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How to build a cloud-first IT organization that’s as much about people as technology

A Cloud Guru News
A Cloud Guru News

Many IT departments are bloated bureaucracies of interconnected silos that work to enforce the status quo — let’s fix it now

Can I help you?

No, I just waited 30 minutes to say “hi”.

The cloud era will likely be the most disruptive experience IT departments have ever faced. There’s never been a more exciting — and painful — time to be involved in technology. Companies are rightfully expecting their technology organizations to add value, create products, solve problems, and not be so, you know, dreadful.

Every company is now a technology business — and that has a seismic impact on the structure of IT organizations. By predicting the outcome and making steps to get there more quickly, we can leapfrog the intermediate pain.

In the new world, IT is a strategic organization responsible for generating revenue, and tactical technology teams exist in every division. So far you’ve primarily seen this in marketing departments, but it will quickly spread to finance, facilities, R&D, purchasing, HR, and everywhere else. To address the challenges of managing technology when it’s everywhere, CIOs will begin replacing CEOs. Why wait until then to get started? Let’s fix it now.

Sugar-coats off — your IT sucks!

If you ask the denizens of corporate America about their IT staff, the responses echo sentiments of disappointment, rage and bewilderment. Workers have come to accept that IT departments are no longer the source of innovation and competitive advantage, but a bloated bureaucracy of interconnected silos that work to enforce the status quo. If you work in IT in Corporate Land — congratulations!— you currently suck.

But still better than United’s customer service.

For years this has been acceptable to companies that look to IT, a division they barely understand, to protect their castle and simply keep systems operational. IT has been about stopping people from crossing the moat, opening the drawbridge occasionally, and frowning when people ask questions. In summary, “No Chrome for you, Slack’s out of the question and let me brick your Android device while I’m here.”

But Winter’s Coming, my friends, and the Summer of Suckage that has defined corporate IT is ending. If mobile was the tremor, cloud is the earthquake.

Of course, some companies will botch this transition terribly and will pay a hefty price in the marketplace. Others will seize this moment to build a new, better organization around a cloud-first, customer-focused IT department. If you’re wondering what this will look like, think of the Be Our Guest number where the plates and cutlery start singing when a customer shows up.

Life is so unnerving for a coder who’s not coding.

Silos suck — destroy the silos

You know who hates your silos? Your customers. And your employees. Everyone, actually. Silos are the enemy of agility, yet IT departments are usually quick to organize themselves into PowerPoint-friendly operational groups.

From database administrators to network engineers, each group acts as a gatekeeper to change with a collective slowing effect that brings change to a grinding halt. Silos are also the enemy of accountability, so when something truly horrific happens publicly, everyone can point at someone else and dodge the blame ball.

You had one job, marketing.

With cloud services and massive amounts of automation, we can outsource a major part of what different silos do on a daily basis. This means that 50–70% of your existing technical workforce won’t have to put the cap on the toothpaste tube and can be deployed for more useful jobs. “Being more useful” is my euphemism for “doing work for customers” — namely, shipping features, solving their problems, and making them happy.

Now silo-lovers will scoff at this suggestion, claiming that employee X could never learn the skills of employee Y because of blah blah blah. They’ll also argue that nobody will ever be allowed to go on vacation in a non-silo model. Well the answer to that is — Google, Facebook and all the other tech companies we admire, who cross-train merrily and vacation frequently.

If you create small, product-driven teams with a specific actual customer goal, you’ll be amazed how stuff gets done andquality improves. The cross-pollination of knowledge is a by-product of the increased morale and motivation of the group. Seriously, try it out — and if it doesn’t work, you can always go back.

Your cloud skills suck — start with the training

Ignorance breeds strong opinions. People with the poorest understanding of a topic often have the most extreme views. The cloud is no different. I’ve seen over and over how IT staff can overestimate their knowledge of cloud technologies, and then express the loudest anti-cloud objections.

I used to tackle this head-on, but it becomes an exhausting and fruitless exercise as people dig in their heels to avoid being wrong. You can skip this pain by identifying the problem actors ahead of time, pulling them aside, and charging them with the responsibility of being the key expert in Google Big Query, Amazon Redshift, Azure IoT or whatever.

Critically, you must send these people for training and, most importantly, get them certified. You’d be shocked how you can convert ferocious anti-clouders to strong cloud warriors who will drive your goals. Unlike many certification programs (Oracle’s Java certification, OMG) cloud training generally has a surprising number of included aha moments that serve to motivate students.

