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Twenty Working Years in America

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Twenty Working Years in America

I’ve just celebrated the twentieth anniversary of moving to America. In those 20 years, I’ve lived in four houses...

12 Minutes Read

I’ve just celebrated the twentieth anniversary of moving to America. In those 20 years, I’ve lived in four houses in three states, become a citizen, had two American children, owned 14 cars (and one motorcycle), worked for two companies, worked in and/or visited 44 of the 50 states, been promoted twice, run thousands of miles, walked thousands more (with two dogs), given hundreds of presentations, and written hundreds of thousands of words about technology, business, and society.

In short, it’s been a hell of a ride and quite a blast.

I moved with Gartner when I was the “cloud” guy, and here I am, all these years later, with Cognizant, as the “future of work” guy. Significant anniversaries being what they are, I thought I’d take this occasion to reflect on some of what’s changed, and what hasn’t, in tech and biz (and society) during this score, on some of the differences between living and working in the UK and the US, and on what all this might mean for the future of all our work over the next 20 years.

Take a deep breath. Here goes …

The Cloud changed everything – not that I want to take a victory lap (yeah, right), but I was correct in 2000 (and even before that) that the cloud was going to be big and would change every aspect of IT and the businesses that make use of IT. To me “ASP”, “on demand”, “software as a service”, “cloud computing” – call it what you will – was simply about the Internet becoming the platform for the future (of everything). The cloud created the world’s richest person (Jeff Bezos), and the tallest building west of the Mississippi (the Salesforce tower in San Francisco), dethroned once mighty empires and emperors (no names), and to this day continues to ripple through our lives (and work) in ways profound and mundane. 20 years ago, most people thought I must be taking something when I banged on about Corio and US Internetworking, but though those names may be long forgotten the seeds they planted became mighty forests. I just wish I’d been able to buy shares in the companies I profiled (Gartner analysts were prohibited from investing in the areas they covered); if I had have done, I wouldn’t be sitting here now writing this piece!

The Cloud still has a lot to change – Big as it’s been, the cloud represents less than 30% of overall enterprise computing workloads. It’s still the exception, not the norm. There are huge amounts of on-premise, home grown, proprietary software, running on mainframes and mid-range computers in data centers that banks and airlines and government departments own. I still hear people at events debating the security of the cloud, the ROI of the cloud, the very idea of the cloud, when, to me, those debates were settled before I left the old country. (BTW; this truth has been instrumental in my thinking about the impact of AI and automation on jobs – the idea that 47% of jobs could be automated away in short order doesn’t reflect the reality of how slowly change happens in big organizations).

The beginning of the end of the Cloud may be in sight – frustration with the cloud is fermenting; check out the comments at the end of this article (if you can get past the firewall) about the rise of Salesforce.com and Adobe and the stagnation of Oracle and SAP. The cries about vendor lock-in and lack of innovation (not at Oracle and SAP but at Salesforce.com and Adobe) are exactly the same ones I was hearing in 1997 and 1998 which led to the cloud. Now new names like Pixelmator, Ghostscript, Hubspot, and Ink & Switch are emerging as the alternative to the alternative. Watch this space …

Despite so much disruption, dinosaurs still roam the earth – very few companies that were around in 2000 are not around (in one form or another) in 2020. I’ve long thought we should have an Ex-IT clinic for technology companies (in a nice Swiss canton), but the idea hasn’t come to pass. Yet.

Working @ home still doesn’t work apparently – when I left Tamesis (the name of the Gartner office in south west London) in late 1999, 90% of analysts worked in the office 90% of the time. A few years later when I spent an unanticipated summer back there (visa problems, don’t ask), 90% of analysts weren’t in the office 90% of the time. The gestalt switch was very noticeable to me, because by that time I had been working at home quite routinely in the US, where it seemed quite normalized. Fast forward to today and most people that I work with work (like me) at home all the time (when we’re not all travelling for meeting and conferences etc). And yet, folks like me/us still represent a very small proportion of the overall US workforce. I thought years ago that certainly by now working at home would be completely common and yet it isn’t. I’m not really sure why. I guess people like being stuck in traffic or on the subway, like having to hang with their colleagues, like having somewhere to go, other than their converted bedroom or family room.

Cubicles are being replaced with couches – slowly. Cubicles are stubbornly clinging on.

Ties have disappeared – I feel conflicted about this; I’m all in on groovier clothing but a good tie with a good suit is still a good look. As my old man used to say, “whatever the suit, ties are trumps”.

