DOES 2018: How to thrive through digital transitions

Jeffrey Snover at DevOps Enterprise Summit London 2018

Digital transformation is often viewed as a process that can accelerate business growth, but it’s also paramount in career and personal development. That’s the argument of Jeffrey Snover, technical fellow at Microsoft and founder of Powershell.

At DevOps Enterprise Summit 2018, Jeffrey delivered a thought-provoking talk about the different types of transitions tech professionals encounter in their careers and how to thrive through them. He candidly reflected on his own industry experiences, which have been both turbulent and exciting.

Much of the talk focused on the power of technology and how it’s always evolving. To succeed in this industry is all about reacting to change and experimenting. Snover’s view is that by innovating at speed, you can supercharge your career. Here are the things he discussed.

Two types of jobs

Ushered in by a Michael Jackson track, Snover walked onto the DOES stage gleaming and confident. He began his talk by boldly asking the audience if they believed in the hype of digital transformation and how many of them have plans to retire in the next three years. For those who put their hands in the air, he urged them to pay attention.

He went on to divide the term “job” into two distinct categories. The first are stair jobs, covering roles where you progress slowly because there’s so much competition ahead. At the same time, things sometimes go wrong. But, either way, you’ll gradually advance in your career.

Meanwhile, elevator jobs are on the other end of the spectrum. Essentially, when periods of change happen, there’s either an opportunity for you to advance in your career – or you need to find a new trade to survive. Snover predicted that much of the audience had gone through this process and that they’ve embarked on DevOps journeys to thrive.

“The point that I want to make is that there are these transitions, and they can be the wind in your sail. Or not. They can also be tricky because there are also new winners and new losers, making focus important,” he said.

Transitions in my career

Jeffrey sprinkled the auditorium with a plethora of personal career anecdotes, the first of which was that he started his career in technology as a Unix developer at Digital. Here, he had a stair job: this operating system wasn’t critical to the success of the organisation, but there was steady demand.

Then Digital got involved with Microsoft NT, and he was suddenly exposed to new systems and processes. “I was all in and thrilled about this technology,” he told the audience. “I read everything; there was nothing about NT that I didn’t read. I evangelised and went around the company telling people why this was important, everything they needed to do and how to get their projects started.”

While it wasn’t a period he could describe as work/life balance, Snover found the experience exciting and rewarding. This was his first elevator job because the project was released quickly, and things worked out well across the board. With a booming CV, he went on to become a digital consultant when the industry was transitioning from vertical integration to horizontal integration. Although he wasn’t specifically an expert in these areas, he continued to remain positive and pick up new skills.

Everything went south, though, when the company started flogging off different departments to stay afloat. Jeffrey’s team and department moved to another business, but they had a somewhat hostile intervention with the new CIO. He didn’t feel like Snover’s product was making a significant impact and asked him: Are you still relevant? Such a question could easily be perceived as intimidating, but Snover was motivated and just wanted to do better. In the following years, he came on the radar of Bill Gates and joined Microsoft full-time.

Software as a transition

Referring to an article by Marc Andreessen, Snover called software the biggest transition to happen in the 21st century. It’s not only disrupting traditional business, but also the value chain. For instance, Amazon transformed bookstores; Google transformed adverts; iTunes and Spotify transformed music consumption; Skype transformed telecoms; LinkedIn transformed recruiting; and PayPal transformed finance.

But even for the industries that software isn’t replacing, it’s still critical. Cars are a good example. Yes, they’re not lines of code, but software is integrated into infotainment systems. A software revolution is coming, and everyone needs to be ready for it, he urged. “This is the largest transition we’ll ever experience in our careers. Whether it’s banking, retail or automotive, each one of the biggest players is figuring this out. They’re not looking at their traditional competitors; they’re looking at the disruptors and to Silicon Valley for the potential threats to their business.”

Thriving through transition

Taking all these points into the account, the question becomes: How do you thrive through transitions? Citing Geoffrey Moore’s Law, Snover pointed out that core activities help companies and professionals differentiate from competitors and win new customers. On the other hand, context activities concern everything else.

Exemplifying these different terms, Snover defined Microsoft’s core as a software business that aims to help people do more; with this in mind, it’s constantly looking to attract most talented people around the world. The context aspect is about keeping employees happy, such as having suitable facilities in place.

Moore’s Law can drive successful digital transformation initiatives, too. You need to create bandwidth by using software as a service and invest in innovation, while transitioning from the way the world is to the way the world is going. The cloud is pivotal here. “You want to go cloud native. It has a better portion of your energy focused on what matters: the conversation with the customer to gain insight,” argued Snover.

By buying infrastructure and software as services, IT investment transitions from core to context. And that gives everyone – including businesses, technologists, customers and investors – a competitive advantage. “The heart of digital transformation is this: build the things that differentiate you and buy the things that don’t. And this transition is going to need new heroes,” he concluded while pointing at the audience.

Our view

Raj Fowler, principal DevOps consultant, echoes similar views to Snover. He says high-performing teams can only respond to change by continually learning.

“The environment we are increasingly living in is moving from complicated to complex, which is very well described in the book Team of Teams by General McChrystal. This has resulted in the increased level of uncertainty and interactions required to simply survive in our environment,” explains Fowler.

“Our ability to predict is rapidly declining, and therefore our ability to respond and adapt is critical. This depends on our individual and organisational ability to learn and apply. Eric Reis talks about the one measure that predicate performance is the rate of learning: Build, Measure, Learn.

“This requires a different appetite towards risk and failure, which is where safety culture kicks in. We need to treat failure differently – with inquiry not blame – and our philosophies, principles, practices and behaviours need to embrace experimentations and failure.

“It IS the key to success, and my key advice for anyone I have mentored is that what you know now and what experience you have today will become obsolete unless you are constantly learning, experimenting, failing and re-learning. We learn most after we fail as illustrated well by Brene Brown in Rising Strong.”

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