Why IT departments will soon be the exception, not the rule

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For many organizations under 100 users or so, there has been a trend on the rise that is either decimating formal IT departments entirely, or trimming them down to bare minimum levels. Many in the IT industry wouldn't notice it, because, of course, they may likely be working for such a department themselves. It's hard to have an objective viewpoint when you're part of the status quo.

As an outside consultant, who works with a variety of organizations small and large, I see my clients and their support structures from a different lens. Being an outsider here has its advantages, namely in being able to see many of these IT departments for what they are.

While many times we're merely being called in to help manage high stakes projects, like email system transitions or network upgrades, we're also being pegged with an increasingly common question: "Can you just take over our IT for us?".

The driving forces behind business owners looking to dismantle their internal tech departments are as varied as the Heinz product catalog. Some are looking to drive down support costs from bloated staff counts. Some are disenchanted by the level of service they are getting.

And many others complain that their tech people don't seem to be aligned with business needs; they're busy pushing their own last-decade agendas and are complacent with sticking to a "No, sir" answer on cost-cutting trends like cloud IaaS/PaaS and other similar initiatives.

This is a tough article for me to write in many ways. I have good friends and colleagues who work in large, formal IT departments in the public and private sectors. And I personally used to be an IT staffer for the very high school district I graduated from.

Without a doubt I don't regret my time spent in an enterprise IT setting. It taught me a lot of what I know today, both in the people and technical skills that gave me the confidence to branch out on my own and form my managed services company, FireLogic. It was a wonderful four years that allowed me to grow and advance as an IT pro.

But that doesn't mean I wasn't aware of the numerous problems which plague large static IT departments. Groupthink is a big problem afflicting much of K-12 IT (although they aren't the only segment of IT suffering from this, honestly). I dedicated an entire piece to some of symptoms of said groupthink, namely the tunnel-vision drive towards 1:1 computing.

While it's an end goal I fully agree with, the path towards getting there is fraught with IT and administrative leadership that is too busy picking technology that can sugar coat press releases; not tech that truly meets the needs of students and teachers alike for the long term.

But the problems affecting formal IT departments go much further than issues at the highest decision making levels. The IT department as an institution most organizations feel married to without any recourse for divorce or reform is one half of the equation. The other part, I feel, is the condescending attitudes that permeate many (but not all) that call themselves "the IT guy".

I hate furthering stereotypes, but there is something to be said for why most non-technical people have idealized the average IT person as something as seen below.

(Image Source: ITPro.co.uk)

I'm not here to attack the dress code of the iconic IT geek; I find it rather differentiating. The negative stigma associated with the "IT guy" at your company comes from a mixture of some or all of these traits:

  • A feeling of superiority based solely on technical knowledge.
  • A notion that most average computing users being supported are a burden on the "IT guy".
  • A belief that average non-technical users are victims of their own doing. The oft-mentioned "id10t error" joke among IT crowds captures this well.
  • A general distrust of landscape-shifting initiatives like cloud computing due to the widespread belief it will lead to a loss of job security.
  • A general belief in entitlement -- my company needs computers and therefore they need me.

I hate painting a picture across the whole valley of IT workers because I know there are many great individuals working at large organizations trying to personify the opposite of the downtrodden, back-closet IT person. But the stereotype for IT departments didn't arise overnight, nor did it happen because the above descriptions were isolated incidents.

Based on how many organizations I've come in to provide tech consulting for, and how many instances I've seen the above problems at play, I know many IT departments are still plagued with these ills. It's tough for a lot of them to admit it. Looking inwards objectively is extremely hard to do. Making improvements based on these findings is even tougher.

I wasn't surprised to find that my opinions were shared by others in my own industry. David Hansson, a founder at Basecamp (better previously known as 37signals), penned a piece simply called The end of the IT department. By far one of the best snippets from his op/ed is:

The problem with IT departments seems to be that they're set up as a forced internal vendor. From the start, they have a monopoly on the "computer problem" -- such monopolies have a tendency to produce the customer service you'd expect from the US Postal Service. The IT department has all the power, they're not going anywhere (at least not in the short term), and their customers are seen as mindless peons. There’s no feedback loop for improvement.

