A recent client inquiry of mine involved a very large enterprise, who informed me that their executives had decided that IT should become more like a cloud provider — like Google or Facebook or Amazon. They wanted to understand how they should transform their organization and their IT infrastructure in order to do this.
There were countless IT people on this phone consultation, and I’d received a dizzying introducing to names and titles and job functions, but not one person in the room was someone who did real work, i.e., someone who wrote code or managed systems or gathered requirements from the business, or even did higher-level architecture. These weren’t even people who had direct management responsibility for people who did real work. They were part of the diffuse cloud of people who are in charge of the general principle of getting something done eventually, that you find everywhere in most large organizations (IT or not).
I said, “If you’re going to operate like a cloud provider, you will need to be willing to fire almost everyone in this room.”
That got their attention. By the time I’d spent half an hour explaining to them what a cloud provider’s organization looks like, they had decidedly lost their enthusiasm for the concept, as well as been poleaxed by the fundamental transformations they would have to make in their approach to IT.
Another large enterprise client recently asked me to explain Rackspace’s organization to them. They wanted to transform their internal IT to resemble a hosting company’s, and Rackspace, with its high degree of customer satisfaction and reputation for being a good place to work, seemed like an ideal model to them. So I spent some time explaining the way that hosting companies organize, and how Rackspace in particular does — in a very flat, matrix-managed way, with horizontally-integrated teams that service a customer group in a holistic manner, coupled with some shared-services groups.
A few days later, the client asked me for a follow-up call. They said, “We’ve been thinking about what you’ve said, and have drawn out the org… and we’re wondering, where’s all the management?”
I said, “There isn’t any more management. That’s all there is.” (The very flat organization means responsibility pushed down to team leads who also serve functional roles, a modest number of managers, and a very small number of directors who have very big organizations.)
The client said, “Well, without a lot of management, where’s the career path in our organization? We can’t do something like this!”
Large enteprise IT organizations are almost always full of inertia. Many mid-market IT organizations are as well. In fact, the ones that make me twitch the most are the mid-market IT directors who are actually doing a great job with managing their infrastructure — but constrained by their scale, they are usually just good for their size and not awesome on the general scale of things, but are doing well enough to resist change that would shake things up.
Business, though, is increasingly on a wartime footing — and the business is pressuring IT, usually in the form of the development organization, to get more things done and to get them done faster. And this is where the dissonance really gets highlighted.
A while back, one of my clients told me about an interesting approach they were trying. They had a legacy data center that was a general mess of stuff. And they had a brand-new, shiny data center with a stringent set of rules for applications and infrastructure. You could only deploy into the new shiny data center if you followed the rules, which gave people an incentive to toe the line, and generally ensured that anything new would be cleanly deployed and maintained in a standardized manner.
It makes me wonder about the viability of an experiment for large enterprise IT with serious inertia problems: Start a fresh new environment with a new philosophy, perhaps a devops philosophy, with all the joy of having a greenfield deployment, and simply begin deploying new applications into it. Leave legacy IT with the mess, rather than letting the morass kill every new initiative that’s tried.
Although this is hampered by one serious problem: IT superstars rarely go to work in enterprises (excepting certain places, like some corners of financial services), and they especially don’t go to work in organizations with inertia problems.