The Lessons of the (IT) Sea

I recently met with thirty-eight CIO’s and CTO’s in a series of one-on-one interviews, aboard a ship in the Atlantic. The closely sequenced half hour interview format, enabled me to see patterns that may not otherwise have emerged if they occurred during the course of a normal business day or week.

But in the course of a concentrated period, CIO after CTO kept alluding to three basic themes: the need to do more with less, the alarming growth of data volumes, and the strategic management imperative to align technology closer to the business. A Perfect Storm, if you will.

How does a captain of technology avoid being trapped by these converging fronts and provide safe passage for customers, employees and shareholders?

As an avid history buff and “reasonably experienced” sailor, I had a chance to reflect on my conversations and distill these five lessons about seamanship and the sea.

The following is the log of those five nautical lessons and how they apply to IT:

Row less and steer more. Business leaders are demanding that IT staffs focus their energy not only on daily data issues but more on strategic initiatives to move technology forward and accelerate business growth.

This demand requires that IT captains and crews look for new and innovative ways to monitor, maintain and manage their infrastructure. The emerging IT strategy is to use the power of ideas from internal sources and external vendors that provide momentum and direction to overcome the weight of infrastructure and the force of inertia.

You can’t sail into the wind. The headwind for IT departments is this: do more with less. We “could do more with more” is a place where you just can’t go given current conditions.

In order to arrive at the destination of aligning technology closer to the business, only a nimble captain, with an agile crew and technically savvy vendors, can tack and reach across this headwind to make strategic progress.

A Captain with more cargo and a smaller crew has to sail smarter.

The bigger the ship the less you use it. Larger data volumes, complex infrastructure and fragmenting legacy systems no longer mean bigger budgets, more clout, or economies of scale. Often it means increased management time and maintenance, less flexibility and a delayed ability to respond to the market conditions.

Only captains and crews who effectively manage and retrofit their systems with advanced automated processes and knowledge-based service providers can deliver impressive and agile performance.

Columbus was wrong: the world is flat. The convergence of hardware, software, telecommunications networks, and the global language and infrastructure of business, now mean the playing field is level.

Captains that value creativity, welcome ideas and value knowledge-based service relationships will be able to shorten the space between the technology, the business and the customer — the only competitive advantage.

Whistle to summon the wind. Perhaps it is better explained by quantum mechanics, but many sailors believe that whistling summons the wind. So the quantum truth may be is this: there is not an IT problem that exists, that does not have a fresh creative solution that currently lies just beyond the horizon.

Infrastructure Management of data and business intelligence resources appears to be the new fresh breeze to help IT Captains and crews navigate the Perfect Storm.

So, why are so many sayings, metaphors and proverbs about sailing and the sea applicable to the business of IT?

One answers is, history enables us a romanticized view. Fair enough, but the other answer is sailing ships and the sea were the first platform for globalization and trade.

The issues we deal with on a daily basis are not too dissimilar from the issues captains and their crews also dealt with: changing course, shifting conditions, complex infrastructure, new markets and customs, rapidly evolving technology, and let’s not forget piracy!

At the end of the day, the goal of the captain and crew of a sailing ship or the captain and crew of a technology department is to keep all that is important safe, and running above the water line.

John Bostick is CEO of dbaDirect a pioneer in the field of data infrastructure as a managed service.