His thoughts echo much of what I mentioned earlier in this piece. IT departments increasingly represent a necessary evil serving users that have no choice on the quality of service they receive. David's reference of the US Postal Service instantly brings to mind the iconic poster boy for everything the USPS stands for: Seinfeld's Newman. You can read up on the iconic portrayal of the USPS in Seinfeld episodes on the unofficial Seinfeld Wiki.

Newman for the USPS is very much a metaphor for what the angry, back-closet "IT guy" represents at IT departments which are seen in a similarly negative light.

David went on to note that "IT job security is often dependent on making things hard, slow, and complex". Regretfully, he's right on the money with that remark. The kind of aging, archaic technologies my company encounters at companies with sprawling IT departments boggles my mind sometimes. When we come in as outsiders to propose easier and cheaper to maintain alternatives, that are easier to operate, many times we're met with silence or evil glares from the IT folks.

That kind of resistance to positive change, with an embrace towards things like the cloud, VoIP, virtualization, and other similar advancements is another reason why formal IT departments are driving themselves towards irrelevance. Many of the worst offenders of the above critiques are the ones focused solely on keeping their complex "machine" oiled and sputtering away. Business as usual, you can say.

Legacy Exchange servers that can easily be converted to Office 365 or Google Apps. Creaky application servers that can very well be virtualized on platforms like Azure or Amazon AWS. Even consistently out-of-space file servers that could be tossed right into Azure or onto NAS boxes or up into SharePoint Online still keep chugging away through the fervent, frequent attention of a pre-occupied IT department that could otherwise be time better spent.

Things like focusing on business objectives, end user training, or converting the department itself into an actual profit center would serve an organization ten times better than indefinitely wasting resources away on menial IT tasks better suited for the 1990s.

The famous US sitcom Seinfeld featured a character called Newman, who portrayed his introverted superiority and subsequent plight as a postal worker in countless memorable episodes. He's a direct metaphor for how some of today's IT workers are giving their departments a bad rap. A culture of entitlement; viewing users as mindless cogs in the wheel; and a refusal to embrace modern cloud technologies. (Image Source: Weasel Zippers)

The narrow minded dilemma of IT departments viewed harshly by the users they support comes from a twisted belief that modernization will force them into obscurity. A notion that every server to come down means one more tick on the job loss clock. A notion that each extra cloud service a company employs will lead to extra internal IT layoffs. And this belief can be extended to any facet of moving IT responsibilities away from internal staff and outwards towards vendors or managed service providers (MSPs).

While I'm not here to claim that every organization can be run without a formal IT department, there are indeed many who could very easily make do. A decade ago, anything an organization wanted to store, automate, or analyze having to do with a computer needed to be somehow managed internally. Today, the plethora of options surrounding XaaS (anything as a service) has unchained organizations from the reliance on doing everything themselves through capital expenditures.

It's not that IT departments cannot innately succeed. They very well can in many situations. But if there is one thing that is killing their reputation faster than anything else, it comes down to one word: trust.

The Trust Factor: How IT Staffers Are Kindling Their Own Extinction

Trust is a value that takes a long time to build, but can be easily broken in a very short period. Even an IT department that had a good relationship with the users it supports for the last 15 years could bust its image as a key company asset in short order. And this usually stems from those who make up the department -- the "face" of IT for an organization, whether it be two or twenty people.

Computerworld penned a piece tackling a similar angle on whether IT departments are on their way out. The article's author, Steve Ragan, actually fueled his op/ed with content submitted by a Twitter user who responded to a very simple question: "What's a dumb practice in IT that needs to go away?".

The response, of which only a sliver I will republish here, was as follows:

[One] big problem is the arrogance that emanates from IT departments that they're somehow important to the organization. I believe that was the case 15 years ago, when people would hire you for simply knowing HTML [or knowing how to use FrontPage], but now the credit card and cloud provider phenomenon has allowed businesses to say "f*** you IT that charges me 10 times as much money, takes 20 times longer and still gets my requirements wrong".

The bolded statements are my emphasis, of course. But the meat of the discussion at play connects back to a core concept I am referring to when it comes to IT being its own worst enemy. Can a business or organization survive in the modern era, where servers are being swept away into the Cloud and XaaS is the answer for how to offload nearly anything IT related these days?

