When I started my career in IT some 20-odd years ago, it was a simpler time. Personal computers were rare and ludicrously expensive and you certainly wouldn't find any at home (never mind better ones there than those you have to endure at work).
There was no public network easily available to businesses or homes and the thought of "mobile connectivity" usually required a small plastic box, a length of copper wire and a lot of patience. It was the point at which computers were just breaking free of the era of "data processing" where mainframes the size of small houses batch-processed tiny amounts of isolated data much to the glee of the white-coated computer scientists who fed them endless reams of punched paper.
In a handful of garages on the American West Coast, people such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs had done amazing things that would soon transform the world around us. There was a smell of solder, sweat and revolution in the air.
Back then, I remember spending a large portion of my time trying to get anyone to listen about the value this personal computer revolution could offer both their organisations and themselves as individuals. It seems ludicrous to think about it now, but it was incredibly hard work and not many people were interested. We had to spend years, first showing them what was possible, and then proving it was profitable.
The penny finally dropped and we, as an industry, enjoyed the pinnacle of our success. Businesses wanted to harness the potential of technology to transform themselves but had no idea about how to go about it. They needed us, the IT pros, to embed ourselves in their business and help them transform. We were heroes, and everybody loved us because we made new things happen. We were the alchemists, special people who could make something out of nothing, transmuting the base metals of an organisation's information assets into something precious that could be harnessed and turned into strategic advantage.
But then, rather brilliantly, the consumerisation of IT happened and with it came a very different attitude towards the role of technology in the workplace and beyond. With the advent of consumer technology, people started to instinctively "get" what technology could do and, paradoxically, cared less about how complicated it was (or even how it worked). By then, we had 30 or so years of lessons, experiences and scars.
Technology may no longer be anything special to our users, but it was still special to us. We knew how complicated it was, how powerful it was (especially in the wrong hands) and we knew how much of our blood, sweat and tears still lay on the server room floor following those endless all-nighters when we were migrating their systems, restoring their corrupt data or implementing some new solution that would revolutionise their business.
And as a result the rift started, we forgot our most important lesson and started to respect the technology more than we did the people who were destined to use it.
I know I tend to make generalisations and not all of us are barricaded in our server rooms, locking down desktops to prevent "stupid users" getting themselves into trouble, but I am worried about our future. I worry that we are working our way towards an IT Crowd-shaped oblivion or more specifically, irrelevance. Unlike the technology that swirls around us, we haven't yet changed enough to reaffirm our true potential and time is running out.
Here's a quick test for you to try at home. Find someone who doesn't know what you do for a job, and ask them about the IT department where they work (better still, find a way of anonymously asking some of your own customers in the "business"). I guarantee you'll see more eyes roll, or hear more phrases such as "what, you mean the department of ‘no'?" than you will hear gushing praise for the genius technology wizards who help people do great things.
If you don't, I am envious of you, but if you do, you should take it as a big signal that something needs to change, and quick.
The role of the IT pro is fundamentally to serve the business and to find new ways for technology to help the business evolve and become more successful. We are needed now more than ever but we have to respect that our customers are different, their expectations and aspirations of technology have changed – rather brilliantly, they're much, much higher (in some cases higher even than our own).
Instead of fighting this or even simply being complacent about it, we should instead be celebrating it. Trust me, having customers who actually want more from what you have to offer is far better than having customers who are oblivious or uninterested.
I know what we've learned is important – things such as resilience, disaster recovery, data regulation, and security are crucial elements of our past – but they cannot be used as they so often are, as the excuses that ultimately will only succeed in sealing our demise.
I'm not arguing for a minute that we should throw the baby out with the bath water and forget all our hard-learned lessons. But we have to remember that our job now is simply to find the right balance. We need to figure out just how much of the policy, structure and process we can strip away to help keep our people and organisations safe, productive and efficient while at the same time getting back to our original day job of helping our customers transform their business.
We must realise that the future success of the IT pro is in our hands, we have to rise up and stand high on the shoulders of the digital giants we have helped to create. We need to leave behind the comfort of the flashing lights and the reassuring hum of the fans in the server rooms and instead implant ourselves back at the heart of every aspect of the business we serve.
The time for IT pros to rise is now. Our future and the success of our businesses depend on it.
Dave Coplin is chief envisioning officer at Microsoft
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