How Digital Natives, Millennials and Generation Z are shaping the IT industry – 60 years of digital transformation, part 4

People are the most important factor in the modern age, write Chuck and Ken. In the 4th and final part of their mini-series, the father-son team of IT experts describe how digital natives, millennials and Generation Z are shaping the IT industry today. They take an entertaining look at their six decades in IT and show what the modern generation can learn from the experiences of the past.

Our stories began in the early 1960’s Dark Ages of tabulating and accounting machines, and they told how the first computer “mainframes” enabled digital transformations based on technology: converting available business data into actionable information. As Moore’s law kicked off in the 1970’s, digital transformations focused on transforming the process of business. The Age of the Dealer sported minicomputers with highly customized “turnkey” applications, and the growing ubiquity of these (such as MRP and ERP), together with advancements in hardware, led to the Age of the Commodity. These tales of digital power evolving over the generations are very useful to better appreciate where we are today.

It ends with the people

Our “Modern Age” offers leaps in technology (speed and capacity) with a significant enhancement of accessibility (not just rich-client or browser or mobile, but also affordability) to digitally savvy users capable of easy adoption.  The term “as a Service” (Infrastructure-as-a-Service, Software-as-a-Service, and the like) is in some ways better described by our earlier term “turn-key:” the user expects powerful, useful functionality out-of-the-box, and does not want to worry about any details inside the box, much less about hosting and maintaining the box.

Offshoring before the Earth was flat

Time-to-market has always been a key driver for Digital Transformation. This was true even more so in the Age of the Dealer, when small mini-computer dealers had the same good ideas as the IBMs but lacked the resources to move fast. There was a solution, and we tell that story now. If there are other stories like this, this may be a key reason why Silicon Valley became so international, so fast.

The pressure was on me now. It was the Age of the Dealer, I was in charge of creating a new ERP solution for a mini-computer company, and we knew that IBM was working on the same product. The market was small so we knew: whoever got there first would completely own the market. I needed to move fast – but this was the early 1980’s, and talented freelance contractors were few and far between.

Enter India. I had connections to an engineering company in Mumbai, and they convinced us their programmers could learn our system and bring our product to market in record time. Considering the pressure and no other viable options, the decision was easy to make.

But this was the late 1970’s, and the world was not yet flat. Remote working across the Pacific was no option – so instead we flew a large team of Indian colleagues to Silicon Valley. True to their word, they learned our system in record time, and they pushed out code so fast we could hardly keep up with testing. A few months went by, and we met our CEO’s delivery deadline, beating the competition. I like to hope – but of course I can’t be sure – this was a win/win situation for everyone: we beat the competition to market, and a team of highly talented Indian programmers got a wonderful chance to see life in 1970’s Silicon Valley. I often wonder if any of them – or their children – have one day returned. (Chuck Ritley)

Offshoring after the Earth was flat

In the Age of the Dealer, some of the first Digital Transformation projects turned to the international market for lack of onshore resources. In the early Modern Age, finding labor was no longer a problem, so the motivation was different.

My father looked internationally to solve his implementation challenges; I did so to solve our selling challenges. I was working in Germany as a software consultant for a large global IT service provider, and in the early 2000’s the freelance and small boutique market for IT services exploded. There was no way our large, monolithic enterprise from the dinosaur times could compete against them on price or speed – they were low-cost and fast.

Quite by accident while surfing our Intranet (itself an invention hardly a few years old) I discovered our company had a team of software developers in Bangalore. The Earth was now flat, the global Internet worked well enough, so with the permission of my manager I outsourced a small test project to them: in just weeks I had super results, super quality, and it cost me less than 10% of the onshore labor cost. I was hooked.

Sadly, others at my company lacked my enthusiasm. I was a child of Silicon Valley, for many decades the international mecca that Europe has only just recently become. At this time, European skepticism of offshore was still high – and rightfully so, perhaps, because that “prove to me it works” phase was not yet behind the Europeans. But with the help and support of a small handful of forward-thinking colleagues, I relocated to Bangalore and toiled side-by-side with my Indian colleagues to win project after project. With their talent, we slowly grow our tiny offshore development team into a large software engineering organization.

I’m quite proud of the complex software projects we delivered from India to Germany, especially given the challenges of language. In our case, the business motivation was not about labor arbitrage or squeezing profits by offshoring jobs – instead of shrinking, in many cases our onshore headcount grew. It was all about “bidding and winning.” Thanks to our new software engineering capabilities in Bangalore, new projects meant greater sales in Germany. By the way, fast forward 15 years, and today Germany has nearly 150’000 immigrants from India. I dare say Silicon Valley and Germany are no longer so different. (Ken Ritley)

The skill pendulum swings back

Today we often classify knowledge workers by their so-called skill profile, whether it’s T-shaped or I-shaped. A T-profile person has deep skills in one area complimented with a broad range of supporting skills; the I-profile person has very deep skills in one area only.

