Conservative IT

Enterprise IT, and the people that run it, are risk-averse. Things that work are valued, highly, over new things. The kids might all be learning Ruby and Scheme, but COBOL and C/C++ still rule in the enterprise, where Java is seen as an up-and-comer. Think mainframes are old news? Then you haven’t spent a lot of time in an enterprise data center.

I spoke recently with a guy worked at a VMS help desk twenty five years ago; he said that he’d recently run into some old colleagues from that time and asked them what they were doing. They said they were doing the same thing, VMS support, and that the team had pretty much stayed the same size, a couple of dozen people. IBM supposedly still has their own VMS help desk for their internal users. (You will recall that VMS is an old DEC operating system, an ancient enemy of IBM’s, so this is an admission not only that they use a competitor’s operating system but also, more to the point, that they can’t get off of it.)

My first consulting gig was at DEC, trying to get the remaining VAX/VMS customers to move over to VMS on Alpha. The challenge then, as now, was the lack of a business need to move: if payroll runs fine on their VAX, why on earth should they touch it, and risk missing payroll one week? I’d be willing to bet that some of those customers that I talked to then are still using their old VAX boxes.

Plus, it has to be said, that there’s a real issue with IT skills; a lot of people, as you would expect, are comfortable with what they know and deeply uncomfortable with the unknown. Any change represents a move into the unknown, where their skills and abilities may be less (or more, but different) than they are today.

At a current client of mine, their users are dependent on Kermit (remember that?) running on fully-fledged Windows PCs to telnet into a Unix (soon to be Linux) box. Why are they using Kermit instead of, say, Putty? Or Windows instead of a thin client? Or telnet instead of ssl? Because that’s what they’ve always done, that’s what their customers are used to, and that’s what they’re used to. Maybe they could change, but they’re not going to.

One factor, though, driving change within corporate IT is their users. Outside of Sun’s “redshift” customers (those using IT for competitive advantage — oil exploration, or web-based businesses, e.g.), most corporate IT departments are being directed from above to cut costs, not innovate. This dovetails nicely with the conservative instinct. But there is some evidence that people within large enterprises are simply bypassing their IT departments to get things done.

Forrester has a new report out entitled, “Embrace The Risks And Rewards Of Technology Populism” which argues that individuals are now driving technology adoption within enterprises. Much like the growth of personal computers in the 1980s, people are using new software tools, especially web-based tools, to do their jobs, regardless of what the IT department thinks of it. Read Write Web has a good piece, based on the Forrester report, that looks at the issue and discusses concerns around security, quality of service, and information silos.

There’s also an interesting Wall Street Journal interview with the CIO of Google, Douglas Merrill, who basically trusts his users to do the right thing and lets them manage their own ‘endpoints’ (PCs, laptops, mobile devices — things that connect to the network.)

WSJ: What’s driving the “consumerization” of tech in the enterprise, where companies are borrowing tech ideas from the consumer Internet?

Mr. Merrill: Fifteen years ago, enterprise technology was higher-quality than consumer technology. That’s not true anymore. It used to be that you used enterprise technology because you wanted uptime, security and speed. None of those things are as good in enterprise software anymore [as they are in some consumer software]. The biggest thing to ask is, “When consumer software is useful, how can I use it to get costs out of my environment?”

See also the discussion of this piece on Slashdot, the house organ of the sys admin.

All of this is forward-looking because today, enterprise web 2.0 is in its infancy. In the Forrester study, looking only at enterprise IT people who recognized the terms (I wonder how many didn’t?), respondents thought that only about 15% of their employees are currently using blogs / wikis / podcasts / RSS / social networking for business, not purely personal, purposes.

On the other hand, I’ve heard this meme about how kids today don’t use email — IM and MySpace are better — and so when they go to work in large companies, they will take their behavior with them. RRW quotes the Forrester study:

“For example, Adobe told Forrester that one of its European CIO customers required PlayStation support because the firm had a handful of Millennials who used PlayStations instead of PCs.”

I think that’s bullshit, honestly. But it is true that people — kids and adults — will do what is necessary to get their jobs done, and if the tools that IT offers aren’t adequate, they go outside for what they need:

“It might be that not only are the users more comfortable with the web apps they “grew up with,” it’s also possible that, despite their supposed tech-savviness, they don’t actually know how to use traditional enterprise software. Could it be that what the users actually “need” is training? Could they be turning to lightweight applications because they don’t truly grasp the complexities of or know how to use the software IT has provided? I would say that it’s more than possible.”

Yes! More than possible. The comments on the RRW piece are interesting because so many of them key in on this issue — how bad enterprise software is. And it’s true; I can barely figure out how to use Novell’s very expensive and newly deployed internal enterprise software: I’m intimidated by it and do everything I can to avoid it.

But what is conservative IT going to do about this usability issue? Again, a quote from a respondent in the Forrester study via RRW:

“We need to maintain a minimal and consistent software installation, containing programs which are commonly used throughout the business world. We do not have the time or resources to train and hand-hold new users to our company because they want to use Firefox, Google Docs, or whatever the next ‘Super Web 2.0 Ajax’ program is.”

Let’s unpack this quote a bit, since it’s full of nine kinds of suck. It reflects a common concern to ease the manageability burden by reducing variation and thus, supposedly, complexity, presumably for the desktop. Note that there’s no differentiation, no competitive advantage, implied in this; it’s either minimal or whatever is commonly used. But when users want something — not that Firefox is new, but *whatever* — they are resistant, supposedly because it’s so hard to learn and they don’t have the time to train them. My three year old daughter uses Firefox successfully and she’s only been recently potty-trained, so if your customers know enough not to crap in their pants, they can probably use Firefox.

Furthermore, their customers, their end users, are asking for it, and there are good technical and security reasons to use Firefox instead of Microsoft Internet Explorer. Firefox isn’t more expensive — it’s free, as in beer, damnit, as well as freedom — and it’s not somehow more difficult to administer than IE. They don’t want to let their users have Firefox because it represents change and something new, even though it’s obviously better and their users are requesting it.

Also, their list of web 2.0 ‘applications’ is telling; since when is Firefox, a web browser, a web 2.0 application? But the one that gets me is the ‘Super Web 2.0 Ajax’ program. That is their signal that they think this is all baloney and can’t be bothered to keep up with it, presumably because they are grizzled IT veterans and think that this whole web 2.0 thing — probably the web 1.0 thing for that matter — is a fad.

What we’re going to end up with, inevitably, is all of the above; silly ‘Super Web 2.0 Ajax’ applications alongside mainframe apps and everything else. And I bet when we look back on all of this twenty five years from now, there are still going to be VMS help desks.