How Cloud is Changing Roles in IT

Every major change in technology comes with an inevitable upheaval in the job market. New jobs appear, existing ones go away and others morph into something different. When the automobile came along and gradually replaced the horse drawn carriage, I’m sure carriage designers and builders were able to apply their skills to designing the new horseless carriage (at least initially) whilst engine design was a completely new role that had to be invented. The role of the blacksmith however declined rapidly as far fewer horses were needed to pull carriages.
Smedje i Hornbæk, 1875The business of IT has clearly gone through several transformational stages since the modern age of commercial computing began 55 years ago with the introduction of the IBM 1401 the world’s first fully transistorized computer.  By the mid-1960?s almost half of all computer systems in the world were 1401 type machines.
IBM 1401During the subsequent 50 years we have gone through a number of different ages of computing; each corresponding to the major, underlying architecture which was dominant during that period. The ages with their (very) approximate time spans are:

  1.  The Age of the Mainframe (1960 – 1975)
  2. The Age of the Mini Computer (1975 – 1990)
  3. The Age of Client-Server (1990 – 2000)
  4. The Age of the Internet (2000 – 2010)
  5. The Age of Mobile (2010 – 20??)

Of course, the technologies from each age have never completely gone away, they are just not the predominant driving IT force any more. For example there are still estimated to be some 15,000 mainframe installations world-wide so mainframe programmers are not about to see the end of their careers any time soon. Similarly, there are other technologies bubbling under the surface running alongside and actually overlapping these major waves. For example, networking has evolved from providing the ability to connect a “green screen” to a centralised mainframe, and then mini, to the ability to connect thousands, then millions and now billions of devices. The client-server age and internet age were dependent on cheap and ubiquitous desktop personal computers whilst the age of mobile is driven by offspring’s of the PC, now unshackled from the desktop, which run the same applications (and much, much more) on smaller and smaller devices.

The current mobile age is about far more than the ubiquitous smart devices which we now all own. It’s also driven by the technologies of cloud, analytics and social media but more than anything, it’s about how these technologies are coming together to form a perfect storm that promises to take us beyond computing as just a utility, which serves up the traditional corporate data from systems of record, to systems of engagement where our devices become an extension of ourselves that anticipate our needs and help us get what we want, when we want it. If the first three ages helped us define our systems of record the last two have not just moved us to systems of engagement they have also created what has been termed the age of context – an always on society where pervasive computing is reshaping our lives in ways that could not have been possible as little as ten years ago.

For those of us that work in IT what does this new contextual age mean in terms of our jobs and the roles we play in interacting with our peers and our clients? Is the shift to cloud, analytics, mobile and social just another technology change or does it represent something far more fundamental in how we go about doing the business of IT?

perfect-stormIn 2012 the IBM Distinguished Engineer John Easton produced a thought leadership white paper Exploring the impact of Cloud on IT roles and responsibilities which used an IBM patented technique called Component Business Modeling to map out the key functions of a typical IT department and look at how each of these might change when the delivery of IT services was moved to a cloud provider. Not entirely without surprise John’s paper concluded that “many roles will move from the enterprise to the cloud provider” and that “the responsibilities and importance of the surviving IT roles will change in the new world.”

As might be expected the roles that are likely to be no longer needed are the ones that are today involved in the building and running of IT systems, those to do with the development and deployment aspects of IT and those in ancillary functions like support operations and planning.

Some functions, whilst they still exist, are likely to be dramatically reduced in scope. Things like risk and compliance, information architecture and security, privacy and data protection fall into this category. These are all functions which the enterprise at least needs to have some say in but which will largely be dictated by the cloud provider and have to be taken or not depending on the service levels needed by the enterprise.

The most interesting category of functions affected by moving to the cloud are those that grow in importance. These by and large are in the competencies of customer relationship and business strategy and administration. These cover areas like enterprise architecture, portfolio & service management and demand & performance planning. In other words the areas that are predicted to grow in importance are those that involve IT talking to the business to understand what it is they want both in terms of functionality and service levels as well as ensuring the enterprise has a vision of how it can use IT to maintain competitive advantage.

Back in 2005 the research firm Gartner predicted that demand for IT specialists could shrink as much as 40 percent within the next five years. It went on to coin the term “IT versatilist”, people who are not only specialized in IT, but who demonstrate business competencies by handling multidisciplinary assignments. According to the research firm, businesses will increasingly look to employ versatilists saying “the long-term value of today’s IT specialists will come from understanding and navigating the situations, processes and buying patterns that characterize vertical industries and cross-industry processes”. In 2005 the concept of cloud computing was still in its infancy; the term did not really enter popular usage until a year later when Amazon introduced the Elastic Compute Cloud.  What had been talked about before this was the concept of utility computing and indeed as far back as 1961 the computer scientist John McCarthy predicted that “computation may someday be organized as a public utility.”

