How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love BYOIT
Since taking my new gig in downtown Boston I find myself working for a firm that was born during the age where BYOIT (Bring Your Own IT) is not only possible but a reality. This transition towards IT-as-a-service means that my job is radically different than it was even five years ago.
Let’s go back even further. I started working in IT literally a half a lifetime ago (and at the time I’m writing this I’m only 34). Back during the first dot-com boom in the late 90’s, IT infrastructure consisted of climate controlled rooms filled with servers on redundant battery backup systems. To support an office of approximately 200 employees there were about fifty servers. These servers, essentially soup-ed up workstations made by IBM, cost thousands of dollars each and were much less powerful than the smartphones of 2016. This infrastructure was required to provide basic services to the organization such as email, file servers, firewalls, and software development. To maintain such a infrastructure-heavy environment you needed a large IT team; there were about 10 of us to support an office with about 200 employees.
Over the next 10 years or so the metrics didn’t really change, thankfully. I say “thankfully” because it helped me earn money through college and as I entered the workforce and working for a variety of companies, including a couple of startups and one that eventually went public in 2009. All of the firms that I have worked for up until very recently were born before the era of BYOIT and therefore had large infrastructure requirements (think: large server rooms with lots of servers, network gear, and the necessary personnel to support it) to provide IT services to the organization. While it is true that companies that I have previously worked for in the past are moving towards the “cloud”, where BYOIT lives, the progress is naturally slow and some instances unnecessary.
For companies born into the BYOIT era, starting in the early 2010s, all of this infrastructure was unnecessary and needlessly burdensome. The services that organizations needed from IT could be provided “as a service”.
- Email & productivity: Google Apps or Office 365
- File storage & sharing: Google Drive (provided as a part of Google Apps), OneDrive (provided as a part of Office 365), Dropbox, or Box.net
- Wiki: Atlassian Confluence OnDemand
- Source code repo: GitHub, BitBucket
- Chat: Slack, HipChat
- CRM: Salesforce.com
- ERP: NetSuite, Intacct, Quickbooks Online
- Creative: Adobe CC
When I started working in IT, these services all required lots of infrastructure and support staff to maintain, capital expenditures and salaries / benefits, climate controlled server rooms with adequate power supplies, and so on. Nowadays companies can go to the Apple Store at the mall or go online to Amazon.com and order laptops, monitors, and peripherals that when plugged in almost all of the time just work. For internet service, just get Comcast Business or Verizon FIOS (or for the sole proprietor, Starbucks WiFi). For phones, use Skype (which you can get with a real phone number for inbound calls) or Comcast Voice. If you need servers you can rent them from Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure (you can even get a virtual and encrypted network connection from your servers in the cloud to your office).
What does this mean for someone in my position? The focus has changed from maintaining infrastructure to desktop support and SaaS service maintenance. Rather than making sure that disks aren’t failing in a server in some noisy server room, I need to make sure that the vendors used are doing their job and that the infrastructure that can’t be disposed of, mainly workstations & internet connectivity, are functional and meets the needs of the business. If I’m successful, IT is largely transparent.
The other, perhaps more important, implication in this shift is that the size of the IT team required is perhaps half (if not more) than would have been required five years ago.
For me it’s a new and welcomed challenge. This means that rather focusing on than maintaining servers and related infrastructure, I spend much more time interacting with my fellow team members. I wouldn’t say that the skills that I’m using today have atrophied, but it does refocus my perspective on what matters most in IT: customer service. While I’ve worked with external IT customers in the past while running a consulting firm while in college and working at a business that provided web hosting solutions, the typical IT customer is your fellow co-worker.
Circling back to how IT has fundamentally changed for most younger companies, this methodology of a cloud-first approach towards IT will only scale to a certain point. A pivot in strategy, shifting away from cloud and towards on-premise, will likely be required when the company grows to a certain size that it makes more financial sense to make capital investments in infrastructure to provide necessary IT services than it is to continue to pay (typically expensive) operating expenses for services provided on a per-user-per-month basis. Where that pivot occurs will vary from company to company.
When will that day come in my current adventure? I surmise that it is approaching. And I’m looking forward to the adventure.
p.s. Bonus points if you made it this far.
p.p.s. More bonus points if you got the Strangelove reference in title.