You can’t browse the tech industry headlines these days without noticing a veiled anxiety underpinning the news. Clouds and containers, bots and AI, IoT and AR and autonomous everything -- all are rapidly advancing and changing our perceptions of what’s possible. But what does it mean for you or for me?
This conversation broadly falls under the auspices of the move to digitalization (part of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and its “fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres,” to quote the elegant words of the WEF’s Klaus Schwab).
As developers of hardware/software and their connective systems, and as providers of the business tools designed to make use of them, that revolutionary fusion is largely fueled by our little corner of the global economy.
Buzzwords evolve based on the latest product releases, mergers and acquisitions, but the core concern remains centered on that fusion. Formerly unrelated systems are suddenly integral to one another, the expectation of novel human-machine interaction is culturally ingrained, the pace of change seems incomprehensibly rapid, and the implications surrounding what our technologies enable expand exponentially as each day ticks by.
If you’re the CEO, CTO or CIO at an insurance company, retail chain or shipping firm, it’s enough to make your head explode. All of that possibility and all that change has to be managed and integrated into the day-to-day functioning of people and businesses around the world.
No one is immune from digitalization and every organization is engaged in some stage of the transformation. However, what often gets lost in the hype cycle is that boots-on-the-ground perspective, and I find it instructive to keep in mind that the tech industry is also operating under the same metamorphic conditions.
I learned this while working for an enterprise software company founded some 20 years ago. Integration wasn’t a concern, there was no SOA, there were no micro services, there was no AWS, there was no iPhone… you get the picture.
Coding to automate a few core business functions served as the brass ring back then, and everyone went at it with gusto. This evolved into the quest to facilitate and manage the increasingly diverse omnichannel experience today. The irony is that my company has been undergoing the same evolution at the same time as the businesses we serve.
Our problem is the same as our customers’ problem. For example, we also needed to become an omnichannel vendor — if the technology is useful, it shouldn’t matter how you interface with it. Your channels shouldn’t get in the way of serving a particular purpose and making people successful. But that’s so much more easily said than done.
Serving a purpose and making people successful is good grounds for a mission statement, but it helps to focus. For example, as our company grew, it got very complicated. We used to say, “Our strategy is to make the world a better place.”
This is a fine sentiment, but it’s a huge and amorphous mission. Change is continual and one of the best ways to manage it is to be certain of your organization’s purpose. We had to simplify. It’s not that you can’t make the world a better place, but you have to get specific about how you’re going to do that. You have to get real.
In our case, just to have the recognition that what we actually do is “connect sh*t and make people smarter” is a huge leap. The simplest description of who you are is usually the truest. And if you simplify your mission, you suddenly humanize your company and recalibrate your function in the fusion/digitalization process. From a business perspective, the revolution we’re experiencing often makes our solutions to problems seem more convoluted.
A lot of IT departments are looking to our industry for some kind of all-inclusive and all-encompassing platform. They’re not just looking at the slew of new technology and asking, “How do I put this into our existing IT estate?”
They are looking to enable marketing. They are looking to enable HR. They have to bring everyone along on the transformation journey. They are trying to make sure they consider shadow IT, because it is going to exist, and ensure that it is managed with purpose and has the right controls and everything functions together and operations don’t grind to a halt. And their heads aren’t exploding.
The most successful CIOs today have realized that their world is, indeed, more complex. But they are embracing new approaches. They’ve become enablers for business, not just cost savers, and they recognize that the two are not mutually exclusive.
The challenge is that there are so many different ways new technology can be used. And that, quite frankly, is the source of the latent anxiety and seminal challenge of our time.
Take machine learning and AI, for example. Tim O’Reilly recently penned a nice essay that discussed the fear of job loss surrounding these rapidly developing technological capabilities. He suggested we pivot and recognize that the true opportunity of technology is that it extends human capability: “There is way too much handwringing about the possibility of technology eliminating human jobs, and way too little imagining new jobs that could only be done with the help of technology.”
My own colleague Mark Palmer expressed a similar sentiment during a recent conversation, noting that a lot of the messaging around machine learning as it pertains to analytics is similarly damaging.
In essence, he said the idea that “a computer can now enlighten you with insights to save the day” is pernicious because, unfortunately, CIOs misinterpret this marketing to view machine learning as “better” analytics. It’s dangerous because it oversimplifies the critical boundary between man and machine. Better to view machine learning as a means to augment human intelligence, rather than to replace it.
Our industry is operating under the same conditions as the rest of the world and is cumulatively engaged in a shared effort: We’re all trying to build the solution for tomorrow, today. Speaking as a software developer, I love cool technology. I love cool technology built by people who love cool technology. But the only thing that makes it truly worthwhile and exciting is when other people can actually use the cool technology. It has to be sexy and functional!
Technology is built by people for people, and that is the key. I’m passionate about my software and I’m passionate about the problems it can solve. But I’m also passionate about my customers, and not just in the pragmatic sense of understanding that they are the reason why I collect a paycheck.
But in the sense of recognizing they are human beings doing real work and facing real problems — many of which my colleagues and I also face within our own organization — and we can help each other. As we all race along the widening path to digitalization, let’s keep that in mind.
(About the author: Matt Quinn is chief technology officer in TIBCO’s Core Products & Technologies Group. As CTO, Matt works to create a common, corporate-wide vision for all TIBCO products and technologies, ensures interoperability and consistent architectural approaches across TIBCO's various product families, and provides overall leadership and coordination of product plans and technology direction. Matt has been with TIBCO for nearly two decades. Prior to serving as CTO, he held several worldwide roles including responsibility for engineering; product vision, delivery, and overall quality; as well as customer enablement.)
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