Revolutionizing the Future of Web with Transformed IT department

George Ross, CTO, CCLI
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George Ross, CTO, CCLI

Netflix transformed the entire video rental industry. Amazon continues to transform the book publishing and retail industries. There are countless other examples of web technology driven companies reshaping the landscape and market expectations. The key to understanding why transformation is happening so quickly is recognizing there has been a democratization of platform and tools that allows a small group to have impact that can be greater than the largest corporation or established paradigm. It is easy for established companies to make technology and more specifically the web the focus, but in truth the technology itself is not what made things change; it only provided the raw materials.

"The question businesses need to answer to fully utilize these new tools is how do they free themselves of the past and build a vision for their web future"

Transformation the traditional IT department to support the web is only part of the equation. It simply better positions a team to utilize a new set of tools. The question businesses need to answer to fully utilize these new tools is how do they free themselves of the past and build a vision for their web future. If that vision is overly broad or burdened by preservation of legacy systems, it most likely will lead to results that are somewhere between lukewarm and mediocre. Moreover, if every aspect of your web presence is not challenged on a regular basis the result will be a dead, unmaintainable and bloated site. More often than not, technical excellence on the web is an exercise of refinement and not one of unchecked growth.

This translates to the modern web savvy technology executive being an odd mix of technical evangelist, practical business person, authoritarian enforcer of the rules and change agent all in one, and often in the same conversation. I have been working ‘on’ the web for longer than I care to talk about (for arguments sake let’s say I started around the time you still had to pay hard earned money for your browser). I have seen scores of technologies, methodologies and plain old fashioned fads come and go. In that time, I have found a few universal truths about web development that have helped guide and shape my strategies.

Know the Big Picture 
Web technology is a tool. It is a very fast moving, disruptive and at times dangerous tool, but a tool none the less. Understanding the how and when of what web technologies can benefit your company and its strategy is one the key and most challenging tasks technology leaders are faced with.

The art of divining what you should do when faced with an overwhelming number possibilities starts with having a clear understanding overall corporate strategic objectives and then how those objectives translate to the web. We live in a world where build, buy and SAAS are all viable options and those options are further complicated by consumer web based solutions that are pushing into the enterprise and let’s not forget the cloud. Being able to bring together a web strategy that mitigates as much risk as possible, has a workable budget, timeline, resources and gets full support from all teams is the holy grail of technology executives.

There are no shortcuts here, it is plain old fashioned hard work to get an entire organization to clearly articulate its ambitions for the web and then to translate those to something feasible and actionable. Two top questions for this are- 1. What is the pain point or opportunity that make this a priority right now? 2. How will you measure success for this? Depending on resource a constraint, a crowd pleasing follow up is- What are you willing to delay?

Fall in Love with Consistency 
The modern web road is littered with frameworks, technologies and methodologies. As sure as the sun rises I will be asked at least once a week by someone to please consider changing from technology X to technology Y. I personally love trying out new tools and technologies and am guilty as the next guy by getting as excited a kid on Christmas morning about something. But once the number of people or projects grows to a number greater than one and you have to operate in a world where time and budgets matter, you have to start calculating the cost of changing things. You have to begin to operate as the gate keeper of technological change.

This does not mean you should be afraid of changing things or hold on to technology past its prime. But you do need to be fully aware of what the cost is in time, effort and opportunity is before you switch. You also need to have a high degree of confidence it is worth it. When evaluating new web technologies make sure they pass a few key checks.

Who/What/How is backed? Does it have a growing group of passionate developers and backers? Does it have some form of corporate support?

Can you staff it? If you had to grow, replace or outsource the implementation or maintenance, could you find skilled developers?

Can you support it? How often is it patched or updated? What does the support and implementation documentation look like?

If all of that is good, ask the development team to give a “how much better is it than what is replaces” report based on a limited throw away implementation (key word, throw away, never to see a production server) followed up by a presentation to peers. Many purported cure all technologies have meet their demise by this means.

The goal is to create an environment that is well known, supported and developers are trained in. This enables maximum implementation velocity. When change comes it is fully vetted and the entire team knows why the change is happening.

Embrace Governance 
The web is something that touches almost every part of a business today. It is not the exclusive domain of a single department. The challenge is that traditional corporate structures don’t easily accommodate this. At times the web can end up like the foster child of corporate responsibilities bouncing between homes, and often between IT and marketing. When the web is placed in a traditional silo it ultimately ends up serving that line function first and often at the expense of other areas of the business. In worst case scenarios it gets carved up, parceled out and devolves into a mess of platforms, technologies and brand interpretations.

The answer is to embrace the concept of web governance that spans traditional silos. Put cross departmental teams and covenants in place to ensure best corporate outcomes and empower your experts. The goal is to break free of single decision makers who can often be ignorant to the complexities of doing the web well.

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