IT conferences for the CIO: microcosms of industry trends

I’m back from attending ServiceNow’s Knowledge13 conference last month in Las Vegas, and have a grab bag of random thoughts and reactions to share as a result. As usual, these thoughts reach beyond any particular vendor or product niche.

For anyone not familiar with this company, ServiceNow is slowly and steadily developing a generalized platform (“ERP for IT”) for enterprise IT management, all the way from IT service management (ITSM) to (now, in a new offering) cloud orchestration and management of instances.

My attendance last year at this same conference broke a personal streak of almost 8 years of avoiding conferences altogether. My recap post from last year discusses how I discovered what I’d been missing: exposure to new approaches, new energy, and new perspectives that, like it or not, don’t just come from online.

In fact, it reminds me of the classic Woody Allen line about “I need the eggs”. Conferences are messy, chaotic, overwhelming, sipping from a firehose, and so on. But we keep going, because we need those eggs.

Here are some “eggs,” large and small, that I took away from this year’s experience.

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Novels of IT: The Phoenix Project

Nerd alert: it’s an exciting day for me when someone releases a new “novel of IT”. I’ve made it my mission to find and review several of these (now four) over the past couple of years, and I may be one of the few people out there who has read and reviewed all of them.

To recap: what do I mean by a “novel of IT”? It’s a term I coined to describe a fictionalized depiction of life in a corporate IT environment, usually bearing a number of intended lessons in tow about IT best practices, approaches, pitfalls. They’re generally not works of serious fiction; their audience is usually the lot of IT professionals rather than the broad public. (For example, I don’t include in this category two fine and recommended works that in fact aspire more to literature than to IT didacticism: Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs and Ellen Ullman’s The Bug).

As I’ve traveled through the fictional scenarios depicted in these four books, I’ve evolved criteria for what makes them successful (or not) in my eyes. In a novel of IT, I’m looking for a book that is both reasonably engaging as a novel and one that accurately portrays a broad swath of the inner workings, nuances, and personality types that are typically part of the landscape of IT in today’s world. Reading the book should provide a window into common dilemmas and disagreements regarding IT issues, lending perspective and insight into all parties’ motivations and interests.

I looked forward for many months to the release last week of The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win, by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford,  after meeting and chatting with Gene Kim at a conference back in May of last year. I was greatly impressed at the time with Gene’s general demeanor, enthusiasm, and articulateness. He gave a rip-roaring presentation at the conference on “ITIL at Ludicrous Speeds: Rugged DevOps”: I recommend seeing him speak if you get the chance. I felt certain that his long-promised “novel of IT” would be a worthy addition to the collection of works in this category.

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The One True Way syndrome exemplified: the overstated case against code comments

I write frequently, and not without some exasperation, about the perennial search for the “silver bullet” in IT: the holy grail, the end-all, be-all solution to preventing IT failure.

The silver bullet has a very close and similarly pernicious internal twin cousin: the One True Way. That’s a technique or practice that is (usually) adopted by its IT aficionados as the key to overall success, with the important insistence that it will work as long as you follow it to the letter, in all cases, no matter what.

So this post will seemingly be about a specific (and low-level) development issue, but it’s only to serve as an example to illustrate this One True Way syndrome that is so prevalent in IT. At core, my takeaway boils down to the same old message I usually have when it comes to IT matters: be wary of something promising to fix all your problems. Be wary of absolutes. And be especially wary of the combination.

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More timeless, still-relevant information technology jokes

One of my most visited blog posts noted that certain IT jokes tend to come up again and again. That post covered four such familiar jokes, along with what I felt were some common themes uniting them: IT hubris, narrow perspective, self-righteousness. Each of those jokes contains a “grain of truth” to it that makes it funny, to IT and non-IT people alike.

Along those same lines, here are three more time-honored IT jokes, ones you’ve probably already heard if you’ve spent much time in the industry. Again, take a few moments to revisit them and consider what makes them timeless: how the common situations they describe seem to never quite go away. And then I’ll talk about what I think unites them thematically, and the resulting lessons for IT professionals.

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Novels of IT, Part 3: Adventures of an IT Leader

My long quest for an insightful, broad, and practically applicable “novel of IT” finally met with resounding success, once I got my hands on the outstanding book that is the subject of this post: Adventures of an IT Leader, by Robert D. Austin, Richard L. Nolan, and Shannon O’Donnell.

