Does IT matter?
Nicholas Carr posed this question as the notorious title of his 2004 book about information technology and the corrosion of competitive advantage. Now more than a decade old, the book reflects the early apprehensions of technologists looking ahead to the possibilities of a cloud-connected future. Would IT departments be able to keep pace—or would they survive at all—once computing had moved to the cloud?
All these years later, the answer to Carr’s daring question is a resounding yes. IT does matter out here at the edge of our connected, digital reality, in some ways more than ever before.
Its importance rings true at events like the sold-out Microsoft Ignite 2016 conference, which saw more than 22,000 passionate technologists from around the world gather in Atlanta to talk all things IT.
Microsoft’s Jim Adams was in attendance at Ignite. Adams is an industry veteran and a jack-of-all-trades at Core Services Engineering and Operations (CSEO). At Ignite, Adams didn’t need to investigate whether or not the IT profession still matters, but rather sought to find out what matters to IT professionals.
Walk the walk, straight to the cloud
“It’s the single most authentic way to get to the real opinions and values of our customers,” Adams said of Ignite. “By talking to them, and breaking bread with them, you’re demonstrating you’re a colleague, and you understand where they’re coming from—that you feel the same pain.”
When Adams introduced himself as a Microsoft employee, this collegial connection may not have been immediately clear. But within CSEO, Adams works for IT Showcase, a group dedicated to telling the story of how Microsoft does IT internally in order to benefit its customers.
“Believe it or not,” Adams explained, “Microsoft Core Services Engineering is a Microsoft customer—we like to say the first and best Microsoft customer—and IT Showcase is about exposing all of the knowledge and information that comes from that relationship. I go around to talk to people like you and answer questions you may have about how we deployed a technology or service. I’ll tell you the good, the bad, and the ugly—how we failed or stumbled, and ultimately how we persevered and succeeded in cracking a particular nut.”
In many ways, CSEO acts as the vanguard for Microsoft’s global customer base. And Adams, who has worked at Microsoft since 2000, saw and experienced firsthand the progress made on the front lines. Adams had already spent years managing Exchange and SharePoint when Microsoft decided to go all-in on cloud computing.
“The only way to show our customers that the cloud was a viable platform was to jump in the swimming pool all at once,” Adams said, “So that’s what we did. We worked with Office and Azure, and worked through all of the issues in migrating SharePoint and Exchange to the cloud.”
All told, the process took four years. But even as the migration was just beginning, Adams was painfully aware that he was actively “clouding” himself out of that particular job. Instead of being upset about it, or paralyzed by fear, he threw his arms open to embrace the new technology and the changes that came with it. Adams’ journey exemplifies what’s happening in IT departments all over the world right now—it’s more than a change, it’s a transformation.
Technology evangelism never quits
Along the way, Adams reinvented himself as a technology evangelist. He travels the world helping other companies troubleshoot their own cloud migrations, sharing the digital transformation stories that have both driven his career path and ushered in a new era at Microsoft.
As is bound to happen at Microsoft, tech evangelism has seeped into the core of Adams’ being. His core beliefs about IT and his hands-on experience with Microsoft’s major cloud migration lead Adams to the main stages of the world’s biggest technology-focused conferences, conventions, and events.
But for tech evangelists, spreading the good word doesn’t stop when you’re off the clock. A few years ago, on a flight from Miami to New York City, Adams was upgraded to first class. He settled into his roomy seat right next to Kelsey Grammer, of “Cheers” and “Frasier” fame.
“Hmm, you look just like someone I know,” Adams deadpanned. “I’m Jim Adams.”
Playing it cool opened the door for Grammer’s authentic interest in the future of technology. Grammer introduced himself and asked Adams what he does for a living. When Adams told the actor he was a technology evangelist for Microsoft, Grammer peppered him with questions:
“What is this cloud thing?”
“Can you explain the Internet of Things?”
“Have you ever created a mobile app?”
