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Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: How To Make IT More Agile

Fast and furious IT: How to move quickly but not break everything

CEOs want IT to move faster without breaking (too many) things. Getting that balance right is tricky but essential.

Image: iStock

Technology analyst Bobby Cameron fielded an unusual problem from a client recently: how to bring the head of IT back down to earth when helping to sketch out a new project.

Cameron explains: "I had a customer experience guy call me up and say: 'Tell me how to talk to my CIO so he knows I'm not trying to build the next Battlestar Galactica. I need to throw some stuff on the wall, see what sticks and go with that, or throw something else on the wall. The CIO brings in people he wants to run a project that's going to be bullet-proof, but I don't even know what I want'."

This anecdote illustrates one of the biggest problems with enterprise IT today: how to strike a balance between the desire to move as quickly as possible on projects and protecting critical systems and data.

The problem for the CIO is that by failing to change their approach they run the risk of being typecast as over-cautious, slow-moving and too willing to over-engineer. This in turn is provoking business execs to sidestep the lumbering IT department in favour of more nimble outside contractors.

This demand for agility and flexibility is just one of the competing pressures on the CIO, and conflicts with business's demand that IT be reliable, secure and run as efficiently as possible. The challenge for the CIO is therefore to create an organization that can deliver the reliability and security that's needed for core systems plus the speed that's required for innovation.

Cost, and measuring how their budget is spent, is one of the key factors that prevent CIOs from responding rapidly to demands for innovation. It's well documented that somewhere between 75 percent and 90 percent of the IT budget is going to be spent on maintaining and supporting existing systems -- and even some of that remaining precious ten percent is likely to end up being spent on augmenting existing systems rather than entirely new projects.

"Although they would love to do all the new stuff," says Marianne Kolding, VP of European services research at analyst firm IDC, "CIOs find themselves dragging along this legacy technology which eats the majority of their budget."

Tech chiefs are also looking at how they can rethink their existing infrastructure both to make it more flexible, but also to free up cash. In many cases this means looking at cloud-based services, says Kolding.

"If you haven't started looking at transforming your back end into a cloud-based environment, that's where you need to start -- you need to get your skates on. If you've done that, tackle the application modernization part of it, moving the proper workloads to the right type of environment," she says.

This can also help IT departments to set aside sandbox areas where new ideas can be tested out quicker. "You can be a little bit more innovative and it doesn't cost you as much if it's not right, so you can fail faster," says Kolding.

Expectations around cost and budgeting are the biggest hurdles to IT departments doing things differently because they are usually obliged to tie any costs to a clear business case. This means the projects that get a green light will be the ones with well-understood returns and clear milestones, which in turn reduces the appetite for risk.

Galactica or Titanic?

This is fine when you're a CIO running a giant infrastructure project, but less good if you're a product manager trying to get some help from IT to throw together a quick prototype for a new service. This is where the Battlestar Galactica problem mentioned earlier rears its head: the CIO wants to run a project that will deliver a bullet-proof service to satisfy the bean-counters, but the product manager needs fundamentally different approach. In this scenario, if IT insists on trying to build the Galactica, it will probably end up building the Titanic instead.

"What he wants is a development team running agile methodology to come in and throw stuff together, and he wants it funded based on what he's trying to achieve -- and nothing to do with a specific solution," says Forrester's Cameron.

Another factor that can cause problems is that even though the CIO may be on-board with moving fast, he or she may be held back not just by old-fashioned hardware, but also by old-fashioned thinking from the IT department.

"Many of them need to look at how they can reorganize themselves and change the culture in the IT department," says Kolding. Too many IT departments are in the habit of delivering projects in a certain predictable way, she argues -- scoping out the requirements followed by a proof of concept, then a pilot and then six months down the line some more testing and then maybe it will be up and running in a year's time, if you're lucky.

According to IDC's research, 55 percent of companies it surveyed had done a major IT re-organisation in the past 12 months, so there's clearly a realization that change is needed."That's the mindset they have been used to, having that luxury of time. But in the new world you can't do that: you have to be able to do things more quickly, and the business is expecting you to be faster," says Kolding.

Forrester's research highlights the example of one CIO at a manufacturer who dedicated a team of developers to the marketing department, but didn't change any of the management practices. Because the developers stuck with the old ways of doing things, marketing continued to turn to outside agencies for the answers to their problems, rather than engaging with the CIO.

For Cameron, the key is that CIOs need to manage outcomes not IT assets. The problem is that IT departments haven't been encouraged to work this way. Most IT shops are really good at stuff they can model and turn into bulletproof systems, he says. But you can't model the complex stuff: "Complicated is like building a bridge complex, or trying to manage traffic in a city," he says.

IT departments need to consider adopting new techniques like Agile development or DevOps, or variations thereon.

And there will be internal resistance, warns Cameron. One financial services company with hundreds of developers struggled to get them to use Agile and fast-cycle methods because the developers are afraid: "They've been very successful at a waterfall methodology and now they've got to be visible every day -- stand up and get tested. It's a huge emotional transformation, and the same is true of the CIO," he says.

The danger for the CIO is that if the teams and technology they control cannot rise to the challenge, then frustrated business managers will go elsewhere. According to Forrester around seven percent of total technology spending this year will be outside the control of the IT department.

"This is a direct result of IT not being willing to adopt the same kinds of methodologies those third parties have, and to deliver in the same way," warns Cameron.

Kolding makes a similar prediction: "You are going to see the businesses get more and more tired that they can't get the IT department to work quick enough, and they will do something about it by themselves."

Deja vu?

And it's been done once before: back in the dotcom ecommerce boom many companies thought they could get their web operations up and running much faster by using outside agencies because their in-house teams didn't have the skills. This may have got them moving fast, but it also left them with a big integration headache to solve later as these standalone web entities had to be reconnected to the corporate infrastructure.

Some companies are turning to outside consultants to up the pace when it comes to new projects, while others are appointing chief digital officers to push through reform. "The people leading the transitions have interesting profiles. They have a really good insight into both business and IT, so they are not just pure technologists but understand what the business they work for is actually doing," said Koning.

But it's not just the CIO that needs to change the way they work, she says. CIOs need to work better with their executive peers to help them understand how to move faster too. "A lot of what is holding it back is not that you are dragging the legacy with you: it's cultural change that needs to happen in the IT department, but also in the business -- how you really interact with IT," says Kolding.

While much change is needed to allow IT to respond faster -- such as embracing the cloud, rethinking budgeting and new adopting new development techniques -- in reality it's a path many CIOs have been treading for years.

Cameron argues that CIOs are already used to managing projects at different speeds: big infrastructure projects have a different pace to minor enhancements, and these have a different rhythm to standard maintenance. "What they haven't bothered to do is add the really fast cycle stuff. They are already managing multiple speeds."

And if the CIO is already learning how to move faster, then how long before the rest of the business appreciates the benefits of (sometimes) taking a more measured approach. After all, nobody wants to repeat the pain of re-integrating systems that followed the dotcom boom.

Even Mark Zuckerberg has modified Facebook's developer slogan from ' Move Fast And Break Things' to 'Move Fast With Stable Infra[structure]' -- a slogan which many CIOs, and CEOs, could consider borrowing.