IT workers aren't stupid. They have seen the developments occurring in manufacturing, auto work, coding and other sectors where offshoring and outsourcing are viable, plausible business alternatives. And rather foolishly, they have been fighting a simmering battle with the organizations that rely on them. Simply put, it's a war full of FUD, and it has been aimed at making it seem nearly impossible to outsource any facet of operations due to overblown security, privacy, financial, and other concerns.

Not all of the pushback is hot air, mind you. I've penned about some of the rightful issues to be contemplated when, for example, deciding on whether to move major systems into the cloud.

But time and time again, for at least the organizations we are being asked to come in and consult with, the IT department is either partially or fully taken over by a team of No-Men. "No, you can't use the cloud for file storage". "No, you can't move your phone system into the cloud". "No, you can't virtualize servers in a cloud-hosted IaaS environment". "You don't understand... if you want it working, I HAVE TO MANAGE IT MYSELF".

Just as David Hansson alluded to in his brilliant piece, these legacy IT crusaders are hell bent on keeping all IT operations as complex, on-premise, and difficult to transition as possible. This is the same reason we see things like One-Man Knowledge Silos (key IT people who refuse to share critical passwords and info with others); a reluctance to cross-train others on specialized technical systems; and a heretic attitude towards anything that has the word "managed" or "cloud" in its description.

He remarks on the backwards mentality engulfing many IT departments today:

If the Exchange Server didn't require two people to babysit it at all times, that would mean two friends out of work. Of course using hosted Gmail is a bad idea! It’s the same forces and mechanics that slowly turned unions from a force of progress (proper working conditions for all!) to a force of stagnation (only Jack can move the conference chairs, Joe is the only guy who can fix the microphone).

The negativity surrounding the relationship between end users and the IT staff is a vicious circle, one that can be encapsulated in a theory I call the "Circle of Distrust".

It's considered a festering loop because each set of individuals involved feed off eachother in fostering a continual, downward spiral in relations.

The IT department naturally views users as an unfortunate symptom of the "beast" they have to maintain. That complex, expensive assembly line of an IT infrastructure at their disposal provides them with wonderful employment, but without end users, such systems are meaningless. Besides, why would an organization invest in complex systems if it didn't get business value from them?

And so if end users are to achieve business value for the organization, they have to man the wheel for their respective aspect of the complex machine. This is the part some of today's IT staffers dread. But it's a funny dilemma, actually -- one being sometimes an outward result of the very Leviathan that these IT staffers pushed for, purchased, and subsequently implemented.

When this or that feature doesn't work, or a particular server needs to be rebooted for the umpteenth time, it tends to always be seen in the light of users being too needy, too impatient, or not knowing enough. To the IT staffer I've described above, end users become the worst part of their job.

"If only IT could be without end users...". I'm sure this is a wish many ponder at night.

The flipside of this dilemma then grows from the friction caused by an IT department unwilling or unable to support end users in a proper manner. End users and execs end up losing faith, or trust, in their own IT department and the downward spiral begins. A shift to BYOD starts to unravel. Cloud providers are picked without the knowledge of the IT people. End users begin finding answers to their own problems; even if the solutions aren't in line with what "IT wanted".

The Circle of Distrust envelops the very relationship that should be fostering competitive advantage.

Is it any surprise, then, that the BYOD era has whalloped IT so fast and so hard? The generation of "No-Sir" has turned into a symptom of rogue IT exemplified namely by BYOD users. The ones using their personal tablets in meetings. The ones connecting their personal smartphones to company email and leaving corporate-issued cell phones in a desk drawer. And the same ones who are yearning for SaaS alternatives to the complex, slow, and error-prone solutions offered up by internal IT.

Many tech news pundits like to point the finger at the BYOD problem solely at end users trying to get around formal infrastructure. Surely, this notion of super-users flocking to BYOD would be believable if statistics for how wide scale this problem is were far smaller in scope and scale. But BYOD has become an epidemic, not a scattered problem that could be solved through rounds of whack-a-mole.

