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Tuesday, 23 June 2020 10:50

In conversation with: Patrick Hubbard, SolarWinds Featured

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Hubbard's official title is Head Geek at SolarWinds - he suits the title perfectly.

iTWire took the opportunity for an extended conversation with Patrick Hubbard in conjunction with the release of SolarWind's "IT Trends" report. This is the first part of that discussion where we touch on the impact of COVID-19 and also disparage the "new and shiny" syndrome so common with senior executives.

iTWire: Good morning, Patrick, thanks for your time. Can you start by telling us a little about your background. How did you get to be "head geek?"

Hubbard: I'm kind of an interesting duck. I started my career as a developer at American Airlines, and after about 10 years, ended up going into operations in the late 90s, because I was looking at it and thinking, "Oh, well, surely automation would help here." There is so much pain and so much manual toil and so many changes that needed to be made by hand that it's holding the business back and discovered, well, you know… now we're trying it with DevOps. But then the business wasn't ready for it at all.

I then developed interest in software and had several different roles over the years; Product Manager, sales engineer PM, architecture, and then took this role at SolarWinds in 2007. It was a much smaller company back then - there were about 75 of us and it was just when they had moved the company to Austin.

iTWire: The company moved, so you had to as well…

Hubbard: Yes, I have stayed because I fell in love with the idea that you could directly help end users. I had done plenty of enterprise sales, and talked to a lot of analysts and identity management at Sun Microsystems, that was a lot of fun. [However] because SolarWinds reaches directly to its end users, it means that there's this really great relationship between building things that people actually need, and avoiding building "new and shiny" for marquee customers that then upset everybody else.

 

iTWire: So, Head Geek…

Hubbard: The role of Head Geek, you would roughly equate [it] to principal, advocate or technical evangelist somewhere else, but in the mould of SolarWinds where it really is all about our community, and the unique way that we talk about technology - a really vendor agnostic approach, and we're welcome to really talk about anything. "Head Geek" just seemed like the better term for it. Once upon a time, it was just me and now we've built out a team of really bright specialists across a number of different fields.

iTWire: My own background goes back to Novell as a CNE back in the 90s - I had a lot to do with their NMAS product, for the modular authentication framework and did a lot of work with biometrics, and such.

Hubbard: You would think, after 20 years, we'd have solved 'identity' by now.

iTWire: Yeah. Good luck with that!

Hubbard: It's still a federated pile of "you know."

iTWire: Of course, you know, now that the fingerprint is on a major downturn with the virus.

Hubbard: Yeah! Just a little bit. And all those people that run around with their iPhones, it never worked for me because I do a lot of handy work as a hobby, so I don't have to touch tech. And I always [manage to] rough up my thumbs and it never worked for me. So now face ID, I'm like, "Oh, I'm fine. This is what people were talking about."

iTWire: We always said that the people we hated the most were carpenters - they had no fingerprints.

Hubbard: Carpenters and people that like to work with gummy bears.

iTWire: Actually, the opposite - gummy bears work too well!

Anyway, the original reason for our chat, and I'm sure we'll deviate away from it soon enough, is the recently released IT Trends Report. Could you offer some positioning and explain what the purpose is?

Hubbard: What's great about the IT Trends Report, is that we've been running it for the seventh year now. And so we've been able to get the discrete data for each year but also watch it change. And that's been really helpful.

And then this year, it came out right about the same time that COVID-19 was obviously going to be a problem, and so we held on to it because we it was a 'laboratory' so that we could actually see short term if that was going to change some of the expectations based on what we thought were projections from the previous two, because we will usually say, "based on previous years [reports], this is what we think will happen." And then we do a little bit of look back. And it's been really, really interesting to see that effect. And how much of it actually ended up being true either way.

iTWire: So, what has changed? What has stayed the same? What are you seeing?

