For those of us working in IT infrastructure, it is easy to lose sight of why we have a job. Any kind of infrastructure is doing its job best when it is invisible. Nobody comments that the light turned on when we flick the switch. Buses that turn up on time and are clean and comfortable are only noteworthy because it happens so seldom. We generally only notice infrastructure when it doesn’t do its job. IT infrastructure is the same. The business and its customers should not notice that we do our job well. The users of the systems we maintain will not notice or care when those systems work. What customers and business users do care about and notice is their data. Whether it is a salesperson’s CRM or a customer’s order, it is the data that counts. Our infrastructure and applications exist purely to deliver this data.
When I explain my work to non-IT people, I usually say that I do the plumbing part of computers. Usually, non-IT people understand Facebook, their banking application, and Tinder. These are the equivalent of the shower or a glass of water, or of your favorite adult beverage. Without plumbing, you don’t get the thing that you want, but you never want to think about the plumbing. You cannot make an adult beverage without plumbing, nor can you access data without some infrastructure. If the plumbing and the infrastructure are done right, they are invisible. Bad infrastructure can prevent a business from succeeding. But the best infrastructure doesn’t guarantee business success.
After a few years in IT, I have started to see more of the its cycles. I started in IT about the time that Microsoft was taking over from Novell as the platform for PC networks. The infrastructure teams that could build Windows domains were the heroes. Microsoft’s TechEd conference was all about ways to build larger and better Windows infrastructure. A couple of years later, Microsoft seemed to stop caring about the infrastructure so much. TechEd was full of presentations about developing applications and commentary on how SQL Server was the best database. Most people have seen the video of Steve Balmer chanting “Developers, Developers, Developers.” Ten years later, the virtualization wave made infrastructure a rock star again. The cycles are interesting; they tend to reflect where things are changing in IT. They don’t always reflect what parts of IT are important to businesses, however.
The persistent reality is that business cares far more about the Information part of IT than the Technology part. The technology has enabled more efficient delivery of the information, but it is still the information that counts. For example, think about advertising. Advertising for your local store used to be done on printed paper. The paper was indiscriminately delivered to every house in the neighborhood. Now, Google will display a specific ad selected for you when you are looking at a website. Target will send you a paper advert with information tailored to your personal situation, even if your are not aware of that situation. The technology is an enabler, but it isn’t the objective. Advertisers would be even happier if there were a way to telepathically plant product information in your brain.
That’s all very well, but what does it mean for you? I think there are a few things that we in the infrastructure teams should keep in mind as we get caught up in making the best infrastructure possible.
- Protect the data. The business’s data is the most important thing you will handle in your working day. Treat that data like it is the source of your next paycheck, because it is.
- Understand the data. We in IT are often looking after data that we do not understand. A system will have a name, and we may be vaguely aware of how the data is used. If you can, seek out the business unit that uses the data. Find out how the data is used to make the business work. The more you understand about the value of the systems and data you manage, the better decisions you can make.
- Embrace the seasons. Accept that a lack of attention on your silo doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Sooner or later, you will be the rock star. In the meantime, remember points one and two above.
Infrastructure should simply do what is needed to enable its workload. The infrastructure is not the end game. As always, content is king, and data is what really matters.