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If you’re old enough to remember, the phrase “Y2K” either brings back nightmarish memories or a yawn. My old...

6 Minutes Read

If you’re old enough to remember, the phrase “Y2K” either brings back nightmarish memories or a yawn. My old Gartner colleague, Andy Kyte, became well known as “Dr Death” as he travelled the globe in the mid 1990’s telling all and sundry that they were doomed if they didn’t let date fields recognize “2’s” instead of “1’s”. Lots of people thought he was nuts. But lots of people headed his warning, fixed their systems, and didn’t party like it was 1999, waiting for the year 2000 to dawn and the chaos to begin.

Lo and behold, planes didn’t crash, stock markets didn’t implode, and traffic lights kept on changing. Those in the know breathed a sigh of relief; the hard work was worth it. The cynics just kept on wondering what all the fuss was about; (it’s hard to disapprove a negative).

What was less appreciated at the time was the role Y2K played in creating a huge wave of technology modernization. Facing the catastrophe that Dr Death was banging on about, lots of tech leaders realized that they didn’t have the time or the budget to fix all of their systems. Instead they needed to prioritize the important systems, fix those, and then kill the systems that didn’t pass a cost/benefits analysis threshold.

That portfolio analysis, and the subsequent “pruning” that took place, cleared the decks for major investments in the state of the then current art from SAP, Oracle, Siebel et al. From 1996 through late 1999, billions and billions of dollars was sunk into these apps and all of the accompanying infrastructure and related processional services which created a spending boom still to this day unparalleled in technology industry history. [Full disclosure; of course, Cognizant was a significant beneficiary of these trends.]

Though the need for remediation – and the consequences of inaction – can still be argued over, there is no doubt that the modernization wave was a tremendous success. Of course now in 2014, with client/server’s S-curve drooping and consumerized IT in full bloom, it’s easy to ridicule the preceding paradigm (heaven knows I do it enough!) but we shouldn’t forget how much impact that wave of technology has had; the modern, 24/7, global world of 24,901 mile supply chains, wouldn’t exist were it not for R/3 and RDBS. UPS won’t be running on top of Facebook anytime soon.    

On my travels recently I’ve spoken at a number of events where the overriding sensation I’ve had is of technology leaders struggling to come to terms with the new wave of technology and struggling to let go of the old stuff. To a 40+ year old the new stuff all sounds ridiculous (Splunk, MongoDB, Lollipop) and is built on underlying technology that is completely alien. A 40+ year old became Chief because he understood technology better than anyone else; he still does … but yesterday’s technology. Learning Zimbu, now? Not going to happen.

What these leaders need – though they don’t know it, and they probably won’t thank me for pointing it out – is another impending disaster to give them no option other than to rationalize, prune, and invest.

What they need is a new catalyst, like Y2K.

The promise and excitement of new technology and new business opportunities works to some extent as a catalyst, but for many the arm waving and snake oil sales pitch (“guilty as charged m’lud; I have 17 other crimes I would like taken into consideration”) of the typical so-important-it’s-unmissable-technology-conference sort of goes in one ear and out the other.

Collapse, destruction, ruin, embarrassment are all far better calls to action. And as Dr Death found, far more fun to give!

So what impending event could act as Y2K2.0; that would provide an undeniable rationale to aggressively prune back the client/server weeds (in fact do some root and branch extraction) and give the new shoots the sunlight they need? And I mean beyond frustration with infinite 17% maintenance payments and the other supply-side favoring idiosyncrasies of the SAPOracle world.

Hard to say; probably not Ebola, or Russian annexation of Ukraine, or ISIL dominance of the Middle East. Perhaps Global Financial Crises 2.0 or US Government Shutdown 2.0. But unlikely. It has to be something so huge – but so addressable by tech people – that they must, and can, act.

Perhaps, in the kernel of a sub routine of a sub routine of a sub routine, a clever and far sighted junior engineer placed a ticking time bomb that would one day blow up the whole paraphernalia of the Industrial Technology Complex, knowing that he and only he would be aware of it and know how to fix it 20 years later. But then again, perhaps not.  (Actually, that’s a pretty good plot for a movie!).

But there’s no doubt (well, at least in my doubt ridden mind) that the market needs something to start a new 400 year fire. Without it, I fear, many organizations are going to continue to cling onto old stuff that is simply hampering their ability to get with the (new) program.  Live is tough, life is cruel. It’s completely understandable that you, Mr 40+ old CIO working for Big Acme Inc, love the stuff you built and are terrified of having to put it down. You’re only human. But unless you do … well, I don’t want to give away the ending of the movie that I’ve got to go off and write now.

Scene One: Fade From Black: Voice Over (Note to Producer – see if Morgan Freeman is available) “In a world where ….”

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