Things disappear because either you can’t see them anymore or they become so familiar and pervasive you just totally ignore them, effectively disappearing into the background noise of life. Both of these are happening with information technology and if you’re in this field you might feel that you’re not appreciated the way you’re accustomed to, and that change is quite unexpected, given the explosion of the Internet, mobile devices, home automation technology, 4G cellular networks, driverless cars, ultra-thin laptops and hoverboards. But this isn’t a viewpoint of reality, it’s just about how people perceive the world.
Back in the “good old days”, computer rooms filled entire floors of office buildings, often viewable through thick glass windows revealing rows of big boxes with flashing lights, spinning tapes and technicians in white lab coats. Thick black coax cables connected your steel-cased terminal, with its indestructible keyboard, to secured wiring closets that routed the cables through bored out holes in floors on their way to those multi-million-dollar mainframes. You had special printers, usually large and noisy, that consumed their own special paper, boxes of continuous, green-and-white forms. If you were lucky, you had a special “knife” to separate one output from another. Those heydays changed in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s as the personal computer became popular and getting your new 486 or Pentium system with its huge boxy system unit and LCD monitor was a day to cherish. Printers morphed into sleek ink-jet and lasers, 8.5”x 11” cut-sheet wonders and loading the right drivers was a right of passage. Then starting at the end of century, things started going in reverse.
Intel-based servers, occupying a fraction of a mainframe’s space, came into fashion. That eventually led to virtualization and hyper-convergence, further shrinking its footprint until an entire room became a couple racks of equipment, hardly impressive as it stood there without a blink, a spin or a technician. Then we moved it to an outsourced data center and now we’re moving it to “the cloud”.
So servers have disappeared.
All the coax cable was removed and your office technology moved over to the same wires as your telephone. Wireless networks removed even the cord and we buried the wireless access points in the ceiling for the best coverage and even if you let its antenna hang from the ceiling, most humans don’t look up all that often, a fact I used to my advantage when hiding Easter eggs from my children. If it was above eye level, they couldn’t find it, even after they knew that’s what I was doing. Faster networks dissolved those irritating slowdowns and everyone has multi-megabit Internet at home.
So networks disappeared.
The PCs are still there, but instead of a thirty pound monster we have two pound laptops with solid-state disks to deliver ten times the performance. But we also have our smartphone and tablets almost making the need for a laptop moot. Executives routinely leave their laptop in their office while traveling, packing their instant-on, less-than-a-pound, all-day-battery iPad, most likely one they bought with their own money. The special printers are gone, consumed by the office copier. Instead of loading serious gobs of software, we access services on the Internet.
So the PCs, while not invisible yet, are fading fast.
The Help Desk has largely become faceless as tickets are entered and problems are resolved, most times without two humans conversing, much less seeing, each other. While useful, productive and necessary, it further removes the connection between people, and the human element is largely disappearing.
So the people join the PCs, not invisible totally, but again, fading.
To further compound the issue, technology is so pervasive it’s disappearing in front of our eyes. I have technology in every pocket. My car key has technology, my smartphone is technology personified, my credit cards have chips and my watch has sensors and a bluetooth connection. I have a smart TV combined with a Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast and cable box. My TV is way smarter than me. My washing machine senses its load, the dryer the its dryness and the outdoor lights sense when someone is near. The car talks to satellites, connects bluetooth and senses the key in my pocket. It was once magical, and now it’s all so familiar I take it for granted.
So it’s all around us, all the time, and we notice it about as much as the air we breathe.
It’s no wonder that the question of “What’s the value of IT” comes up more frequently. We’re disappearing and what people don’t see they naturally question. In my opinion this is not one question, but two. First portion is asking us to make visible all those things they no longer see, or at least used to see parts of. We need to realize that all these things are largely invisible these days for the variety of reasons stated above and take steps to make them real again. Something as simple as making a list of software available in your company, a major systems diagram or the number of PCs being upgraded this year can go a long way.
The second part is asking what are the people in the IT department actually doing. That question can make us very defensive, but it shouldn’t, because if we really think about it, we deliver the changes our business’s require, fix their issues and protect IT assets from a variety of threats. We need to communicate those with a non-defensive posture, using a common language and with a sense of excitement. We should take notice of whole industries that provide mostly invisible products like banking and car insurance, and learn how they convey their value to customers.
Or bury yourself in your cube with your do-not-disturb sign. Your choices will determine your fate.