The Slippery Slope of ITWhat is the role of a person in the IT field? Let me further define "the IT field." When I say "the IT field," I am speaking of an IT support role; along the lines of a Network Administrator, who takes care of systems so that others can use them. So, I ask again; what is the role of a person in the IT field? Most people in this field think, even believe, that they know the answer. Most people, however, are wrong.
Take, for example, a Software Engineer. Most Software Engineers believe that their job is to create the best helpdesk ticketing system their company has ever seen or to create the best IT group web site. What about a Database Administrator (DBA)? Most DBAs believe that their job is to make sure the database backups are functioning and to keep the databases online as much as possible. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
While the aforementioned roles may be more true for people doing contract or consulting work, it is not the case for IT staff. Though I absolutely hated hearing the powers-that-be say that we are business enablers, I find myself believing that more and more. In the IT field, a Software Engineer's job isn't to create an awesome helpdesk ticketing system. His job is to reduce the time an end-user spends filling out a helpdesk ticket from 10 minutes to 2 minutes, so that those remaining 8 minutes can be used for their actual job. His job is to enable the end-user to be more productive by spending less time on job-unrelated tasks. The DBA's job isn't to make sure their databases are functioning properly. His job is to enable the developers who use those databases to get their work done more quickly. His job is to make sure they can write their code in 8 hours, instead of spending that 8 hours troubleshooting why they can not connect to the database.
Why did I go on this tangent? It makes a point that is critical to the rest of this article. A person in the IT field has to set his ego aside and realize that his job is to help others be more productive, period.
Now let's take a step back and look at a bigger picture, the infrastructure. A typical network infrastructure starts like this. Most people know Microsoft Windows, so let's make the standard operating system Microsoft Windows XP. Microsoft Office works the best on Windows, so let's choose Microsoft Office as the chosen office suite. Since the standard computer already has Microsoft Outlook, we might as well put in Microsoft Exchange as the email server. We're going to need some way to deploy software, so we might as well use Microsoft's System Center Configuration Manager to do that.
Before you know it, you have fallen down the slope, and there is little to no chance of climbing back up. Most IT managers justify these decisions by saying, "Microsoft products are meant to seamlessly integrate with each other, so they will be the easiest to use," or, "we are already paying for all of these licenses because they are included in our Enterprise Agreement with Microsoft, so we should use them." From a cost perspective, that makes perfect sense. Why would you want to spend money and not get a return? Also, why would you want to spend more time working to integrate multiple 3rd party products when the Microsoft products already work? Another good point...
Let's look at the state of the technology industry for a moment. In previous years, Microsoft Windows was the hands-down winner in the desktop market. However, in recent years, Apple has been gaining ground. We've even seen Linux increase their market share. Due to the vast number of security vulnerabilities in Microsoft products and the recent fumble with Windows Vista, more people are walking over to the Apple aisle when it's time to buy a new computer. Those same people, empowered by their switch to Apple, are also likely to give Linux a shot on their old machine. It's only a matter of time until Microsoft no longer dominates the market share. But, we're not talking about personal computers, we're supposed to be talking about the corporate environment.
It's no secret that people actually use computers outside of the workplace. If your manager switches their home computer to Apple, and their manager, and their manager, and their manager; that is a ton of people, influential people, who don't use Microsoft products. Those influential people can use their positions of power to change the platform on which their projects develop or to sway decisions on what contracts they go after based on the desired platform. It is entirely possible that the majority of a company's contracts require non-Microsoft products to be used. So what will you, as an IT professional, do?
Does it make sense anymore to make your company's standard operating system Microsoft Windows when 90% of your contracts require Apple? No, it doesn't make sense at all. Every one of your employees will have a Windows-based machine, and 90% of those people will have an additional machine, the Apple, to do their development work. That is an extremely large sum of money wasted. It makes economic sense to change the standard to Apple OSX, and give out a few Windows-based computers to the people who need them.
But, again, we need to step back and look at the infrastructure. Your current infrastructure has Microsoft products for the office suite, email server, and systems management server. Those products do not work as they used to with the change in desktop operating system. But let's make the change even more drastic. What if you had to switch to Linux desktops? Now, not only does your infrastructure not work like it used to, it may not work at all. Your office suite may not have a version that works on *nix-based systems. Your systems management server may not have a client to manage *nix-based systems. You, essentially, have lost your infrastructure. But why?
It all goes back to my original point. While you should have been working to enable business, you were off playing Mr. Penny-pincher. You have constructed your infrastructure in such a way that it can not withstand change. You have pigeon-holed your company into Microsoft products, and only Microsoft products.
This is not intended to be a holy war. I am not telling you to stay away from Microsoft products. What I am saying is that your infrastructure needs diversity. If Microsoft Windows is your standard operating system, don't use Microsoft products for everything else just because it's easier. If Linux is your standard operating system, don't use all Linux-only products for everything else. Diversity is not an option, it's a necessity.
You, as an IT professional, need to do something that sounds impossible. You need to predict the unpredictable so that you can plan for the unplannable. What does that mean? It means that you need to have the foresight to know that your infrastructure will not be the same in 5, 10, or 15 years. You need to plan, today, for an extreme change tomorrow. If you can not change your standard operating system and keep the same level of functionality with your other, integrated products, you have failed. If you can not change your email server without keeping the same level of functionality with your other, integrated products, you have failed.
Things change abruptly and often in the IT field. Your infrastructure exists for one reason, and for one reason only, to enable business. Sometimes enabling business means adapting to new policies or completely changing everything you know about everything. One thing is for certain, though. If your business can not adapt, you don't have a business. So I will leave you with one question. Are you enabling business or will you soon be out of a job?