Analyst View: The great digital scattering

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Tough year. COVID and an uncertain economic outlook have made these very trying times for almost all people, including those lucky enough to be able to work from home as a part of the digital workforce that powers our business infrastructure.

Looking back, you could see signs of a great digital scattering coming for many software development-related businesses — not only the ones catering to restaurants and service sector jobs.

Speaking of travel and hospitality, the move of all our favorite perennial IT tradeshows online was the first canary in the coal mine. Engineers are stereotypically aloof, so you might think virtual events would be a fine replacement for in-person interaction. Yet, the knowledge sharing and relationship building that happened at shows — as well as the business that advanced there — will be hard to replicate.

Companies without the digital backbone to shift to remote development and operations quickly found themselves in hot water. If constant planning meetings and fire-fighting war rooms are the norm, what happens when all of that is replaced by a miniature Hollywood Squares matrix of heads and screen cams?

Companies accounted for this change, for a few weeks, with grace and understanding that not everyone’s home makes a good office. Bad connections, barking dogs, interrupting kids. Employees with WFH policies had a head start here, by making such arrangements ahead of time. Some companies even vacated office space in stride, never looking back.

But the remote scattering of workers takes a toll. Does innovation and quality start to suffer — even as many IT staff commonly report working more hours to meet increased demand, unburdened with commuting? Knowledge workers become more distracted, or frustrated, or unproductive working at home, leading to a reconsideration of how to either instill some sense of culture online, or safely return some work to the office.

Engineers in a product-oriented organization appreciate self-determination, so long as they are contributing valued work. Shared platforms for remotely governing agile software delivery from requirements, to repositories, to release trains and issue resolution are improving in quality and interoperability every day.

The very environments from which we deliver software keep scattering as well, as the old three-tiered application stack in the datacenter gives way to SaaS-based platforms, cloud infrastructure and microservices, calling APIs and running workloads in ephemeral containers and serverless architectures.

Were we meant to move the application estate off-premises for good, along with the teams?

The outlook for permanent departure of IT resources from shared offices and datacenters isn’t 100% rosy, even for the software-driven company.

First, you have the need for (groan) IT Governance, and (groan) Compliance to standards, and (groan) Legacy Applications to maintain — you know, everything we’ve already built, the stuff that keeps the business running. This forces creativity about orchestrating both cloud and on-premises application infrastructure as a Hybrid IT application estate.

Zeroing in on the development shop itself, we start to see how the in-person Agile Scrum or daily standup meeting packs a lot of collaborative value, as creative solutions often arise from live interaction, and intangibles like camaraderie and morale naturally pull DevOps teams together. 

A few months in, the scattering hurts. Many companies are laying off IT staff due to business losses, or competitive takeovers. Other companies are seeing spikes in demand, and cannot recruit fast enough, let alone properly mentor the new staff coming into this decentralized workplace.

A full-stack developer friend recently joined a mid-sized company with several loosely interconnected teams. They were stunned to find that while DevOps practices and distributed cloud architecture were in the job description, very little ‘tribal knowledge’ could be conveyed.

Teams that worked together in the pre-COVID era take it for granted that newer employees come in with none of that situational awareness. What do I need access to? What review gets my code on the release train? Who supports my code on Day 2 once it is in production?

There’s no replacing ideas that come up amidst the scuttlebutt at lunch, or a tap on the shoulder — “can you look at my screen and tell me what’s going on here?” It’s OK to ask clueless questions and pose crazy hypotheses in person, with other humans. In text and email format, those interchanges are impersonal, and documented.

We don’t know when a new normal will be realized for software development. Until then, let’s embrace the need to solve this digital scattering with human empathy, and an understanding that we all want to deliver better software.

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