the top down, not just bottom-up. There is a lot of work that has to be done upfront before you even start to consider if and how you need to retool.
Q: The good news, then, is that your immediate constraint is not budget or tech sophistication, but just having that intelligent conversation about how we wish things would work.
DE: Right. Attention is really the primary resource constraint in most companies. But it’s not just a shortage that’s the issue. Attention and focus are difficult things for a large organization to shift. It really works against improvement efforts. In many corporate cultures there is this interesting blind spot when it comes to change. It’s essentially an argument that says "we’re too busy running the business to find the time to fix the things that are putting us out of business."
Q: We’re too busy treading water to swim to shore.
DE: Exactly. And failing to notice the sharks lurking below us.
Damon Edwards is co-founder of DTO Solutions. Check out his Dev2Ops blog and the DevOps Café podcast. Dive into HP’s approach to full IT agility at HP.com/go/devops.
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