As we’ve seen, the Age of Iron saw the rise of programmer/analyst, as at home with programming a mainframe as with capturing the business requirements and designing the overall IT system; in other words, classical T-shaped. The Age of the Dealer and the Age of Commodity both gave rise to IT experts with industry-focus rather than company-focus. And increasingly, this meant the rise of I-shaped specialists: the Requirements Engineer, the Business Analyst, the Developer, and – although even today few agree on what the term means – the Architect.

For many IT teams today, the skill pendulum is swinging back.

I have never been more privileged to have so many talented IT colleagues working on so many cool IT projects than in my time at national train company: my little world was a huge IT team with over 150 top engineers enabling the country to travel by train. Most of them are still there – probably because once you are hooked, you never want to leave.

But I think few of us could fathom how a train ticket was ever sold: we were a collection of micro-specialties organized into rigid silos. First there was the Business / IT split – two orgs, two buildings, two cultures, two different languages. The “customer” in business who needed an IT feature would discuss requirements with a business engineer, who would then de-brief with a business analyst, who would then create the needed artefacts for our IT architect. The architect in turn would decide which software developers implemented the feature, and it was never clear who would ultimately test. In the simplest case, there were no less than five “understanding gaps” between customer and their tested feature – and often many more, if the feature involved multiple systems. To be sure, we had email and telephones to solve the building gap, but any communication more than 1 silo distant was generally frowned upon if not downright forbidden.

That was over a decade ago, and that train company got smart. Today the micro-role and rigid silo approach has been replaced by something called scaled agile: business and IT work closely together, large groups called “release trains” (no pun) coordinate their work together in so-called PI-Planning, and it’s quite normal for T-shaped IT engineers to wear more than one hat.

If this means the skill pendulum has swung back, I have doubts it will remain so for long. In just the last 2-3 years of my corporate life, I’ve seen the rise of whole new business organizations focused on technical specialties: data science, security, robotic process automation & machine learning. These once were a small part of “generic IT” but they’ve each grown to become so specialized and unique, I’m increasingly witnessing large gaps of understanding when these roles work together – or worse, I’ve seen outright conflicts when the roles disagree: for example, if a data scientist is eager for a product like Kubernetes when the IT infrastructure engineers consider it an unmanageable monster, how is the company to decide? (Ken Ritley)

Conclusion: Beyond the Golden Triangle

We’ve crafted our epics and told our stories chronologically, and we were surprised just how well they fit the Golden Triangle: starting with Technology, through to Process, and finally to People. In retrospect this is no surprise: Steve Jobs quoted famously in 1995 that “great technology is invisible.” The question is then, what comes next?  Is the Age of Digital Transformation coming to an end?

We’ll let the historians and philosophers speculate on this one, but our view is this: digital transformation as we define it may be coming to an end. We’ve said its hallmark is We change the way we work. Transformation applies very much to those at home with one paradigm that then switch to a new paradigm.

Companies today don’t just have employees at home in a single technology box; rather, one’s affinity to a given techno-box depends on one’s generation, and this in turn is often reflected in the company’s management hierarchy.

Let’s start at the top. CEOs today are quite likely to be Baby Boomers, in every way “digitally challenged.” The stereotypical CEOs can read PDFs on their iPads, but they’ll never object when important documents are printed out. Senior Management is frequently filled by the “digitally aware” Gen-Xers, well capable of creating the PDFs their executives require. And Middle Management is powered by the “digitally savvy” Millennials, each capable of making good friends with any software installed on their PCs.

But the Gen-Z’s hitting the workforce today are true “digital natives.” They’ve grown up with iPads in their baby-strollers and Instagram on their playgrounds. They race each other to adopt the new digital technologies marketed almost every day. They swim effortlessly in the turbulent digital sea. Struggle with a digital transformation? Ha! They did that as ten-year-olds, when Facebook bought Messenger.

So, could it be the journey of Digital Transformations as we define it in this article is over? If so, what’s next? Perhaps it’s time to start focusing on the increasing fuzziness of the boundary between people and machine?


Miniseries on digital transformation

This article is the final one of a 4-part mini-series on digital transformation.


It is our pleasure to thank Maria Kreimer and Nikola Gaydarov for detailed discussions that contributed significantly to this manuscript.

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AUTHOR: Kenneth Ritley

Kenneth Ritley is Professor of Computer Science at the Institute for Data Applications and Security (IDAS) at BFH Technik & Informatik. Born in the USA, Ken Ritley has already had an international career in IT. He had Senior Leadership Roles in several Swiss companies such as Swiss Post Solutions and Sulzer and built up offshore teams in India and nearshore teams in Bulgaria among others.

AUTHOR: Chuck Ritley

Chuck Ritley spent decades in the IT industry, first launching huge mainframe systems in the 1960s and then becoming editor of one of the world's first computer magazines in the 1970s. In the 1980s, he ran a successful start-up company that employed many dozens of people. Today he spends his time as an educator, teaching advanced computer science courses at colleges in the San Antonio, Texas area.

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