Fast forward to 2014 and cloud computing is very much here to stay. IT professionals are in the midst of a fundamental change that, just like with the advent of the “horseless carriage” (AKA the motor car), is going to remove some job roles altogether but at the same time open up new and exciting opportunities that allow us to focus on our clients real needs and craft IT solutions that provide new and innovative ways of doing business. The phrase “may you live in interesting times” has been taken to mean “may you experience much disorder and trouble in your life”.  I prefer to interpret the phrase as “may you experience much disruption and amazement in your life” for that is most certainly what this age of context seems to be creating.

A slightly edited version of this post also appears here.

Disruptive Technologies, Smarter Cities and the New Oil

Last week I attended the Smart City and Government Open Data Hackathon in Birmingham, UK. The event was sponsored by IBM and my colleague Dr Rick Robinson, who writes extensively on Smarter Cities as The Urban Technologist, gave the keynote session to kick off the event. The idea of this particular hackathon was to explore ways in which various sources of open data, including the UK governments own open data initiative, could be used in new and creative ways to improve the lives of citizens and make our cities smarter as well as generally better places to live in. There were some great ideas discussed including how to predict future jobs as well as identifying citizens who had not claimed benefits to which they were entitled (and those benefits then going back into the local economy through purchases of goods and services).The phrase “data is the new oil” is by no means a new one. It was first used by Michael Palmer in 2006 in this article. Palmers says:

Data is just like crude. It’s valuable, but if unrefined it cannot really be used. It has to be changed into gas, plastic, chemicals, etc to create a valuable entity that drives profitable activity; so must data be broken down, analyzed for it to have value.

Whilst this is a nice metaphor I think I actually prefer the slight adaptation proposed by David McCandless in his TED talk: The beauty of data visualization where he coins the phrase “data is the new soil”. The reason being data needs to be worked and manipulated, just like a good farmer looking after his land, to get the best out of it. In the case of the work done by McCandless this involves creatively visualizing data to show new understandings or interpretations and, as Hans Rosling says, to let the data set change your mind set.

Certainly one way data is most definitely not like oil is in the way it is increasing at exponential rates of growth rather than rapidly diminishing. But it’s not only data. The new triumvirate of data, cloud and mobile is forging a whole new mega-trend in IT nicely captured in this equation proposed by Gabrielle Byrne at the start of this video:

e = mc(imc)2


  • e is any enterprise (or city, see later)
  • m is mobile
  • c is cloud
  • imc is in memory computing, or stream computing, the instant analysis of masses of fast changing data

This new trend is characterized by a number of incremental innovations that have taken place in IT over previous years in each of the three areas nicely captured in the figure below.

Source: CNET – Where IT is going: Cloud, mobile and data

In his blog post: The new architecture of smarter cities, Rick proposes that a Smarter City needs three essential ‘ingredients’ in order to be really characterized as ‘smart’. These are:

  • Smart cities are led from the top
  • Smart cities have a stakeholder forum
  • Smart cities invest in technology infrastructure

It is this last attribute that, when built on a suitable cloud-mobility-data platform, promises to fundamentally change not only how enterprises are set to change but also cities and even whole nations.  However it’s not just any old platform that needs to be built. In this post I discussed the concept behind so-called disruptive technology platforms and the attributes they must have. Namely:

  • A well defined set of open interfaces.
  • A critical mass of both end users and service providers.
  • Both scaleable and extremely robust.
  • An intrinsic value which cannot be obtained elsewhere.
  • Allow users to interact amongst themselves, maybe in ways that were originally envisaged.
  • Service providers must be given the right level of contract that allows them to innovate, but without actually breaking the platform.

So what might a disruptive technology platform, for a whole city, look like and what innovations might it provide? As an example of such a platform IBM have developed something they call the Intelligent Operations Center or IOC. The idea behind the IOC is to use information from a number of city agencies and departments to make smarter decisions based on rules that can be programmed into the platform. The idea then, is that the IOC will be used to anticipate problems to minimize the impact of disruptions to city services and operations as well as assist in the mobilization of resources across multiple agencies. The IOC allows aggregated data to be visualized in ways that the individual data sets cannot and for new insights to be obtained from that data.

Platforms like the IOC are only the start of what is possible in a truly smart city. They are just beginning to make use of mobile technology, data in the cloud and huge volumes of fast moving data that is analysed in real-time. Whether these platforms turn out to be really disruptive remains to be seen but if this is really the age of “new oil” then we only have the limitations of our imagination to restrict us in how we will use that data to give us valuable new insights into building smart cities.

Architecting Disruptive Technology Platforms

Bob Metcalfe, the founder of 3Com and co-inventor of  Ethernet has said:

Be prepared to learn how the growth of exponential and disruptive technologies will impact your industry, your company, your career and your life.

