There's an unseen revolution happening in how organizations buy, run and maintain application software. A new breed of IT specialists is growing whose role is to manage applications for the business. This is not shadow IT — they typically still report into the IT function. But they're embedded in the business functions, and tasked with helping them adapt technology to achieve their goals.
Called business systems professionals, they're mostly found in fast-growing digital startups, but their numbers are also growing in more established organizations that want to operate in a more connected and digital way. All share the same challenge. The business wants to be more agile and responsive, while the tools available proliferate and are constantly evolving.
The focus on business outcomes is one of the big differences with traditional IT. Business systems people do keep the lights on and manage costs, but that's not their main goal. Speaking at a recent meetup, Brian Flood, Head of Business Systems at cloud edge provider Fastly, explained how his team define their role:
We want to make sure that everyone's operating at peak performance within our organization. Our vision is everybody being super successful, productive, and happy at work because it's easy to do their jobs. We do that by providing the capabilities and information needed for Fastly teams to execute the business in the most efficient and effective way possible.
Flood has three teams in his organization. One looks after go-to-market systems including marketing, sales and customer support, another looks after HR and finance and the other has business intelligence and data warehousing. That's a fairly typical split, but these teams also work very closely because a part of their role is to watch out for decisions in one function that can have a knock-on impact elsewhere. For example they will see how a marketing campaign creates a spike in customer support workloads, or understand why data collected in marketing and sales is leading to master record discrepancies in the finance system.
These dependencies are typically not looked at when businesses turn to mainstream IT vendors and consultants to upgrade systems in one function or another, he says:
The consultants that we used built us really great tools ... but there was no one having a holistic viewpoint of how does the big picture look? [Since joining Fastly] that's what I've spent a lot of time doing.
The mindset is very much in tune with agile ways of working, too, even though most of the work that business systems people do is configuring and integrating SaaS applications and cloud services rather than coding all-new functionality. Sridevi Pasumarthi, Senior Director of Enterprise Applications at digital home security provider Arlo Technologies, explains:
You need to understand how it's used, what value do you bring, how do you make sure you bring in more value, incremental improvement? My organization runs like an engineering organization. We have sprints, we do scrum, we do release plans, it's no different than any product organization in my opinion.
This emerging breed is real enough, but often they're working in isolation. Workflow automation vendor Workato noticed there was no community to bring them together when customers started asking to connect with others, says Head of Growth Bhaskar Roy:
We saw the need for building this community around nine months ago. We would see customers come to us saying we are looking to do this, can you connect us to someone who has done this before.
There are all these various vendor-centric communities, but there was nothing that was across and above other businesses.
Workato therefore started hosting meetups in the San Francisco area, at which Flood and Pasumarthi made the comments quoted above. Meetups have since happened in the New York and Boston areas, and an online group has brought in participants from other regions and internationally.
Now there will be a one-day conference, being held in San Francisco in two weeks' time, at which business systems professionals will share their experiences. Workato is hosting the event and has also funded my travel to attend on behalf of diginomica to be able to hear more of their stories from the coal face. Workato CEO Vijay Tella says:
IT has traditionally been focused on the tech people that do the hard projects, that keep the lights on. The big projects that only they can do. There's this group in between that is tied into the IT governance but at the same time closer to understanding business requirements and close to the urgency business functions have ... They combine speed and dynamism and business orientation with the security and other underpinnings that IT provides ...
There wasn't a community [for them] like developers have or CIOs have. We tapped into this because we realized, that's our core audience ... These are the groups that have been created in these companies to solve these problems. These are the people who make this happen.
It doesn't surprise me to learn that the latest generation of digital tools are starting to create a need for a new breed of IT specialist. To some extent the need to bring many different solutions together has always been there in the SaaS environment, but broader factors now converge to make this more a mainstream trend.
Most important is the trend towards frictionless enterprise, which I've written about elsewhere. This trend towards more joined-up, real-time, agile and results-focused automation necessarily demands a more frictionless IT infrastructure. This can't be delivered and maintained without more ready-made components, which in turn demands this new breed of business systems professionals to harness them effectively.
Comments to my colleague Derek Du Preez by the CEO of Unqork about the supposed falings of agile are a symptom of the same trend. While his criticisms of agile development have some merit in terms of highlighting the scope for wasteful technical debt, it's perhaps a false equivalence to say that moving up the stack to a more componentized approach means leaving agile behind. As Pasumarthi notes, there is still a need for agile disciplines at this level too.
Earlier this week, Steven Sinosfky wrote about Steve Jobs' notion of the personal computer as a Bicycle for the Mind — that is, a tool that vastly augments human efficiency. At a time when everyone else wanted to make PCs faster so they could crunch more data, Jobs had another goal that as Sinofsky rightly points out has turned out to have been far more influential. Jobs said:
We’re going to start chewing up power specifically to help that one-on-one interaction go smoother and specifically not to actually do the number crunching and the database management and the word processing.
What I think we're seeing today is an equivalent process happening in relation to the cloud and business automation — diverting some of the power of computing into helping teams of people work faster and better. Think of today's cloud services as a set of bicycles for the enterprise, augmenting the effectiveness of its people. Business systems professionals are the specialists who will tune those bicycles to help their riders deliver peak team performance.