I will not be writing at length about Steve Jobs in this column because many other people are doing so and some of them far better than I ever could. All I'll say is that he was unique and the computer industry has lost an icon, a force, and, to many, a hero.
So, what I want to discuss this week is an idea that Jobs' company, Apple, once used extensively in their advertising: Think different.
But what does it mean to "think different"? Apart from being essentially ungrammatical, the phrase evokes the idea of bucking the system, not following the trends, taking the path untraveled, boldly going where no man ... no, that was something else ... all of which is great in theory but really hard in practice.
The fact is that in IT, thinking "different" happens a lot. You get handed a problem and immediately a dozen solutions come to mind that range from spending vast amounts of money through to changing the laws of physics, but more often than not, its "bandage" time because the biggest constraint is history.
History matters when IT has to solve problems because IT rarely has a "green field" situation. Why? Because the enterprise, if it has been around for any amount of time, has usually invested heavily in whatever disaster IT finds itself saddled with.
The reality of most IT organizations is that you can't implement a complete makeover to fix all of the big issues, yet fixing the core problems can't really be done without hitting the "reset" button!
Consequently IT winds up putting bandages over bandages over hemorrhages. One slip, one teeny-tiny change or error condition, and the whole house of cards comes tumbling down, which in turn demands a whole new set of bandages.
So, what to do? Don't just think different, act different. Instead of the usual "we can't," go for the "we could if ...".
Instead of giving the department that asks for some gigantic new system the "Sorry, but we can only do one project this year and it turns out its not your year" story, give them an opportunity: "Sorry, all of our funds and resources are earmarked for this year, but your project sounds great, so help me think creatively about what other ways we might tackle this."
The pragmatic version of thinking different is more about attitude than reality ... it's "could do" over "can't do." The reality is that you have a limited budget and they (the department making your life less enjoyable) have needs that can't be satisfied given the circumstances.
Of course, that department thinks you can work miracles and, it goes without saying, you can! But you need resources and they need to understand that your limitations are not your choice but a grim reality of economics and business politics.
So, once again, we come back to the issue of selling IT to the organization. The central idea is that IT is not an overhead like the free soft drinks machines or the bucket of doggie milk bones beside the receptionist's desk.
But neither is IT the Hogwarts of tech. You can't conjure systems and services out of thin air and no one should ever make the mistake of thinking you can. Make the majority of your IT miracles prosaic and pedestrian and then, when it matters, you can pull the rabbit out of the hat (just make sure the rabbit is a rare occurrence but not too rare).
If you want IT to be treated as an integral part of the organization rather than being seen like air conditioning or janitorial service, you have to learn to think and speak different about how you express what IT does and can do.
So, as Jobs was wont to say, "one more thing" about thinking and acting different: Maybe you need to learn to channel Jobs and position IT as Steve would have positioned, say, the next iPhone: As the greatest thing ever! As Steve said in the Macworld keynote in 2006 "Click. Boom. Amazing!"
Gibbs is saddened in Ventura, Calif. Your hyping of IT to email@example.com.
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