j.ello on IT Part 2: IT’s About Automation, Stupid.


What’s IT?  For a complete, clear and detailed explanation, we turn to Wikipedia.  Well, ok, so I jest… it’s woefully vague, probably inaccurate, though not entirely indefensible.  The current entry just doesn’t annoy anyone enough to bother changing it – it’s a “democratic truth”.  Fact is, IT used to mean something, but misuse, time and evolution have diluted the definition such that it means everything and nothing - like a common 4-letter expletive beginning with “F”… which ironically, is the word that most commonly precedes a call to an IT professional.  I’ll give you my definition.  “IT is the space that exists between you and digital information.”  Nuff said.  When people ask what I do, I generally just say “computer sh*#”.  It’s universally communicative.

In most organizations, “IT” simply means “The Help Desk” or the “Techies”… or paraphrasing a colleague of mine, “they who tend the garden”.  “IS”, on the other hand, refers to those who program applications that manage data.  Also inaccurate, but there is usually such a big difference between the goals of these two groups, that they naturally divide along that line.  The hardest part about speaking intelligently on IT issues is the lack of a concrete definition…. and anyone in the biz can tell ya, that tidbit alone causes a great deal of consternation.

The point is, if we can’t define the word which defines the job, how do we know that we’re doing the job?  THAT, above all, is why so few organizations have a handle on IT.

“Automation is the most important aspect of computing, and always has been.”

So what is IT *supposed* to do?  To answer that, you need to know what a computer does.  If you turn on the lights and poke a Computer Science grad with a stick, they’ll tell you, “a computer does math”.  But it’s not the fact that a computer does math that has ever made it useful.  It’s the fact that a computer AUTOMATES math that’s important.  It’s not particularly interesting to add 1 and 1… unless you can do it a hundred billion times a second and then manipulate that activity to play the latest home video of someone doing the dance from Napoleon Dynamite.  Automation is the most important aspect of computing, and always has been.  Computing IS automation.

Everything, and I mean everything, one does with a computer is an exercise in automation… no matter how hidden the automation may seem.  Even the act of typing is, at its simplest, push-button automated writing.  One finger stroke is converted to what would otherwise take a hand-gesture to accomplish with a pen.  Copy and Paste functions can automate with two strokes what might take a thousand to retype.  Print a thousand copies… you get the idea.  Every function of every program ever written is simply an automated version of something that is already accomplishable, but not as efficiently.  To expand that further, every popular technology is an automated  ENIAC-1 failed - no  MP3 support!mechanism for something that could be done a less efficient way… it’s the reason for moving to the latest version of your office suite.  From BBS’s to MySpace.  From e-mail notifications to RSS feeds to feed aggregation tools like Digg.com.  Even moving from cash to checks to debit cards to PayPal to the natural eventuality of sub-dermal chips that can withdraw from your account for making a deposit in a city bathroom.  Digital technologies do not truly progress until the available capabilities are automated in a desirable fashion. 

The value of all digital technology comes from the automation of processes.  We can therefore make the leap and say that an IT organization is at its most valuable when it enables the automation of processes.

And then a lone voice from the peanut gallery shouts, “Ya, programmers are more important than techies!”  Well… no…  In fact, it’s the natural split between the technical and programming sides of the typical IT organization – or even the absence of one or the other – that that underscores how poorly the purpose of computing is understood… and by the same token, why we struggle to understand the value of IT as a whole.   

Read the next article, where I blame the boss.

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