The Democratization of Computing

Posted by Roger Sam, VP, Practice Management & Marketing on 09/11/2017

When I started working in the Information Technology field, I was fortunate enough to work in a large company that was itself a leader in the field of IT.  I recall boasting about the first octet of our IP address being “13” – placing us in a Class A network and signaling our status as an entity that helped establish the core principles of network computing. 

The company was large enough to have multiple creative departments – photography, composition, reproduction, multimedia, and graphic design.  We even had a part time calligrapher.  We had two individuals in the graphic design department – a talented person that had been with the group since its founding and another fairly recent college graduate that had been trained in design techniques using a combination of traditional design methods and computers – an Apple Macintosh to be specific.  Back in those days, there was a bright line of separation between Macs and PCs – graphic design was better suited for Apple products and hard-core business functions (like spreadsheets) were best done on PCs.  (My, we have come a long way!). 

One day, while moving some equipment around, I discovered a trove of the old tools of graphic design – oil pastels, a fully accessorized compass kit, a set of remarkably precise x-acto knives, reams of vellum and graphing paper, soft lead pencils and a kit of erasers that would excite any first grader.  They had all been buried in an old storage closet and mostly forgotten.  For the first time, the tools palette on that new, fancy Macintosh computer made sense.  All of the tools known to designers trained in traditional methods had been digitally represented; no doubt designed to instill familiarity and ease the transition to computer based graphic design.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was witnessing one of the first waves of change brought about by abundantly available computers (mass consumerization of computing).  Just as the wave metaphor implies, there were more changes right behind it.  Digital photography was next; Sony had just released the Mavica (Google it). Not far behind were the waves of online travel booking, publishing, and email’s all-out assault on “snail mail.” 

We’re in front of another big wave – in fact, it may be more accurate to describe it as already engulfing us.  One of the domains of IT that still require specialized skills and a pocket protector for entry is application development.  With a range of deployment options, hardware, programming languages, and mobile vs. traditional platforms, it’s fair to say that nerds (meant positively) are still the kings of this domain.  This however, is changing and the implications are still being understood.  There are a few Platform as a Service (PaaS) providers that have wrapped infrastructure, operating environments, development tools, security, and mobile access into a neat, convenient service, paid for on a subscription (monthly) basis and allows users the freedom to use the platform via a login. This category is growing and the federal government has taken notice. For a more thorough definition Gartner assesses the state of this “wave” in an article called Platform as a Service: Definition, Taxonomy and Vendor Landscape, 2016.

Federal agencies are replete with complex systems, specially designed to execute their unique missions. Think about the IRS System that allows electronic submission of tax returns, Healthcare.gov, and about the FAA’s Air Traffic Management System.  It’s safe to say that these systems are specialized enough to resist major changes to the way they operate.  There are other tiers however of agency business that more closely resemble the everyday systems employed by industry.  Starting with this tier and moving down, there are a bevy of applications ready to be moved to the cloud, and managed more like a commodity.  This backlog of demand, coupled with the model of PaaS will afford agencies the ability to develop and deliver applications that were previously too small or served too few users.  The new model of PaaS and more broadly, cloud computing will create a swell of demand. That demand correspondingly will require more resources with the skill sets to create cloud based applications.  Cloud Service Providers (CSPs) with insight have seen this wave from afar and created just the environment to meet the need.

Put bluntly, this change represents opportunity. We can either paddle out, get into position, and ride it to our delight or, stand back and wait for it to hit the shore. For individuals, the opportunity is in developing the skills necessary to take advantage of the new way applications are being developed. For companies, the task is to develop a deeper understanding of the change, build relationships with market providers, and make strategic personnel acquisitions that enable them to “hang ten”  and increase their value position to their clients.