Back of the Net! What IT Professionals Can Learn From Premiership Football Stars

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When I started supplying information technology services to organisations, I was jokingly told that nothing is ever new in IT—we find new ways of packaging it, then just repeat the same mistakes.

The reality is that IT professionals, like our footballing heroes, need to stay ahead of the game and be fully aware of their next challenge, both the upcoming fixture and improving their overall league position.

However, to some extent, what I was told when I started, is a valid, if cynical, point of view. There was always a magic solution on the horizon that was supposed to be the Silver Bullet and solve all our problems.

During my apprenticeship, this was 4G languages, which were somehow meant to make coding easy, for example: you just typed in the business logic, and it did all the rest. Sound familiar? Well, would you be shocked to learn that a few years earlier, they’d said the same about Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL). (Although, given how hard it’s been to move off COBOL—and how good a business it is for a certain class of canny old contractor--they may have had a point.)

At one time, the first FORTRAN compiler was considered such a breakthrough that it counted as true Artificial Intelligence. Anyone bewitched by the idea of  ChatGPT being ‘sentient’ clearly doesn’t remember ELIZA. In my area of expertise, in the past using a relational database was seen as a mug’s game, as the network was so much better; the cloud is ‘the same’ as bureau, and so on.

Seeing the parallels and cycles may amuse cynical greybeard Assembler jockeys—and, as True Detective will tell you, time is a flat circle anyway.

But, around ten years ago, the story changed. So, if you still hold the mindset that nothing really new is happening—I’m sorry to say, you’re completely wrong, pal.

A welcome end to the ‘the answer’s always six months’

Why? Because business got fed up with our nonsense and demanded we took real innovation a lot more seriously.

Surprisingly, the inflection point wasn’t cloud, but a new form of project management. After trillions of dollars were put into IT projects that didn’t really deliver, they took over responsibility for those long-running planning and testing cycles we said were required to deliver quality and took another direction.

For sure, solutions like Waterfall or PRINCE2 could scope things out to the atomic level if done properly, then could slowly and carefully build the perfect design. But really, very few people could do that, and by the time it was delivered, the business had often already moved on.

IT became a cross between a joke and a cost centre, staffed by awkward staff the business people couldn’t relate to and whose default answer was “it’ll take six months” to any request for new functionality that could actually make the company money.

The business finally got wise to this bottleneck, and instead demanded (and got) rapid delivery of ‘good enough’ applications that it could deploy, update, or discard as external business conditions changed.

History will see this as a revolution led by Agile, but I also think service management/ITSM had a huge role in ending the complacency of the bad old days. In one of those helpful, and previously unseen, bits of historical synergy, this came along just as we got the cloud. This freed the whole IT industry, in particular the business, from the hardware layer and finally allowed us to focus on what we wanted the code to do.

As an industry, we have now fully transitioned from hidebound old computer paradigms and closed-thinking to a superior baseline. Now,  everyone is using some form of cloud, which is running a core set of highly, highly functional, non-buggy and non-vendor-owned open source platforms (like Linux and Kubernetes), plus microservices and containers to operationalise and optimise easy interoperability and portability.

The time of the curmudgeonly white-coated ‘IT Manager’ in the basement is over, and the era of the useful, respected, and listened-to Chief Digital and Chief Information Officer is here.

Great…! But the race is only just beginning.

Now that we are relevant and central to digitally transformed businesses, we must continue to constantly deliver better, more impactful, more relevant digital business solutions.

A new model of competence to aspire to

We now need to help our businesses deal with today’s always-on, 24x7, app-based world full of digital consumers (both retail and business-to-business) demanding more, better, and cheaper. The modern IT professional needs to seize whatever works and be ready to try new tools, and adopt and produce new technologies.

Basically, you must now play the part of a well-trained, alert, and professional Premier League footballer, always at the top of your game, and always prepared for the next challenge.

Part of that attitude is adopting a growth mindset and committing to being a lifelong learner. Part of it is being open to what your developers tell you is real, as opposed to what your vendor account manager tells you. And the final (big) part of it is stopping yourself from saying, ‘In my day, we called these objects!’

IT has finally gone beyond repackaging and started to genuinely innovate. This means we all have to perform at the top level too!

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