CIO Folder: Framed by the mainframe

Leslie Faughnan

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24 July 2015 | 0

ICT is a sector and body of knowledge that is really very young by the standards of almost all other ‘disciplines’, if indeed it can really be regarded in that way. So it is probably inevitable that we still look with hindsight at major technology developments as our benchmarks rather than academic theory or insight. In fact the first academic courses in computer science were offered in 1946 at Columbia, with Harvard (first ever computer lab) instituting the first degree programme in 1947 followed by Cambridge University in 1953. Incidentally, proud members of various professional bodies should look back in homage to the pioneers, the first 60 founding members of The Eastern Association for Computing Machinery in 1947.

So ICT is in its sprightly seventies and we youngsters inevitably think of its little eras in terms like The Mainframe, Personal Computing, Mobile Computing and perhaps The Cloud. Note that we are thoroughly populist, looking at the technology and how we perceive it. Academics and future historians are much more likely to see major transitions like analogue to digital or in physical terms copper to fibre optics or virtualisation. The World Wide Web? Hugely significant, but more in sociological and economic terms, supported by progressive applied technology.

“Now that we have the cloud, it is in concept and in most cultural respects, just a virtual mainframe. The fact that the devices we use have some local capabilities when untethered is terrific but beside the point”

In normal daily life and use, ICT is firmly rooted in workloads, what we actually do with it — and would wish to do if we could. Punters do not readily think of Facebook on their iPhones as ‘workload’ but in truth it is, if primarily up in the cloud. Personal computing, the PC, first brought independent local processing to the device, followed logically in due course by the portable version. In essence, the only differences were the power source and weight and a form factor small enough to be practical. Back in those days, we dearly loved our ‘luggables’, which had less computing power than a Raspberry Pi.

These reflections are of course prompted in part by our 30th anniversary, but also by the fact that the two major technology eras were/are the mainframe and personal computing. Everything else is about telecomms and the device. Cherchez le workload, one might say. The mainframe did all of the computing and data storage and we accessed and controlled through terminals.

Now that we have the cloud, it is in concept and in most cultural respects ,just a virtual mainframe. The fact that the devices we use have some local capabilities when untethered is terrific but beside the point. The computing and the data storage is all in the clouds and we are using mobile terminals. Even the smartest of handheld yokes is not good for very much on its own. You can view your selfies on its little screen, OK, and perhaps process a few words. Disconnected, that’s about it.

What’s this got to do with the CIO? Well, everything. There has been lots of fuss about BYOD — and there are still perfectly valid concerns about mobile security — but the focus should remain on where and how the work is data and the data stored. That is invariably on big servers (or the mainframes that are still with us in the Z generation) on your own premises or in a data centre (DC). Whether the DC is just a shared location for your kit or the base for a cloud service is more a question of the current business model your organisation has chosen.

All of this current emphasis on users and ease of use in applications is fine, in its way. Actually it’s essential, certainly in terms of CIO job preservation. But almost all of that ease is delivered by very hard work and constant technological advances at the back end. There was a time when ‘the back end’ was in the back office.

That’s not really true any longer and it’s as significant a sea-change in its way as the more visible consumerisation of business ICT. In fact it is turning out to be another paradigm shift — back to a 21st century version of the mainframe era. In those days, The Computer was literally tended by white coated specialists in an air-conditioned environment (a rare phenomenon in 1960s and 1970s Ireland) behind secure doors. There were very few computer jobs, most of the candidates began with a degree in computer science and no one else understood what they did.

That’s where today’s CIO comes in, as far as this column is concerned. More and more essential, mission-critical ICT skills are specialist, even esoteric. The only relevant employers are the cloud service providers, the giant ICT multinationals, government and third level or research institutions, consultancies and managed services and of course the military — in other countries. That’s a wide range of employment opportunities, but for a minority of what we currently call ICT professionals. Inside the enterprise, those key deep skills have minimal relevance in day-to-day operations and are probably out of employment reach anyway because the possible jobs are limited in terms of professional development.

So tomorrow’s CIOs in the vast majority of enterprises will have to work in an ICT world where the top level of specialist skills will not be represented on their teams. In some respects this is a continuation of the recent trends where most in-house ICT staff are expert only at the operations level in the technologies the organisation has chosen. With people skills, to mind the users.

There is an inexorable drift towards centralisation of the highest level skills together with the core skills of today’s dominant technologies — big data and analytics, cloud services, security systems, networking systems and many others. Constantly evolving technologies will be similarly subject to concentration in fewer specialist organisations, essentials like authentication and identity management, compliance of multiple kinds, encryption, data science and so on.

It is beginning to look like market tiering of ICT skills and experience. At the top will be the obvious multinational giants, cloud and general ICT, and government plus research and third level. Next will be a rapidly growing Tier 2 of service providers, both managed and ad hoc, like consultancy, projects, configuration and so on. Something like a Tier 3 will be where in-house ICT departments and small local resellers and services will live.

That may sound a bit severe, even gloomy. But why should any organisation employ someone on the payroll when a 24×7 service is available, probably cheaper and certainly better skilled in almost all instances? A major part of the CIO’s job already is choosing where to source essential skills. Recruitment is part of that, naturally. But more and more a third party service will be the optimum option.

Of course that all depends on the size and type of organisation and the composition of the current ICT department. The new statutory role of the Data Protection Officer, for example, cannot be outsourced — although that need not be an ICT job. But the general trend is clear and CIOs are recognising it.

In one sense it reinforces the vision of tomorrow’s CIO and ICT department as a broker of services. It certainly emphasises that the CIO role is for a generalist, whatever the career path that led to the appointment. But it has to be acknowledged that it all poses something of a risk to that hard-worn presence of ICT in the C-suite. If in a few years or a decade’s time it is clear to the general business world that the real ICT experts are all specialists in specialist companies then the authority of the CIO, at least from that technology pedigree, will inevitably be  weakened.

We have been debating the role of the CIO for some years and it has certainly evolved and also varied. Perhaps now is the time when it needs really serious examination as a role, discipline, profession or whatever it becomes. One clear path that staff managers are best at but third parties are bound up with is Change Management. What do you think, dear reader? Some of us reckon it beats the hell out of that Chief Digital Officer nonsense.

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