Your leadership sucks — trust your teams

Here’s a thing — software engineers tend to be smart, conscientious people and often enjoy working on hard problems. So it boggles my mind when companies use security teams, legal, and other silos to block their work and pose so many questions to the point where nothing gets done and motivation fizzles out.

I worked at one financial services company that didn’t trust any software coming from its prized developers “for security reasons”. So I asked why there wasn’t a security guard watching every single bank teller’s transaction to make sure they weren’t giving away the shop. “Oh, we trust them to safeguard our assets,” they replied. So we trust the minimum-wage, high-turnover front-end of the business but don’t trust our brain trust that produces the software they use? That’s ridiculous — and any developer working in that environment should find a better job immediately.

Any decent developer tends to be full-stack by nature. They often know more about security holes than the security teams, and they come pre-installed with skills like database management and testing automation. They are often good at the programming languages that don’t appear on their resume and have weekends where they submit pull requests for open source projects for fun.

These are skilled people. You need to foster an environment that feeds their natural curiosity, develops their skill sets, and demonstrates that you trust them to drive your business forward.

Focus on customer problems — not your problems

Moving to the cloud can seem like an insurmountable challenge without an obvious place to start. It’s as much a people problem as a technical issue, so you have to find a common goal to rally everyone around.

I’ve found that starting with the technical side can be a mistake. The effort usually gets its wheel stuck in the mud of upgrades that don’t help and arcane mini-projects. These are technical debt pet-projects that take six months, go nowhere, and there should be a drinking game for every time somebody wants to start one.

For when you hear: “CentOS upgrades first!”, “Migrate to Exadata first!” or “World peace first…”

Like any massively overwhelming task from “reduce CO2 emissions” to “lose weight”, you have to look for immediate wins that have the most visible impact. This isn’t about looking good — it’s about building confidence to know that change is possible, change is beneficial, and change is happening.

I guarantee that your business has a stack of major customer problems that have been put on the back-burner for a long time. Let’s dust-off the list of issues and commit to fixing them at the beginning of the cloud-first initiative.

For example, I once worked at a company where the cloud was having trouble taking off. They were trying to “fix stability”, which was a compound problem riddled throughout their existing systems. We quietly moved away from this amorphous goal, talked to various customer-facing groups (and actual customers, wow) and settled on three of their biggest immediate issues:

  1. customers could not see the same products online as in the stores
  2. customers had multiple sign-ups when dealing with different product areas and could not remember how to log-in from one to the other
  3. customers could not figure out how to contact us when they had a problem outside the physical stores (very common)

Each of these problems were well-recognized and used to stand up three cloud-oriented teams of 8–12 people. Since these problems had existed since the creation of fire, the initial sprint involved the usual “this will never get solved” pessimism. Within 5–6 sprints, each one was fully addressed.

How could multi-year customer issues be fixed in 12 weeks? While the success was attributed to the cloud initiative, it was really the success of a team-oriented structure. The issues where well-defined, had C-level support, and ultimately had a customer’s smiling face as the reward for delivery. People like helping customers — who knew?

TL;DR — Just the facts, James!

  1. Embrace your current failure. Your IT sucks. Look in the mirror and accept the reality — this is the first step to improvement. IT’s role is about to change dramatically so to prepare for this strategic marathon. We need to cue the Rocky music and start the pound-shedding montage.
  2. Cloud will aggressively promote change, but organizational silos are the enemy of change. The faster you eliminate silos, the faster your cloud adoption will succeed, and the faster you start delivering customer value.
  3. Your technology teams don’t yet understand cloud, so they will need training and certification. This converts resisters into advocates, and provides essential skills for understanding fault-tolerance, availability, automation and good security practices.
  4. Your IT people are smart and capable, though probably beaten down. You need to trust these teams fully, and allow them to deliver up to the finish line without dealing with endless internal roadblocks. These people are critical to your success — so help them help you.
  5. Refocusing the cloud migration and adoption efforts on actual customer problems yields surprisingly effective results. Pick a couple of well-defined customer aches (by talking to customers first, preferably) and create teams whose sole purpose is to solve those problems. Once they succeed, rinse and repeat.

With any revolution, the beginning is the most difficult time. In cloud, the technology is not the most difficult problem — the people and corporate environment are the key factors for determining whether your implementation will ultimately succeed or fail. So let’s fix it now.

Thanks for reading! If you like what you read, hit the ❤ button below so that others may find this. You can follow me on Twitter.

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