Cloud computing has transformed IT nearly as much as smartphones have changed our personal lives. Not only have hardware and software layouts been radically reshaped, but entire org charts have torn up and reassembled, with new positions added and many old roles gone.
As both workers and the nature of their work changes, so does the culture of the workplace.
“I no longer know every machine and every wire in the building, and I’m no longer able to do everything myself if I have to,” said Mark Mellis, who has worked in the computer and Internet industry since 1986 after 10 years in the U.S. Navy’s nuclear power program.
“I have to answer for problems that aren’t of my making, and answer to customers who don’t know or care that Amazon is down – they want to know when I’m going to be back up.”
There’s more to it than just the accelerating pace of change and always-on communication that exists today. Things are becoming once removed or untangled from the source. For example, the way IT professionals interact with each other and their customers has changed. Once experts on a particular technology, now they must become fix-it wizards for an ever-changing cast of applications and services.
Not Your Fault, Still Your Problem
Mellis has become something of a cloud resource himself, providing information security consulting out of his home in Roseville, California, more than 100 miles from Silicon Valley. He said trusting the right vendors enables him to do far more today than ever before.
“I’m still responsible for data security, but I don’t have to hire eight senior network ops people and manage their schedules to ensure round-the-clock coverage,” he said.
“It makes a lot more sense to let Amazon handle that, as many of the companies you deal with today are also doing behind the scenes.”
But without a cast of senior engineers at every firm, Mellis said, technicians who relied on following documented procedures aren’t around anymore.
“You have to stay on top of what’s new and be ready to deal with changes,” he said.
“You can’t just blame some other company, but you need to be able to spot that they took their data center in Ohio offline overnight and are serving you from Portland.”
The increased use of cloud services is wreaking havoc in many places, according to William Morgan, CEO of San Francisco-based Buoyant, which develops and delivers Linkerd, an open-source ultralight service mesh.
“The move to cloud almost always has a drastic effect on culture, especially engineering culture,” Morgan said.
As more resources move into the cloud, Morgan said, the tradeoffs around reliability, availability and security of underlying hardware are now very different.
“Engineers are thrust into a world where they are now required to be in both customer service and consumer relationships with their peers, with all the emotional repercussions thereof,” he said. “And teams on the far side of the application can make changes that dramatically affect the way their own code operates.”
Many IT vets bemoan the perceived psychological cost of yet another iteration on a project, adding to what they call “never-done stress.”
“The ability and availability of computing resources has really changed how we approach a lot of problems,” said one 30-year veteran of his work for a high-volume global service provider.
“It feeds the rapid prototype and deployment model, a sure antidote for paralysis by analysis.”
How to cope? Redefine roles
Morgan said that roles are changing inside IT departments and it’s keeping many IT professionals on their toes.
“Organizations that successfully navigate this transition adopt what we call a ‘service ops’ approach,” he said, “Service owners develop, deploy and are on call for their services. Platform owners build the underlying platform.”
He said roles and expectations are clearly delineated, but both cooperate and collaborate.
Having clear roles and processes removes a lot of confusion, chaos and stress, according to Daniel Ritchie, a distinguished engineer for Broadridge Financial Solutions.
“Abstracting complexity is the key to simplifying collaboration,” he said. “An established standard allows experts to remain focused on domain solutions without having to worry about negotiating each new integration."
Otherwise, organizations that don't successfully navigate this transition suffer from downtime, frustration and burnout.
“No one knows who is responsible for what, and the old patterns of communication and synchronization between engineers no longer work,” said Ritchie.
Delivering IT to customers, whether internal or external, is no longer like being the village blacksmith who can hammer out anything. It’s more like the hotel concierge who can get any problem solved and deliver unexpected surprises. They learn how to get what from whom and what not to waste time trying.
Structure, clear responsibilities, defined limits and agreed-upon goals can help IT pros feel like winners of ever-changing game that really never ends. That’s why none of the old-timers interviewed pine for the old days.
Mellis’ favorite story: He and a colleague were told that a huge new business deal would require them to replicate the company’s high-volume, high-availability services for customers on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.
A few minutes later in the meeting, they looked up from typing at their laptops to announce: “Singapore is online.”
Cloud can bring about change in a blink of an eye.
Paul Boutin is a contributing writer. Find him on Twitter @paulboutin.
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