Why Some IT Pros Deserve Cloud Outsourcing

I expect to get a lot of heat for this opinion piece. Actually, I think people might even consider hiring hitmen to get even with me. Why? I am going to explain why many (not all) IT pros have let down their colleagues by giving business owners every reason to outsource their IT infrastructure and services to the cloud.

Cloud Computing and Outsourcing

The outsourcing of IT is something that started to gather steam in the 1990s. Businesses had grown their dependency on IT services since the 1960s. One day the boards across the globe discovered that the business had become an accidental IT company, something that was never planned on. IT was seen as a cost center, a black hole – something that was not just eating up budget, but had also become a distraction to the core functions of the business. So IT jobs were outsourced. Some IT pros were lucky and got jobs with the outsourcing company to ensure continuity of service. The unlucky ones watched as their jobs went to another continent. One could argue that service levels also dropped, but that’s a mixed bag. We might come back to that topic later.
Now here we are, two decades later, and businesses are once again looking at their core functionality.
“Where did that computer room or data center come from?”
“Why are we always talking about IT?”
“Just when did this become an IT business?”
Those are the sort of questions that purveyors of the cloud are telling business owners to ask themselves. A common metaphor is the household light bulb: A house doesn’t usually build a power station in the backyard to light a bulb in the kitchen, so why are you building a computer room to provide IT services that you are ill-equipped to deploy and manage?

cloud computing IT pro

(Image via Technorati)

Outsourcing = Public Cloud

Cloud computing seems to be a whole new wave of outsourcing that is marketed to the business and the software developer. I spoke at events on cloud computing in the early years. Most of those attending weren’t there to learn how to adopt the cloud – they were there to learn how to stop the cloud from taking their jobs. Those early attendees saw the “cloud” as being another label for outsourcing.
We do have to make a correction here. Cloud computing isn’t necessarily about outsourcing. There are three types of cloud:

  • Public cloud: This is a service run by a hosting company. The multi-tenant (customer) infrastructure is owned and managed by the hosting company and you can subscribe to and self-service your resources.
  • Private cloud: Normally a private cloud is deployed in a company’s own premises and is owned by the company. However, there is a model called hosted private cloud where a hosting company deploys, runs, and manages a single tenant infrastructure on the customer’s behalf.
  • Hybrid cloud: This is a mixture of private and public cloud services. The hosting company makes this available as an option to tempt you into using more and more of their public cloud services.

When you hear “the cloud” in the media the commentator is normally talking about public cloud. That is an outsourcing model. The level of outsourcing depends on the service provider. For example, with Azure IaaS the outsourcing is purely limited to hardware management. Someone still has to deploy the virtual machines, customize the operating systems, configure the software, and manage identity and authorization.
In the case of Office 365, almost everything from the infrastructure perspective of Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync is outsourced. And there is a model where a hosting company or a reselling partner can provide all of the services required to the tenant to use the cloud services without any need for IT staff to be employed by the customer. That also holds true for the hosted private cloud model. On-premise cloud computing (private cloud) could be referred to as re-sourcing or cross-sourcing because it centralized infrastructure placement and management. Service deployment and application management are delegated to the required people in the business.

Outsourcing Is Bad, Right?

As an IT pro I hated the idea of outsourcing. I felt the pain of being unemployed when the .com bubble burst. IT staff were dispensed with, no one was spending on IT, and qualified staff sat on the heap with no opportunities. I worked really hard to develop my skills and worked long hours to implement systems for the business. Could they think that little of me and my colleagues? How could I, an IT pro, possibly think that any kind of IT outsourcing is a good thing? Feeling that way would be like treason in our business.
That was what I thought of outsourcing. My experiences in recent times have caused me to reconsider my opinion. While some IT pros are hard workers who are doing great jobs for their business, there are an unfortunate number who are a liability.