They talked tech for the duration of the flight, and when they landed, Grammer asked Adams for his card. The pair still keep in touch, and keep talking about technology.
Adams meets, discusses, and debates with world-class IT professionals and business decision makers from all over the world. Their opinions about what the cloud means for IT and how traditionally-minded companies can make the move work run the gamut of possibilities—some are sprinting toward full cloud adoption, and others are more tentative. He talks to people building out complex hybrid cloud solutions, and others who feel forced to keep their data on-premises for regulatory reasons. He works with IT leaders at Fortune 10 companies and IT professionals at companies with 10 employees. But whether he’s spreading the cloud gospel to members of the global IT community or talking about digital transformation with tech neophytes, there is one constant in all Adams’ conversations: change.
“It’s a disruptive time for IT,” says Adams. “People are looking for answers and ways to reinvent themselves and their businesses.”
Build a culture of innovation
Over lunch at Microsoft Ignite, Adams made a point to ask the other IT professionals at his table about their thoughts on the state of the industry. IT people are passionate, and the breakneck pace of today’s technology landscape forces them to be future-focused.
“I think we’re at a very exciting inflection point that’s going to explode,” said Subbu Dixit, a director at Avanade in Chicago. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s software or hardware—what matters is the kind of experience you’re presenting. If you look at Microsoft as a company, and how it used to be, I see people looking at you in a much different and better way than before.”
Kai van den Berg, a data and analytics consultant for Macaw Nederland, agreed. He said he and his team are able to make promises to customers that they never would have dreamed of in the past, or as he puts it: “Fail fast with no regrets.”
“At the start of a project, instead of taking days or weeks to scope the workload and network demand, we can say, ‘Do you want to start tomorrow? Let’s start tomorrow,’” van den Berg said. “In every decision and every conversation I used to have, there would be some kind of technological limitation. Now it feels like everything is possible. Our customers ask us if we can help them, and we say, ‘Yes we can.’ The tech part comes in way after that first confirmation. The future will all boil down to the experiences you are able to create for customers, whether using hardware or software. It’s a whole new world.”
“We don’t have any limitations anymore,” added Macaw senior system engineer Charlie Molenaar. “The only limitation is ourselves, and keeping pace with continuously learning.”
Henko Kors, a data and analytics consultant also at Macaw, said that despite the early stage growing pains, he loves this new world of IT and foresees a sunnier future than ever before. “Previously, I’d learn a stack and certify every two years and be on point until the next time. Now, with monthly releases, I have to stay on top of the news to bring the most value to my colleagues and customers.”
Kors said that at first, as product and feature cycles shrank from years to months to weeks, staying informed felt like swimming up a waterfall. Now he uses a massive Twitter dashboard to keep track of key industry hashtags, and combines email alerts and LinkedIn notifications to stay up-to-date with all the latest data analytics product news and releases. He has had to develop a bigger, faster appetite.
“Staying relevant has to be in your DNA. It helps me and my colleagues do cool things, which I like, but it’s also where my heart is,” Kors said. “I’m a techie—that’s my goal, to stay relevant.”
Van den Berg drove the cohort home: “Innovation is a culture, not a department.”
The vanguard of digital reinvention
It quickly became clear that all the IT profssionals at this particular Ignite lunchtable were all-in on cloud computing, although they hadn’t all been convinced in those early days. Kors said one of the greatest things he’d noticed at Ignite was the presence of IT industry veterans who had actively embraced a rapidly transforming industry.
“When I see all of these IT professionals in their sixties—”
“Hey now. Careful there,” Adams interrupted.
“When I meet IT professionals who are older,” Kors tried again, “and on the cloud train, I don’t wear a hat, but if I did, I would tip it to them.”
“That right there is one of the many reasons I love my job,” Adams said. “Reinvention is becoming such a big part of the culture. It seems like a lot of people are embracing the change. As long as they do, IT will evolve and endure.”
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