The Virtuous CIO  

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June 18, 2010 — Following Trends

We have just spent a few weeks reviewing the background to technology trends. With benefit of hindsight it's easy to spot the trends. But, history does no one any good if we're not willing to take the lessons learned and apply them to what, I guess, we could call current events in the technology world.

Not only is a good understanding of the nature of technology trends necessary for making decisions, but a thorough knowledge of the specifics of those trends is imperative. This requires some effort in various areas

A. Studying history – Technology may change, but people do not. The history of business technology is populated with colorful characters and interesting events. It has a direct impact on the behavior of current colorful figures and companies.

For example, IBM has twice jousted with the US Department of Justice over the past sixty years. Both cases eventually came to a very acceptable conclusion for the company; however we see a company that has abridged its competitive instincts in areas where it may be perceived to have a dominating market position. At one time IBM was the dominate personal computer manufacturer in the world. We could speculate that this is one of the reasons IBM failed to push their OS/2 to operating system to commanding heights. Bundling its hardware with its software potentially put competitors at a disadvantage. I've often wondered about IBM's singular ineptness in marketing OS/2. Fear of the government perhaps impacted its behavior.

Bill Gates’ early experience with the rampant piracy of his first software product had an enormous impact on Microsoft's corporate culture. To this day Microsoft is almost irrational on this topic. There is obviously nothing wrong with protecting your intellectual property, but the well known end-user problems when dealing with the Microsoft Genuine Advantage software highlights part of the cultural ethos at the company.

A good familiarity with technological history helps the IT professional understand why many things are the way they are. Even if we don't agree with the way people do things, it becomes much easier to deal with them because we know their motivations.

As we saw, it is important to understand the backgrounds we labor in today. It is just as important to follow the current trends and understand what is going on right now. You simply have to know what is going on.

B. Reviewing trade journals – The rise of the World Wide Web has had a large impact on the publishing industry. The day of the printed technology industry journal is almost over. At one time I received free subscriptions to over thirty-five trade journals, and tried very hard to keep up with about half of them.

As far as I know, one hundred percent of these trade journals now have a web presence. In fact, many are abandoning their print format because of cost and/or convenience. This is generally an improvement because it's much easier to scan a succession of websites than it is to manage a stack of aging magazines on your bookshelf. The downside is the tendency to miss things down on the detail of the website, which you would pick up in the printed edition.

The track in staying up with trade journals is first of all to pick a general site, such as Computerworld, or InformationWeek. These sites give a good overview of the entire industry and will often point to things that you are not otherwise aware of. Then get familiar with journals which cover your area of specialization within IT. Try to select sites that give a multiplicity of viewpoints since no one is one hundred percent correct.

Many of the authors on these sites are approachable, and provide contact information. Don't be afraid to drop them a brief note from time to time with a specific question you have on something they are covering. It's also a good idea to compliment them on their writing or perhaps one of their positions, or even their insight. Everyone enjoys praise.

Up and coming IT professionals should spend at least an hour each day reading the trade rags. If the company, or the boss do not feel it appropriate for you to spend this time in reading, then without question you should do it on your own time. One of the most annoying things to me is hiring IT professionals and finding out they know almost nothing of the industry where they are working.

Previously we have covered key ways to learn about technology trends and follow them. Today let's wrap up the discussion so we can move on to other things. There were several other areas where the IT professional can learn about the industry in a very personal way.

C. Peer conversations – make the time to research and find out about local trade groups. Most medium-sized and larger cities have a least a couple of groups of IT professionals which meet regularly. You will be surprised to discover that most IT professionals are abysmally ignorant of the industry. Your extensive knowledge of the industry will make them view you as an oracle, which is no bad thing. Occasionally, during the course of conversation, you will pick up interesting tidbits about one aspect of the industry or another. This is what makes these meetings worthwhile, for your colleagues will sometimes see things that you do not.

D. Conventions and conferences – we are all bombarded with advertising for various kinds of conferences and conventions. Sometimes you will discover one that is extremely valuable. Many are not.

When you have investigated and found one that holds value for you, make plans to attend, and then prepare for it. Do a little investigation into the agenda and speakers. Plan your attendance at each day’s sessions so that you can achieve maximum value from the conference.

Keep a notebook, or a document file on your laptop, and as you travel through the conference make note of all the things you have discovered, which you are not doing that you ought to be doing.

Take the time, within a week of the conference, to have a postmortem on your trip. Document the things of value you have learned. Create a list of goals based upon your takeaways from the conference. Prepare a report for your manager outlining the results of your trip and how you benefited.

E. Corporate training – most enterprise software vendors regularly hold training classes on their products. Because you probably have already spent a lot of money on the products offered by these vendors, training classes are usually very reasonable.

While training classes are supposed to be focused on current technologies and implementations, they often give insight into the vendor’s plans. So, pay careful attention to what the trainer says. Ask pointed questions about new product plans. Sometimes you may be required to sign a nondisclosure agreement, but then be offered a look at the Crown Jewels.

F. Vendor D & P (Dog and Pony shows) – While vendor presentations individually tend to be useless, as a group they can be valuable in gauging industry directions. There is a certain degree of judgment required to balance the time required for these presentations against other demands on your time. We all get dozens of e-mails, phone calls, brochures, and other bits of detritus every week to sort through. Sometimes we simply have to make the time for these demonstrations, not because we're particularly interested in the product, but rather because it will give us insight into the direction of the industry.

Learning to identify trends, and then follow them for the purpose of making business decisions is not something learned overnight. I have been an IT professional and studied the industry for thirty years and I still get surprised, almost on a weekly basis. But, there is no choice. The industry moves so rapidly that our knowledge becomes obsolete unless we are constantly refreshing it through every means available to us.