The above graphic, which can be found on everything from shirts to mousepads aimed at help desk staffers, exemplifies everything that is wrong with the modern self-infatuated tech department. The end of the IT department may very well be hastened by its own doings. (Image Source: Zazzle.com)

Those IT departments that spent the last decade saying no to the cloud, XaaS, and capable third party devices are now paying the price, in some ways, for pushing the age old policy of what we choose is all you can use, period. In many ways, the consumerization of IT and the prevalence of the cloud over the last half decade has shown average users that perhaps the IT department doesn't always know best.

And this is exactly where the divide between the tech of yesteryear, and those that will thrive into the future, will continue to grow. Rod Trent of WindowsITPro calls it the age of Cloud IT. Jeffrey Snover elaborated further, and believes it involves the clear evolution of the "click next" technology professional, into something best described as Differentiated IT.

Whatever you wish to call the next flavor of cherished IT worker, one thing is invariably clear: the status quo of the archaic tunnel-vision IT pro is nearing its end.

Can The Cloud and MSPs Dismantle the IT Dept?

ComputerWeekly very frankly thinks that the end of the IT dept is situated right smack in the cloud. Basecamp's founder David Hansson has similar conclusions about how SaaS is turning a reliance towards internal IT on its head.

Even InfoWorld's J. Peter Bruzzese isn't afraid to say it how it is: that there may be no future in on-premises IT sometime soon.

Bruzzese says of traditional IT:

The shift to a full cloud-based infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) or platform-as-a-service (PaaS) model is imminent. Yes, in the next five years there'll be hybrid and convergence solutions teed up across the board to provide a transition from on-premises to cloud, but ultimately there'll be little on-premise IT left for admins.

Could all of these industry voices be wrong? It's naive at best to think that everyone is colluding against the forces that be within traditional IT. The interesting part about most of these voices, including my own, is that we are well acquainted with both sides of the on-prem and cloud arenas. And from everything I can gather, at least from the above pieces, the cloud is a fad which is anything but going away quickly and quietly.

The other factor allowing organizations to chip away at, or entirely dismantle, their IT departments are managed services providers (MSPs). Just do some Googling and you can find outlets that are willing to outsource any number of traditional IT operations, usually for a fraction of what an entire internal team of IT staffers can provide.

From disaster recovery, to cloud-hosted PBX solutions, to file servers in the cloud. The options are plentiful and pricing in many of these arenas is extremely competitive as providers fight to carve out crevices in these up-and-coming offerings. Due to the differentiated expertise they can bring to the table, along with the economies of scale they can build around their offerings, it is becoming increasingly hard to find insourcing as being the better option.

My own company, which started off merely doing computer repair for local area residents, has now turned full circle and specializes in providing outsourced IT for small and midsize businesses. Just two years ago it seemed like no one was interested in such a concept -- their computer broke and they just wanted it fixed. Turn to today, and customers are calling us near weekly to see how we can either partially or fully take over IT operations for them.

Organizations I speak with are, in many ways, not only fed up with the "No Sir" attitude coming out of their own IT departments, but finally realizing that they don't have to endure it any longer. While larger, static organizations have tougher times with overhauling how they handle IT, small and midsize organizations are leveraging combinations of the cloud and MSPs to solve their previous ills. And in most cases, offloading IT externally is saving money, headache, and delivering solid results.

Is the cloud being its own inadvertent referee in some ways? Most definitely. It's not only bringing price points down on commoditized IT, but it's also leveling the playing field and allowing organizations to dole out IT operations to parties that can provide better service at lower cost with less staff overhead. What's not to like?

In the end, it's a win-win for everyone involved. Except the "Click-Next" IT pro.

Photo Credit: Ahturner/Shutterstock

Derrick WlodarzDerrick Wlodarz is an IT Specialist who owns Park Ridge, IL (USA) based technology consulting & service company FireLogic, with over eight+ years of IT experience in the private and public sectors. He holds numerous technical credentials from Microsoft, Google, and CompTIA and specializes in consulting customers on growing hot technologies such as Office 365, Google Apps, cloud-hosted VoIP, among others. Derrick is an active member of CompTIA's Subject Matter Expert Technical Advisory Council that shapes the future of CompTIA exams across the world. You can reach him at derrick at wlodarz dot net.

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