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The new IT mind-set should be all about the business

Technical skills will always be important for IT, but in the world of cloud, it's the non-technical and business expertise that really shines through.

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Recently, I've been giving a talk to various IT groups. It's called "Clouds are Magic," partly because I'm a sarcastic kind of fellow and partly because if I titled it the way I really wanted to then no technical staff would listen. It touches upon clouds and transitioning to clouds, but it is mostly about the non-technical issues and changes in IT mind-set folks like me need to survive this time. My goal is to give a few of my listeners an edge based on lessons I've learned.

Someone recently called me out on the bait and switch, complaining that a bunch of my talk was about project management and requirements gathering, while another large section was on managing expectations and aligning with the business. "I was expecting more actual content from you," he said, undoubtedly referring to technical content, as if the non-technical side of IT was irrelevant. And in doing so he neatly exposed the biggest problem I see with IT nowadays.

IT ignoring the business is why this whole cloud thing started in the first place. I know this because I've been on the IT side of it for a long time, and acted like a high priest of IT, holding the business hostage if I didn't like something that was going on. But it's become obvious that the IT mind-set needs to change. At best, IT has a symbiotic relationship with the host organization, each needing the other to survive. More realistically, though, in the face of cloud services, the host organization really doesn't need IT all that much, especially if IT is going to continue acting the way they've always acted. C-level executives are realizing this in droves, and the pendulum is swinging fast away from IT.

As with all power shifts, though, the pendulum will swing away, and then settle back in a reasonable middle. The challenge for IT, though, is to survive that swing's apogee. And with the current IT mind-set I'm seeing, it'll be a bloodbath. The business couldn't care less about technical issues, latencies and all-flash disk arrays. They want things done fast, on budget, and securely, and they're more than willing to go outside IT to do it. To continue being relevant in this climate, IT staff need to evolve their skills. Being VMware certified is neat, but being a certified Project Management Professional will get you further in your IT career. Similarly, being able to gather requirements well and communicate ideas to non-technical groups are important skills.

I'm serious about these things. The best post-secondary class an IT professional could take right now is a requirements gathering course. It helps in three big ways. First, it gets technical staff thinking in non-technical ways, which is good for communication. Second, it teaches IT staff how to coax requirements out of users and management. This is especially important when you're trying to address shadow IT and siloes with reticent users. Finally, it teaches IT pros how to organize and prioritize requirements objectively, in ways that align with the business' goals. This is huge. Being objective, or at least striving to be objective, is a great way for IT to build credibility with management and with users.

There's the old adage that the only constant in the world is change, and it's no different in IT. There continues to be a place and time for the technically-focused IT mind-set, but those areas are shrinking. We all need to acknowledge this, and instead of complaining about change, and complaining about the beds we've made for ourselves, we need to accept it and move forward. If we work to improve our relevance to the business itself, through alignment and improved non-technical skills sets, we have a chance at surviving this chaotic time.

Next Steps

How to avoid cloud computing culture shock

Rethinking IT through cloud and DevOps

Fine-tuning your change management strategy

This was last published in November 2015

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There’s actually an unspoken policy in our organization that if you can get a service better and cheaper elsewhere, then go for it. I think has helped IT to remain relevant because it helped us realize, long ago, that the business could fairly easily continue to function without IT, or without certain parts of IT. That realization has forced us to work diligently towards remaining relevant to the business.
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