There is a huge amount of emotion currently surging around software evaluation subscription programs for IT like TechNet and VMTN. IT pros are self-organizing to send a message to Microsoft to not cancel the $349 TechNet Subscription and to VMware to bring back VMTN Subscription, cancelled in 2007 but still reported to have a “very high” chance of returning. The enterprise market is dominated by multi-million dollar Enterprise Licensing Agreements and Software Assurance programs; so why do people care so much about these individual non-production offerings?
An IT professional and home lab, 2013
We’re now experiencing The Consumerization of IT Evals. Consumerization is often discussed these days, but we’re usually talking about BYOD, SaaS, shadow IT, and software that looks nice and is actually easy to use. Even if IT is resisting consumerization for their internal customers, it’s a hard attitude to shake when it comes to meeting your own needs.
Traditionally, IT projects have been expensive, long, and complicated, and that included the evaluation stage. Evaluations included things like RFPs, hardware procurement, purpose-built labs at work, PoCs with consulting contracts from the vendor, and formal projects with a definitive decision at the end. On-boarding and training came with classrooms, instructors, and big price tags.
Now, IT pros want anytime, anywhere access to their enterprise software evals, just like they get with their consumer services. This is both a pre-sales and a post-sales need. They need access when studying for certifications to go along with their $49 a month video training subscription. They need access when updating an ops runbook for work, when they are considering upgrading to the next version, when they are preparing notes for a brownbag with their peers or even when they just are getting ready with an answer for when their boss asks, “What’s next?” Consumerization in this case means not only an expectation of quality and ease-of-use, but an agile approach as they jump in on a spare Friday afternoon or a casual evening on the couch.
Industry vendors ignore this at their own risk. The same trends in consumerization, open source and cloud make product evaluations ever easier to provide. SaaS vendors can offer easy-to-consume trials. Even hardware vendors can offer software simulators. But for installable software, sixty- or even 180-day evaluation licenses no longer fit with these expectations of informal evaluations. While online labs like the VMware Hands on Labs Online and similar offerings from Microsoft can pick up some of the slack, they can’t take the place of all evaluations in the archeological context of a local environment.
Most vendors don’t have the breadth of a Microsoft or a VMware, and a full product evaluation subscription like TechNet or VMTN won’t make sense for everybody. But IT pros now have expectations of easy and cheap access to virtually everything, and even not having a formal lab at work is no barrier; home labs can be sourced for pennies on the dollar from eBay or just run in a virtual machine on a laptop. Are IT vendors looking at the realities of today and how their customers want to learn about their offerings?
What does a set of two-thousand-year-old moral questions have to do with how your IT department should operate? Hillel the Elder, one of the most important leaders in Jewish history, posed what has become known as his Three Questions about how to live your life.
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am only for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?
The conventional interpretation of these questions is more or less: Look out for yourself, stick up for yourself, or no one else will; but if you are only concerned for your own selfish interests, you are unworthy; and now is the time to act.
As with all inquiries into the meaning of life, the questions are short but the discussion they spark is long, and the specific applications where they apply are broad. Today, as I was thinking about Hillel’s Three Questions, I was struck by how they can apply to your IT department.
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
Hillel’s first question is about respecting yourself and having a responsibility to take care of yourself. In the context of IT, Hillel’s first question asks, Does your IT department know what its mission is and does it believe in that mission? The IT department’s job is hard and diverse; it’s often a service role where nobody thinks of you until something goes wrong, and then everybody thinks they’re your boss. The IT department spends its time keeping legacy systems alive with baling wire and shell scripts; protecting your company from mistakes and intruders; managing vendors; and, when they have a spare moment, maybe bringing a bit of innovation to the table to help the business. Is that really the mission of your IT department? If your IT department doesn’t know what it’s mission is, is there any wonder why your users just want you to fix the printer and then go away?
Hillel’s first question challenges us to know ourselves and be responsible for ourselves. If your IT department, from the CIO down to the first line help desk technician, doesn’t know how how they add value to the business and can’t demonstrate it, how would the rest of the business know?
And when I am for only for myself, what am ‘I’?
Hillel’s second question brings up our relationship with others. All parts of a company serve the greater interests of the business. From IT’s origins as the priesthood of the mainframe to the Bastard Operator from Hell, IT has had a long history of difficult relationships with their internal users — their internal customers. If your IT department isn’t serving its internal customers, what purpose is it serving?
