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Agile: In Mobile Era, Not Just for Developers Anymore

The quick innovation and shortened lifecycles of mobile devices and apps demand that IT departments be more agile than ever before.

I've never worked in IT, but I imagine that the relationship between system administrators and their programming counterparts is often tense, with each camp jockeying for resources and alpha-dog status.

So I hope I'm not opening a can of worms by suggesting that IT could learn something from their developer pals.

In the past decade, many developers have embraced the Agile style of development. Done right, teams of Agile (also known as Scrum, Extreme, Lean, and a myriad of other names) developers work together better, write simpler, better code, and release new versions faster than through traditional styles of development such as Waterfall.

Agile's 'Release Early, Release Often' mantra harmonizes perfectly with Web 2.0 and mobile apps, though it can also accelerate and ease development of large applications, too.

Agile's other tenets - flexibility, bottom-up collaboration, people over process - can also help IT managers wrestling with how to manage mobility. Why? And, how? Let me explain.

1) Hardware lifecycles are shorter. Old-school IT departments are used to decade-old Unix servers or laptops that you hold onto for 4-5 years. They'll be shocked to find that with smartphones and tablets, a 2-year lifecycle is typical, and 3 years probably the utter maximum.

That's not because mobile devices necessarily break faster. Devices that are equipped with consumer-grade protective cases can last just as long as ruggedized ones if employees are motivated.

Rather, innovation is faster. It took several years for PCs to go from single-core to quad-core. But just within this year, we went from a single-core iPad to the quad-core Asus EEE Pad Transformer Prime.

2) Platforms rise, fall and change more quickly, too. As Sybase CTO Irfan Khan pointed out recently, Android wasn't even around 4 years ago. Now it's tops in smartphones. Meanwhile, it took almost a decade before Windows XP was finally, recently displaced by something else.

Or take this comment by a speaker at the IDC MobileNext Forum. His organization, a large car manufacturer, started planning a Bring Your Own Device policy back in the middle of 2007. The platforms they figured they would need to support included Windows Mobile, Symbian and Palm. By the middle of 2009 when they actually launched the BYOD program, those 3 platforms had been whittled down to just one: the iPhone.

The speaker's comments drew muffled laughter from the audience. They weren't laughing AT the speaker, though. They were laughing at themselves, perhaps remembering once-beloved WinMo and Treo devices that they hadn't thought of in what seems like forever, despite it being just several years.

Now, it's possible that the market will eventually shake out and settle onto a few platforms. And that improved Mobile Device Management software will make the process of updating and patching OSes much more seamless and easy than it is today. But until that day comes, IT managers need to be able to react to changing hardware and platforms, and be able to deploy them more quickly.

So out would be companies like Federal Express, which took a year last time to roll out a ruggedized mobile device. Granted, that was to deploy and train 100,000 not-very-technical workers worldwide. And that that ruggedized device is so expensive that FedEx hopes to keep it around for six years.

An example more in-line with contemporary trends would be my parent company, SAP, which rolled out 3,000 iPads to its salespeople in just 6 weeks using Sybase Afaria MDM software.

3) Workers have much more say today. The Consumerization of IT trend brought BYOD to enterprises. BYOD is only the most visible example of how the balance of power has shifted away from IT departments. Command-and-control is out; partnerships with the business side are in.

That's analogous to Agile's emphasis on bottom-up, organic collaboration and privileging people and relationships over rules and processes.

A nice example of this attitude would be Rick Peltz, CIO at real-estate brokerage, Marcus & Millichap.

"The real estate brokers are my clients. I like to hang out with the guys in the industry. And I will put my job on the line, if I believe in something," he told the audience at IDC's mobileNext.

As a result of listening to the brokers, Peltz went ahead and asked AT&T to build an iOS and Android mobile app for them. The app hosts profiles of Marcus' 1,200 agents, and enables property buyers/customers viewing those profiles or property listings to immediately text, e-mail or call one of Marcus' agents.

And, mind you, Peltz went ahead and had this built without any explicit request from business-side executives, and purely out of his own budget.

Peltz is so focused on his end-users - the agents - that he is even being Bcc:ed on every e-mail inquiry sent to the brokers, just so that he can better understand their needs.

Or take the recently-published Mobility Manifesto (from Sybase), and its 'Universal Declaration of Workers' Mobile Rights.'

Both of these examples parallel Agile Programming's emphasis on bottom-up, organic collaboration over formal, inflexible, top-down planning. And all of these can serve as useful role models for progressive IT departments wondering how best to structure themselves in the post-PC era.


A quick plug: I'll be covering the Mobility portion of the next Tuesday's SAP Influencer Summit. Basically, my parent company will trot out top executives to speak to top market analysts about next year's strategy and roadmap. If you're interested in what we're doing in enterprise mobile apps, development and management, follow me on Twitter at @ericylai on Dec. 13 starting 6 am PST or watch the hashtag #SAPsummit.