Email hasn’t disappeared – we’ve seemingly been moaning about email for the last 20 years but it’s still ubiquitous in our work life, and despite the rise of Slack and Jammer and messaging, it’s still the foundation of every aspect of the work that white collar folks do every day around the world. I suspect this will probably still be the case in 2040.

Video based content has exploded – in 2000, video was the preserve of TV and movie studios. Now we’re drowning in video that comes at us from each and every screen, 24/7, made by TV and movie studios and Google and Apple and Netflix and Hulu and Procter and Gamble and Ford and Cognizant and your seven-year-old cousin (via Instagram and Tik Tok). We are literally drowning in video-based content and what seemed cool a few years ago is now just white noise. And yet it keeps coming (guilty as charged, M’lud) and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.

Social media is exploding – I’m more and more convinced that social media will go the way of all flesh before I hang up my metaphorical quill in the next 5-10 years. From the Arab Spring to the American Fall, social media, which promised so much, has left us (IMHO) greatly impoverished. I couldn’t put it any better than the Greatest Living Englishman, Elvis Costello, who regular readers will know is my north star on most things; “They have turned the fact of feeling offended, that stupid indignation, into an entire industry. People who promote the use of opiates to become an epidemic worldwide have the same mentality as those that developed these platforms. They are the same kind of parasite, betray something that could be good for humanity and transform it into something evil. They have created the possibility of communicating anything you think with strangers, ignoring that the natural impulses of many people are to harass, censor, take advantage of the other's weaknesses and spread false information. And, by the way, be blind to any other opinion, consideration or decency. It's the same as poisoning people on purpose. I do not doubt that these new forms of communication have positive things, what makes me angry is to see what they become. So, we continue like this. This is progress!” Tru dat.

Ecommerce killed the American mall – just this week further proof came of how real the retail apocalypse is, in the news that Macy is closing almost 300 locations (on top of the 100 it closed last year). We furnished our first apartment in San Francisco with (Gartner relocation package funded) stuff (thanks again Gartner!) from Macy’s on Union Square. I’m all for disruption, but I find its demise sort of sad and dispiriting. What’ll happen to the Thanksgiving parade? Talk about American fall …

America was enormous in 2000. It’s way bigger in 2020 – In my early days in America, I would take client calls (GAMECS as they’re known at Gartner) and be blown away by the fact that I was talking to a company I’d literally never heard of that generated $10bn, $17bn, $30bn in annual revenue. Where I came from a company that size would be on the front page of the Financial Times every day. It dawned on me – probably midway through a seven-hour flight from SFO to JFK – that while I knew, conceptually, that America was a big place, it was big in a way that I hadn’t really fully understood. When I got to America, its GDP was $10.2T. Last year it was $21.4T. The population was 282m in 2000; now it’s 329m. That’s extraordinary, but in the ordinary hubbub of day to day life, easy to overlook. America has added almost the entire population of England in the time I’ve been here. Crazy …

The Cloud’s been big but AI will be bigger – someone should write a book about that. Oh wait, we did … https://www.amazon.com/What-When-Machines-Everything-Algorithms/dp/111927866X

It’s Steve Job’s country/world: I just live in it – the biggest thing in tech/business/society in my time in America has been the biggest thing in tech/business/society everywhere: the iPhone. Do I really need to say anything more than that? Probably not. (But I will …) Not just because it’s generated so much money, not just because it’s become so popular, not just because it’s changed design and UX and how we shop, relax, communicate, navigate, bank (etc etc), but because the iPhone has become the iconic “thing” of the early 21st century and Apple has become the iconic institution (a carefully chosen word; it is more than a company now). If we’ve lost our faith (a la Michael Stipe) in religion, in politics, in the family, in the press, in everything “big” (oil, tobacco, business, and now tech), we’ve found it in our embrace of everything Apple (tech, but seemingly immune to the techlash). It’s quite remarkable. And, again, over the course of the next 20 years, probably unshakeable.

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So, there you go. In sum, I Like America, and America Likes Me. This thought brought to you by some other fellas from Manchester.

Am I glad I moved here? You bet. Would I have done as well if I’d stayed in Blighty? Maybe. Do I miss anything about my old life? Lots – mainly the English countryside. And warm beer. Will I ever go back to live and work in the UK? Doubt it.

Twenty working years in America has passed in the blink of an eye, and I can hardly believe it has happened. When I first visited the US on holiday in my early twenties, my Dad said to me, “I hope you have a great trip, but I hope you don’t like it so much that you never come back”. They were prophetic words, which I’ve never forgotten. Maybe he knew something. Who knows …

But here I am, and here is the future of my work. I wonder what the next score will bring? Who knows … But I do know there’ll be plenty to write and talk about. Here’s to that. Cheers!


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