Outsourcing and the Bad IT Pro

In my work I get to travel, talk with, and work with lots of companies, both end-consumers and partners. I see the great IT pros in our world that strive to be the leaders in our industry. These people are top of the pyramid and therefore will always be the fewest in number.
I see the average IT pros who do their best to learn more, ask the right questions, never assume, and work hard to do their best for their customer (internal or external). The essential traits of an IT pro is to never assume and to ask questions. Humility in an IT pro can lead to better solutions. The good IT pro is one who asks the right questions, finds the best solutions, and finds the best people (consultants) to implement those solutions.
And I see way-too-many awful IT pros. Greg Shields summarized it nicely in a recent article on the Redmond Magazine site. There he highlighted certain red flags for business owners to watch out for. Sadly, I recognized every single one of these warning signs. I was actually already planning to write this opinion piece when I saw Greg’s article in my RSS feeds, which makes me think that we can’t both be wrong if we both independently came to the same conclusion at nearly the same time.

IT Pro Sin #1: Not Staying Current

It constantly amazes me how many people aren’t aware of the features that are available to them in products they own or are available for free, such as:

  • BitLocker and Bitlocker-To-Go
  • Free OS image deployment with and XP migration solution in Microsoft Deployment Toolkit
  • An application compatibility solution in the Application Compatibility Toolkit (ACT)
  • Licensing for virtualized Windows Server, which has been almost unchanged since 2004.
  • “Better together” features such as DirectAccess and BranchCache.

None of the above is new, or even near new. Some of those tools have been around since the days of Windows Vista. You got to take a good long hard look in a mirror and ask yourself some questions if you’re not aware of those solutions.
I understand that IT pros are under pressure to get stuff done. There are constant deadlines and only so many hours in a day. However, the better people in our business take a little time to stay current. Among the common complaints I’ve heard were lack of opportunity and lack of time to learn. I get that – my job is weird because part of my job is to learn and teach. But I’ve also been that IT pro under pressure, but I made it a point to take a little time every morning to read. That gave me some knowledge to ask my favorite search engine, colleagues, and consultants the right questions. One of my favorite questions to ask in an interview is “What do you read to keep your skills up to date?” I’ll smell out a bluffer in a few seconds. My answer: My RSS feeds number in the hundreds. I can filter out the junk and read important information in less than 30 minutes. And there are methods, such as using OneNote or specialist reading apps, to pin/note articles of interest for later reference.
There are plenty of out-of-band opportunities to learn too. A small percentage of people get the invaluable experience of attending conferences like TechMentor, Windows Connections, MMS, or TechEd. There is a cost to these large events in terms of time, travel, and registration fee. But you don’t need to travel to learn. User groups exist across the planet with local expertise being freely shared. I used to run a Windows user group, in which attendance rates were typically poor no matter how much we tried to publicize the events (using the press, Microsoft newsletters, social media, and so on). Why? Because the typical IT pro didn’t seem to care enough.

IT Pro Sin #2: Assumption

In my opinion, the mother of all sins in IT is to assume. From the small business to the large, I’ve seen people assume things and do the following, causing businesses to suffer.

  • Delete the largest file on a Hyper-V host because “it is taking up free space.” And there goes months of data that was in a virtual machine snapshot.
  • Using XCopy to copy files from one site to another is a valid form of disaster recovery in a large finance company.
  • Installing the Enterprise or Datacenter edition of software is OK because you’re only using the Standard edition features. And then the license auditor almost bankrupts the company with fines.
  • Implement software in unsupported fashion because you’re never going to call Microsoft for support anyway. Of course the system will break!
  • Deploy NIC teaming on iSCSI NICs instead of MPIO because you assume it will be fine.
  • Hyper-V hosts, clusters, and storage are the same way as vSphere. Ouch!
  • I’ve even encountered IT pros who – despite it existing for nearly a decade in one guise or another – have never heard of a free patching solution called Windows Server Update Services (WSUS), and that’s why their security patching was not done. And we wonder why Conficker is still running wild in business computers.

