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Alistair Croll
Alistair Croll

How Would You Build IT From Scratch?

What's holding back big companies? You're not willing to burn the boats. The CIO mindset needs to change dramatically if enterprise IT is to remain relevant.

What would you do if you were starting from scratch? This is a question businesses seldom ask themselves. Yet it's an essential one, a destructive one and ultimately one that's at the root of reinvention.

The classic paradox of business is that once you grow, you lose your edge. Where once was disruption, now there's predictability. Steve Blank, father of the Lean Startup movement, says that a startup is an organization designed to search for a sustainable, repeatable business model. It follows, then, that an established company is an organization designed to perpetuate an existing business model.

Perpetuating business models is what got Kodak in trouble when it missed the digital camera market (indeed, after mobile phones, the most prolific camera on Flickr is a Canon, by a company that made the jump to digital scanners and printers). Perpetuating business models is why Blockbuster isn't Netflix -- the former framed itself in the video store business, not the entertainment delivery business.

[ Trying to explain disruptive technology to colleagues? First rule: Don't talk about disruptive technology. Read more: Disruptive Technology: Follow Fight Club Rules. ]

Startups often trump big companies simply because they have nothing to lose. They're more tolerant of risk, more aware of their own mortality and more willing to gamble. They don't know what business they're in, so they thrash around, trying things out.

Big companies have started to take notice. In 1950, the average company on the S&P 500 stayed there for half a century. In 2012, a company stays there for 13 years. The barriers to entry that made large organizations comfortable and complacent have quickly eroded in the face of ubiquitous computing.

To be sure, bigger organizations still have their advantages:

-- They have market intelligence. Had Blockbuster properly framed the business it was in, it could have won. It had millions of customers' rental histories, billing information and addresses. It even had an inventory of content and strong ties to the media industry.

--They have buyers. While a startup has to scrape and scratch for every new customer, an established vendor has access to senior executives and pre-approved budgets.

-- They have resources. Revenue from cash-cow products and business units can fuel innovation, without the endless rounds of fundraising and nail-biting finance a startup must face.

But there's one huge disadvantage: they're stuck with their legacy systems.

So back to the original question: What would you do if you were starting from scratch?

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Would you build a messaging and calendaring system, or use a hosted model like those from Google and Microsoft? Would you invest in hardware, or use virtual machines and public clouds? Would you buy a backup system, or use a service? Increasingly, organizations are realizing that IT itself isn't strategic -- it's what you do with it that matters.

In the last decade, both the front office and the back office have gone digital. Everyone around the boardroom table knows that technology is essential for them to do their jobs, whether that's a COO streamlining the factory floor or a CMO automating marketing. The difference is that none of these people view technology as their job the way a CIO once did. They're intolerant of delays, and they're acutely aware that the real cost of technology is integration.

Many of these executives see themselves as starting from scratch. They don't have baggage, legacy systems or preconceived notions about technology. They see it as a means to an end, not an end of its own.

If you're an IT professional, once you know what you'd do if you were starting from scratch, I have a second question for you:

Why aren't you?

Because someone else -- in another department or another company -- is.

We welcome your comments on this topic on our social media channels, or [contact us directly] with questions about the site.
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User Rank: Apprentice
10/21/2013 | 2:50:15 AM
re: How Would You Build IT From Scratch?
Scalable/flexible/dynamic/quick-to-execute infrastructure probably isn't built from scratch anymore. That's the advantage of start-ups. Getting started begins with business requirements, a cloud services framework and, very likely, an enterprise IT consulting partner (HP et al). Yes, you can go it alone. But should you? Speed to market critical. --Paul Calento
User Rank: Ninja
10/18/2013 | 7:34:30 PM
re: How Would You Build IT From Scratch?
100% cloud based. I would not build my own data center. I would buy it like electricity from a service provider. I'd let Microsoft or Google run the corporate e-mail and calendaring. There'd be no desktops in the house. Employees would have a modest stipend to buy an access device of their choosing. The device would be used for local e-mail, calendaring and web access. The device would also access a virtual desktop also purchased from a service provider. I'd carefully consider core solutions as SAS vs. installing them in the service provider's data center. I'd also have to seriously considered SDN to eliminate configuration hassles of engaging multiple service providers and SAS offerings.

Around this I would build a responsive IT staff that is partially or mostly embedded in each business group. Although there would still be a centralized IT that "manages" the relationship with service providers, it's function will never be to say no. They provide costs and make sure there are standards around requesting, funding and maintaining environments.