The term disruptive technology has been widely used as a synonym of disruptive innovation, but the latter is now preferred, because market disruption has been found to be a function usually not of technology itself but rather of its changing application.Wikepedia defines a disruptive innovation (first coined by Clayton Christensen) as:

An innovation that helps create a new market and value network, and eventually goes on to disrupt an existing market and value network (over a few years or decades), displacing an earlier technology.

Examples of disruptive innovations (and what they have disrupted/displaced) are:

  • Digital media (CDs/DVDs)
  • Desktop publishing (traditional publishing)
  • Digital photography (chemical/film photography)
  • LCD televisions (CRT televisions)
  • Wikipedia (traditional encyclopedias)
  • Tablet computers (personal computers, maybe)

The above are all examples of technologies/innovations that have disrupted existing business models, or even whole industries. However there is another class or type of disruptive innovation which not only disrupts a market but creates a whole new ecosystem upon which a new industry can be created. Examples of these are the likes of Facebook, Twitter and iTunes. What these have provided, as well, are a platform upon which providers, complementors, users and suppliers co-exist to support, nurture and grow the ecosystem of the platform and create a disruptive technology platform (DTP). Here’s a system context diagram for such a platform.

The four actors in this system context play the following roles:

  • Provider – Develops and provides the core platform. Providers need to ensure the platform exposes interfaces (that Complementors can use) and also ensure standards are defined that allow the platform to grow in a controlled way.
  • Complementor – Supplement the platform with new features, services and products that increase the value of the platform to End Users (and draw mor of them in to use the platform).
  • End User – As well as performing the obvious ‘using the platform’ role Users will also drive demand that  Complementors help fulfill. Also there are likely to be more Users if there are more Complementors providing new features. A well architected platform also allows End Users to interact with each other.
  • Supplier – Usually enters into a contract with the core platform provider to provide a known product or service or technology. Probably not innovating in the same way as the complementor would.

If we use Facebook (the platform) as a real instance of the above then the provider is Facebook (the company) who have created a platform that is extensible through a well defined set of interfaces. Complementors are the many third party providers who have developed new features to extend the underlying platform (e.g. Airbnb and The Guardian). End uers are, of course, the 800 million or so people who have Facebook accounts. Suppliers would be the companies who, for example, provide the hardware and software infrastructure upon which Facebook runs.

Of course, just because you are providing a new technology platform does not mean it will automatically be a disruptive technology platform. Looking at some of the technology platforms that are currently out there and have, or are in the process of disrupting businesses or whole industries we can see some common themes however. Here are some of these (in no particular order of priority):

  • A DTP has a well defined set of open interfaces which complementors can use, possibly in ways not originally envisaged by the platform provider.
  • The DTP needs to build up a critical mass of both end users and complementors, each of which feeds off the other in a positive feedback loop so the platform grows.
  • The DTP must be both scaleable but extremely robust.
  • The DTP must provide an intrinsic value which cannot be obtained elsewhere, or if it can, must give additional benefits which make users come to the DTP rather than go elsewhere. Providing music on iTunes at a low enough cost and easy enough to obtain preventing users going to free file sharing sites is an example.
  • End users must be allowed to interact amongst themselves, again in ways that may not have been originally envisaged.
  • Complementors must be provided with the right level of contract that allows them to innovate, but without actually breaking the platform (Apple’s contract to App store developers is an example). The DTP provider needs to retain some level of control.

These are just some of the attributes I would expect a DTP to have, there must be more. Feel free to comment and provide some observations on what you think constitutes a DTP.

Creative Leaps and the Importance of Domain Knowledge

Sometimes innovation appears to come out of nowhere. Creative individuals, or companies, appear to be in touch with the zeitgeist of the times and develop a product (or service) that does not just satisfy an unknown need but may even create a whole new market that didn’t previously exist. I would put James Dyson (bagless vacuum cleaner) as an example of the former and Steve Jobs/Apple (iPad) as an example of the latter.Sometimes the innovation may even be a disruptive technology that creates a new market where one previously did not exist and may even destroy existing markets. Digital photography and its impact on the 35mm film producing companies (Kodak and Ilford) is a classic example of such a disruptive technology.

Most times however creativity comes from simply putting together existing components in new and interesting ways that meet a business need. For merely mortal software architects if we are to do this we not only need a good understanding of what those components do but also how the domain we are working in really, really works. You need to not only be curious about your domain (whether it be financial services, retail, public sector or whatever) but be able to ask the hard questions that no one else thought or bothered to ask. Sometimes this means not following the herd and being fashionable but being completely unfashionable. As Paul Arden, the Creative Director of Saatchi and Saatchi said in his book Whatever You Think, Think The Opposite:

People who create work that fashionable people emulate do the very opposite of what is in fashion. They create something unfashionable, out of time, wrong. Original ideas are created by original people, people who either through instinct or insight know the value of being different and recognise the commonplace as a dangerous place to be.

So do you want to be fashionable or unfashionable?