These IT pros take their assumptions and blindly implement them. Who gets blamed when the “solution” falls apart and causes downtime to the business? That will usually be the components of the “solution” or the person who recommended them. Blame never seems to get assigned correctly in these situations.
A humble IT pro is a good IT pro. I might be pretty good with Windows, Hyper-V, and elements of System Center, but I’m honest about my limitations. My SAN experience is relatively limited. You don’t want me to network your data center. I know when to reach out to colleagues and friends, and when to find real expert consultants (and not just someone I owe a favor). Have-a-go heroes make for great headlines in the press when they rescue the cat up the tree, but their story is rarely told when they crash a network. That’s usually the fault of the switch manufacturer, right?

IT Pro Sin #3: Prejudice

In my job I present and meet with customers on a regular basis. There are four experiences:

  • The fan: This is a person who is, in sales terms, already on message. They’ve come to learn a little more and are going to buy/implement.
  • The curious: A good honest attendee who wants to learn more about solutions to a problem. They’re open minded to the various offerings.
  • The skeptic: Starting out with a certain opinion, this person is open to having their opinion changed. This is a customer I love to meet with.  Sometimes you lose, but those wins sure are fun.
  • The prejudiced: No matter what you say to this person, your solution is wrong, even if it is right. We in the Microsoft world have all experienced the “Microsoft hater;” the product could check every box and be the most economical solution, but it is made by Microsoft so it hasn’t a chance. Note: This isn’t just Microsoft, but it’s a common example.

Whose needs are being evaluated by that prejudiced IT pro? Is this a Linux fan who prefers the complexity and need for custom engineering of their legacy-style monitoring solution? Is it a Windows fan that doesn’t understand that artists prefer the tools available for and features of Apple Mac workstations? Why does the business need to suffer because this IT pro hates working with certain technologies? Does the business exist to service the tastes of the IT pro, or is the IT pro employed to service the needs of the business?

IT Pro Sin #4: Inferior Management

In my experience, problems start at the top. I’ve seen and worked for both ends of the scale of IT management. A great IT manager has an understanding of technology and maybe came from an IT background. I don’t expect them to be able to calculate subnets in their head or write complex PowerShell scripts, but they should understand the concepts of what is being discussed and decided upon. They can do this by attending events aimed at management, which come in the form of sales events by vendors and resellers with the obvious agenda. There are community or user group events for IT managers too.
Inferior managers have no understanding of the job that must be done by IT pros. Salaries will be set too low. They’ll attract or hire inferior IT pros who are incapable of doing the job that is asked of them, and no one will realize this because the hiring manager has no comprehension of those requirements. Silly decisions will be made because the IT manager may be prejudiced, not understand that a project’s complexity requires outside assistance, or they are ill-educated.
The blame here lies with the board that hired the IT manager or CIO. I wouldn’t hire a marketing person to run accounts, so why would I hire an accountant to run IT? For some reason, that’s what often happens in businesses: an operations director becomes the CIO and has no clue who to hire or what is being discussed in meetings. So how can this person hire capable IT staff?
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t expect every IT pro to be a Mark Minasi, a Jeremy Moskowitz, or a Todd Lammle. There is always a pyramid of ability in an organization. Hopefully the top of that pyramid deserves to be there.

Deserved Outsourcing

When a business evaluates its IT services then the staff that provide those services should also be measured. Unfortunately, way too many services are inferior, and that’s because of the implementers. Eventually businesses are going to stop accepting excuses and start to look for alternatives.

  • Software as a Service (SaaS): Why continue to put up with endless Exchange or SharePoint outages caused by substandard design, implementation, and management? Go direct to the source and access a solution from vendors such as Office 365.
  • IaaS: Microsoft has demonstrated how easy it is to deploy virtual machines in Azure. Let Microsoft run the infrastructure, and find a partner (anywhere on the planet) that can manage operating system and network configuration.

These are just two ways that businesses can fight back against bad IT. But who is to blame? Don’t blame the messenger. Blame the person who created the environment, be it the CIO or IT manager… or look in the mirror and blame the IT PRO.