My biggest concern is security and how to protect data that will never be physically housed in a building owned by the company. The second biggest concern is how to make sure connectivity is always available. Perhaps a dedicated link directly from the service provider as well as a VPN backup through the Internet?
User Rank: Apprentice
10/18/2013 | 1:52:30 AM
re: How Would You Build IT From Scratch?
I am the one that is...
User Rank: Ninja
10/17/2013 | 5:08:11 PM
re: How Would You Build IT From Scratch?
The questions you pose about infrastructure choices are all cost related. Startups are usually small, so choices you make then may not be as cost effective as you grow up. Inhouse infrastructure cost is better at scale, cloud/subscription models favor smaller organizations. It also makes a huge difference what your business is. A heavy duty manufacturer and E-Bay would be expected to make completely different choices of infrastructure. Would you really want to run your mfg shop floor completely dependent on a working internet network link? Probably not. But E-Bay, no working internet link and they aren't doing business anyway, whole different decision.
Rob also correctly pointed out the cost of transition from one technique to another can be prohibitive. And that cost never adds business value. Is there more business value because your email/collaboration system is hosted versus inhouse, assuming both work just as reliably? So why would you pay even $1 to migrate if the result is email working exactly like it did before and operating cost is the same?
Virgil brought up a much different viewpoint, how IT integrates with the business? I'm questioning his statement that IT is incapable of knowing the detailed business processes. When did this change? When I got my BS in Comp Sci in 1985, with a business minor, my title was Programmer/Analyst. I was expected to understand the business and translate that into the code of a working system. I still do that today. Is this not the way it is anymore, you are either a code writer OR an analyst? When did that change?
User Rank: Strategist
10/17/2013 | 4:56:34 PM
re: How Would You Build IT From Scratch?

You are absolutely

I have a job at a F-500 Company just because of that reason. Abnout 80% of the workers have been made contract. The company has cut to the bone.
I was hired because the Corporate I.T. cannot meet the needs of
the department. (One that you mentioned above) The poor response time, lack of knowledge of the environment drove the department managers nuts.

All the individual building support was laid off. The "Department" Got fed
up, and Hired "Yours Truly" (Contract) who set up a mini I.T. infrastructure,
building from the ground up a one man support system. Right along with installing our own server with 40TB of raid, populating a Sharepoint site to keep track of assets, projects, details on Wireless, everything.

Working with I.T. , not being under their control, I can move fast, act fast, forecast needs ahead of where they want to be. As long as I protect Corporate, follow certain guidelines, keep it secure, all is golden. I play in their sandbox without being strapped down. Productivity of the department rises, and Department managers control their own environment. I.T. has been gracious allowing me to use elevated rights to do my job. I save them a ton of calls a day- thus..the reason. They push for control, canG«÷t get it. Eventually, if the industry changes, I might go aboard with them, but for now they get what they need without much from Corporate I.T.
User Rank: Author
10/17/2013 | 4:51:35 PM
re: How Would You Build IT From Scratch?
The SaaS model has made it easier than ever for a business group to start from scratch without involving IT, of course. Turning your back on longstanding process and technology that your team worked hard to create goes against traditional IT credo. This is a huge culture shift. Culture shifts are painful. That's another reason people don't do it.
User Rank: Author
10/17/2013 | 4:23:59 PM
re: How Would You Build IT From Scratch?
I suspect there are two main reasons IT organizations don't start over from scratch: that transition is very expensive, at least in the short term, as lots of company processes and expertise are tied up in those legacy systems; and the people who oversee those legacy systems are protective of their and their people's jobs and organizational standing.
User Rank: Apprentice
10/17/2013 | 4:17:09 PM
re: How Would You Build IT From Scratch?
Where I believe we have messed up is the way we are part of the company.

Right now the IT dept, or MIS, sees itself as the keep of the keys to the kingdom.

It is their responsibility to protect the data, and everything else, and they are right.

Problem is, it does not fix their business problems.

Take for instance a company that has:
R & D consisting of math, and artwork depts
Engineering consisting of electrical, electronic and mechanical


IT supports all of these depts, but it is not involved in their day to day duties, nor does IT sufficiently understand their day to day duties which ultimately means that IT is found wanting when the finger pointing starts.

I believe a better solution is to have a person or persons working in each department that works first for the department, and secondly for the IT dept

This way when it came to developing new software, etc., the IT group would understand every inch of the process flow, and they could map out the business requirements which could be handed off to a team of developers and support engineers.

Sure, the business stakeholders should be doing this now, but as we all know, most business stakeholders will pass the buck as they are too busy and even if they did participate, they are not actively involved in the day to day grind that their department experiences

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