To recap: I was looking for a book that was both reasonably engaging as a novel and one that accurately portrayed a broad swath of the inner workings, nuances, and personality types that are typically part of the landscape of IT in today’s world. Reading the book should provide a window into common dilemmas and disagreements regarding IT issues, lending perspective and insight into all parties’ motivations and interests. See my earlier posts on Chris Potts’ FruITion and John Hughes’ Haunting the CEO.  Again, my views aside, I should emphasize that all three of these “novels of IT” are worth reading and forming your own opinion.

Adventures of an IT Leader comes by far the closest to meeting the criteria I had outlined for a “novel of IT.”  It opens with an executive, Jim Barton, being unexpectedly tapped as CIO by the new CEO of his firm, after long and successful stints managing other areas of the company.  In short, Barton isn’t an IT person by training or experience. In fact, one reason for his selection as the new CIO is that he has long been the foremost critic of the IT function at his company. And now, unexpectedly, he has to walk a few miles in IT’s moccasins, so to speak. The novel then follows Barton and his numerous IT challenges and crises for about a year.

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IT anti-patterns: reverse behavior lessons from Steve Jobs

I’ve written before about how I value Twitter’s ability to fine-tune one’s personal information gathering, selecting people to follow who, over time, prove to be the most useful, interesting, and stimulating. I commonly refer to the people I follow as my “personal Algonquin Round Table,” in homage to the well-known literary group of the 1920s.

More simply put, though: I value Twitter because I fundamentally believe in consulting others, picking their brains, observing what they find useful or funny, enjoying their (often differing) perspectives, and learning as much as I can from them.

To my frequent surprise, however, this basic belief in the value of consulting others turns out not to be universally shared. In fact, it can even be scoffed at. That disconnect came glaringly to light recently in the aftermath of the death of Steve Jobs. Basically put, the burgeoning legend of Steve Jobs rests in large part on how, in his path to multiple successes, he fundamentally rejected the value of consulting others.

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Novels of IT, Part 2: Haunting the CEO

Last time, I introduced this series by pointing out that reading what I call “novels of IT” could serve a few very useful purposes for those of us who work in and around information technology.  In fact, I presented a number of criteria that come to mind when answering the implicit question of why anyone should bother to read a novel of IT.

Ideally, it’s because such novels, at their best, can do the following:

  • provide a degree of engagement and entertainment in making their points
  • provide a realistic insight, in a “show not tell” kind of way, into what motivates the typical players in these business scenarios,
  • help all factions (inside and outside IT) come to see the other side’s perspective and arrive at deeper understandings of common problems and disagreements.
  • allow the CIO to hand the novel to his or her CEO or CFO and trust that everyone’s reading of it will help reach common ground in how to collectively and collaboratively approach the company’s goals.
There are, of course, pitfalls involved in constructing such a novel, the foremost of which is falling into blatant stereotypes: most notably, the nerdy CIO who clings to technology and can’t see a larger role for himself or herself. The book I covered in my first post on IT novels, Chris Potts’ FruITion, not only fell into this trap in spades, but took it to a whole new dimension, painting IT in general as basically no longer needed as a separate discipline, and as having become so trivial as to not need an executive at all.
This time, I’ll discuss John Hughes’ recent and excellent contribution to this genre, Haunting the CEO.

Novels of IT, Part 1: Turtles All The Way Down

Novels are harder than most technology-oriented people typically realize. The backbone of a good novel is character development, meaning that the character learns and grows — which makes it easy for especially amateur novelists to start off with a character who is, frankly, little more than a one-dimensional dolt. This is an even more dangerous pitfall when it’s a “novel of IT”: the temptation is almost unavoidable for the author to create as protagonist a stereotypical technology leader, clueless as to what is really important or how to be effective, who is then gradually enlightened by wiser individuals as the novel progresses.

There are three IT-related novels I’m aware of, all relatively recent, that fall essentially along those lines.

All of them are worth reading, but I had majorly different reactions to each. While I’d intended to cover all three in one blog post, the complexities involved in discussing the first, very problematic example have led me to divide this discussion into more than one post.

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