IT’s relationship with its customers is being redefined: consumerization, BYOD, SaaS and cloud-enabled “shadow IT” are the biggest game-changers since people started sneaking PCs in the back door. Users now have choice. IT policy can stop an employee from putting confidential information in a personal Dropbox account; it can’t stop a VP from building their next project out in the cloud using external resources and bypassing IT altogether. It’s been suggested that the IT department needs to invest in its own marketing function to help communicate what its offerings are. What would it be like if the rest of your company knew about and in fact was eagerly awaiting the next release of your strategic project? If your IT department doesn’t communicate and doesn’t have the trust of the other employees of your company, can it be trusted to innovate?
And if not now, when?
Good intentions are not enough. Hillel’s third question compels us to act. Each interaction of IT staff with people in other parts of the organization will affect how they view the IT department and how they will work with it. How can your individual actions today affect the future of your IT department and of your business?
We can also take this bias toward action to our departmental processes. Traditional IT projects, with their focus on process governance and risk mitigation, move slowly. If your IT department can’t seem to get anything done, how can it transform itself so that things do get done? New agile approaches to IT work like DevOps and the service-orientation of the Cloud are radically altering how IT views itself, its relationship to other departments, and how its projects are carried out. These new approaches are very experiential in nature — the only real way to internalize them and discover how they might work within your organization is to start trying them out on small projects.
And that’s how these two-thousand-year-old questions are worth asking about the operation of your IT department. If your IT department doesn’t know what its purpose is, why will anyone else respect it? If it doesn’t have the support the rest of the organization, what kind of corporate department is it anyway? And if it’s going to get strategic things done, then why not start today?
The rabid squirrel quote is preceded by handwriting I recognize — a note from then-station manager Rick Wocjik, who has been running the amazing Dusty Groove Americasince 1996. Truly a labor of love, part of Dusty Groove’s initial stock was gathered on an epic road trip across the American South, buying old soul and funk records from the back rooms of little-town general stores and even restaurants, if I remember the story correctly. From personal experience I encourage you not to make friends with vinyl aficionados if they are ever going to ask you to help them move. Those suckers are heavy.
I have no idea what WHPK looks like today, but back in the day the half-broken studio was embedded in a dark attic-like room filled with tall metal bookcases containing thousands of LPs, all filed alphabetically by artist. By the late 80’s, the collection had outgrown the space and as more records were crammed in the bookcases, the covers became increasingly tattered and interchangeably worn white. Since record covers aren’t known for their lexical legibility in the first place, the strip of masking tape on top gave you the band name under which you were supposed to file the record after you were done with it. Occasionally for new indie bands the sleeves were so cryptic we couldn’t distinguish the name of the band from the name of the album and I suspect some of those were misfiled for years until the Internet could settle factual matters like that.
DJs would invariably not refile all their records after their shows, so the narrow aisles were always filled with stacks of records leaning up against the shelves. That made the mad 10 minutes you had to pull records before your show was going to start that much more of an adventure, because invariably the Big Black album you were going to play during your Steve Albini set was sitting in a pile somewhere.
During your show you’d race furiously into the library to find that one track that shared a producer with the track that was playing on the air now but just about to end and would make a great segue, and then next to it you’d see something you’d never heard of but it had great comments written on it and you’d pull it too, and sometimes it was Arvo Pärt and sometimes it was the Durutti Column. It was a great record library and was responsible for my entire musical education, since my parents had about 3 records stored in the cabinet in our Hi-Fi: one polka band, one gospel choir, and one soundtrack to the Jim and Tammy Show, a Christian children’s show starring Jim and Tammy Bakker before their rise and fall with the PTL Club alongside their puppet friends.
The white stickers were put on there for DJs to share their comments on the music. Most of the time they were about the quality and subtlety you’d expect from a 19-year-old college radio DJ. However, the cognoscenti running the station often used them to try to educate the younger DJs about music like Frank Zappa and John Cage and Can, because otherwise they’d just play Black Flag again. Each week they’d put out some featured albums that they wanted us to try, although there were no required playlists — we weren’t some corporate sellouts like those Northwestern poseurs!
One week, an Emmylou Harris album turned up in the recommend albums with a glowing review of her musical genius. A few weeks later the music director was laughing in the office about what a great joke he’d pulled on all the DJs by recommending an obviously shitty record and look they’d all played it and given it great reviews like sheep. Twenty-five years later I still remember this and get angry because, fuck, it was Emmylou Harrisand she is a goddamn genius and while music like Squirrel Bait or Soul Asylum didn’t stay with me over the years, anybody that can listen to something like the harmonies in Sweet Old World and not choke up is somebody I don’t want to be friends with.