The end of the IT department

David Heinemeier Hansson has written a provocative post on the 37signals blog about the end of the IT department, with somewhat predictable comments ensuing. I particularly enjoyed John Gruber’s pithy analysis of said thread:

Certain of the comments on Hansson’s post remind me of this quote from Upton Sinclair: It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

:-) Anyway, back to Heinemeier Hansson:

At the same time, IT job security is often dependent on making things hard, slow, and complex. If the Exchange Server didn’t require two people to babysit it at all times, that would mean two friends out of work. Of course using hosted Gmail is a bad idea! It’s the same forces and mechanics that slowly turned unions from a force of progress (proper working conditions for all!) to a force of stagnation (only Jack can move the conference chairs, Joe is the only guy who can fix the microphone).

It’s a compelling argument: the traditional IT department is frequently derided for being a “blocker”, and in my experience that’s often fair. At the same time, typical corporate IT cost centres are split between a multitude of competing interests, and suffer at the hands of empire-builders, architecture astronauts, bungling change and communication policies, pointy-haired bosses, disgruntled end-users and disenfranchised staff. So if we are indeed in the midst of a cycle which heralds the passing of the traditional IT department, is that really such a bad thing for all concerned?


  1. Meet the new IT Department, same as the old IT Department (apologies to Pete Townsend). My experience has been that the new outsourced, decentralized IT Department suffers from all of the problems of the existing mess, and more. Each organization has to find the methodology that works best for them instead of blindly following the latest paradigm shift.
    I recently reviewed a resume from an IT manager who listed his major accomplishments in this order;
    Outsourced IT (tremendous cost savings)
    Insourced IT (tremendous cost savings)
    Mixed-Sourced IT (tremendous cost savings)

    I'm afraid to think of what his next accomplishment will be!Ed Maloney#
  2. Don't take DHH too seriously.

    This is the guy who wrote Ruby on Rails, which, while interesting and clever, has at its heart a strong statement of, "I don't comprehend databases, so I'll find a way that works and force everyone to do it this way forever so I never need to learn."

    In short, the guy is a lot of talk, and has a surface level understanding of many things, but his depth is WAY lacking.Dave A. #
  3. @2 sorry, but that’s just nonsense.Ben Poole#
  4. @1 Indeed, hence the talk of “cycles”: there’s nothing new under the sun eh!

    However, there’s a core point here that bears repeating—all too often, IT becomes the tail that wags the dog. And when it happens, users will seek to work around its restrictions to get their work done. It just so happens that the myriad of services and apps beyond the firewall are the current way of achieving this.Ben Poole#
  5. Great topic Ben - I have a post in draft to cover this myself. While I think IT has to change to react to the fact users are going 'off the reservation' for tools to bypass internal, David is missing a major function of IT. It is to enforce policies that the company is required to follow. In the US, we have HIPPA for Health Care and SOX for financial requirements for public companies. Let's say you and I work for Acme Corp and we are public. And you and I decide to share some financial spreadsheets in Dropbox. Technically, we are breaking the law. And the penalties are stiff for both company and both individuals.

    So I think IT has to change. It needs to stop being the limiting funnel. But if users just bypass IT, we will see more and more things blocked inside the firewall. And people fired. I know - with a personal laptop and wlan connectivity - who needs to work inside the firewall? Policy will handle that. At will employment makes that pretty easy :-)John Head#
  6. I find that within IT a lot of people forget that IT is there to provide a service to the Business - hence the reason why Service Management has become more popular and IT Management dashboards will probably be a good growth area.

    For some IT people this is an alien concept but there needs to be a mindset change. Service Management hinges a lot around metrics & SLAs which basically boil down to IT justifying there existence against alternatives means (read outsourcing) of providing the same service. This is a good thing as it promotes quality & cost control consistently and if you truly believe you are providing a cost effective service then having the evidence to back you up just makes your case stronger.

    >>5 When IT gets involved with compliance it can get a little crazy - often this is down to some Senior bod covering there arse - what it should really be about is discussing with the business what there appetite for risk is, give them the facts about what each of the systems do in relation to controlled data / processes and let them decide what level of evidence that wish to generate to meet the compliance control. I have faced this with a blanket policy that all IT development follows a certain SDLC to meet compliance - there goes any form of RAD with Domino and users start creating there shadow apps again in Excel.Mark Barton#
  7. Great post Ben, I've seen this happen up close and personal, watched people's careers go down in flames. IT forgets what they are there for.

    "I fight for the users" - TRON :-)John Vaughan#
  8. IT tend to be a victim of their own success. "Everything working ok? Why do we need an IT department?"

    And when your IT department is looking after 100K+ people, a simple change becomes a lot of work to make sure that everyone (or vast majority) are kept up and running.

    If someone believes professional IT is easy has probably never had to do in any large capacity. Simon#
  9. The regulatory framework (usually courtesy of the SEC: and it affects more than you guys in the US John!) is onerous I agree. It can also be used as an excuse for IT to deny facilities and services to end-users, which is inexcusable.

    There are challenges, no question (no-one is saying this stuff is easy Simon!), but I think it can be very helpful for IT professionals to step back from barring USB ports and locking down firewalls to ask why their users want these services, and to make fair assessments.

    Leave the querulous legal and risk management departments to their own devices: don’t become part of the problem!Ben Poole#
  10. It seems this has been on a few people's minds. Serves me right for not reading the last day or 2 of posts before posting mine earlier.
    What if IT is just without a direction because management never provides one that they can believe in and follow because there is no carrot or stick anymore for IT.
    They are being treated like teachers and the lack of respect provided to anyone is not going to help matters.
    Why should one help a company do more if there is no incentive(to the individual) or buy in?Keith Brooks#

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