Hubbard: The big call outs for this year really are that, in previous years, there has been a lot of distraction and a growing gulf of importance between IT and leadership around expectations for new technology. You kind of go through the cycles between "shiny and new," and then "We actually need to fix things," or "we need to be pragmatic and practical." Or "We'll play with shiny and new" and it interacts with budgets and macro economic effects and everything else. And everything from 5G to machine learning to AI to blockchain, all these other things had been bombarding leaders and influential technologists for a couple of years, and it looked like it was beginning to distract from the conversation.

You had IT professionals that were basically saying things like, "Hey, no, the gap is actually a skills gap. And we need investment in training, these things aren't magic. And even if they were, we don't have time or a lab to be able to go test them and we have a backlog of other things that we need to do." What was business transformation has now turned into modernisation.

There was a concern that a lot of time and efficiency was being wasted. The great thing about this year is that it's showing more focus, which has really been confirmed by the pandemic, on actually getting back to doing what needs to be done. In the case of hybrid IT, it really is forever. We are going to have to solve it once and for all.

The idea that vendors can just dump new stuff on us and say, "Hey, here's whole new Lego kits. And by the way, you're going to have to now bolt kits together without instructions, and that part's on you" - That sort of integration debt [isn't] acceptable

iTWire: You hinted that there is a skills issue…

Hubbard: One of the problems that popped out last year and again this year was that hiring managers are saying that not only have they identified missing skills on their staff, but they can't hire people with those skills. People don't come out of university with those skills. They can't poach them from another company at any cost. It's a realisation that to get those skills in-house is going to require increasing the training budget. Last year, one of those gaps we saw a lot more angst about the budget being too small and the amount of training that's necessary being too large. This year, that gap was little bit smaller, and you're actually seeing on the leadership side, more of an increase in interest.

Finally, we found that security always comes at the end of the spending curve. First you buy your application stuff, then you buy your infrastructure to run it on. And then, way down the curve, you buy some monitoring, maybe to show actual ROI, and then way, way down at the end, "Oh, we should probably secure this thing driven by regulatory compliance."

iTWire: And we all know that the security budget only arrives after the breach.

Hubbard: Yeah, only after the breach and unfortunately, the breaches have been so egregious. We're seeing the same concern for security, but an increased interest in security on the part of leadership, showing a growing cross-team awareness.

This year's report is much more about the coming together of leadership and the technologists, who are responsible for implementing it, around pragmatically solving problems, and not waiting for something else to come fix it, to really take it on themselves.

iTWire: We assume you are seeing plenty of changes due to COVID-19.

Hubbard: It's kind of interesting when you think about the pandemic. You hear the word 'unprecedented;' over and over again. The word unprecedented is a reasonable word to use. But if you think about it, IT has always been the department of the unprecedented. It is "This app, for this user base, on this bespoke snowflake infrastructure, with this set of business expectations, and GO!" Nobody's ever done it before. Nobody's ever supported that combination before. It's [simply] that application and all that mix of applications are all unprecedented.

What we're seeing in our user community, there's over 150,000 active members on THWACK, is that the sentiment seems to be that a lot of businesses at a time of crisis feel like their IT teams are one of the areas they don't have to worry about that much. Because they're worried about saving their business. And so, they look at IT, and they ask, "Hey, we need to get everyone working from home in a week". Now, that's is the kind of project that if you said, "Hey, we want to upgrade our infrastructure so that we can have everyone work from home." That would be a two year project, right? There would be no budget assigned to it, there would never be no time, nobody would ever sit around it and you'd never have tested it at scale. Would you ever go to your boss and say, "I want to plan budget forever"? No, that would be a very unpopular suggestion.

iTWire: You're about to suggest that the IT team is a bunch of heroes…

Hubbard: Well… The reality is that in IT, we contemplate the impossible all the time. That's what we do. It's not like IT started from, "Hey, we've never thought about the fact that we might have to have everyone work from home," they've been debating how they could actually do that for years over lunch. They basically were just given the green light to go and do a thing. You think about technologists in general can do anything when they're focused. So if you say, "Hey, listen, we need to have everyone work from home - it's Thursday, everyone needs to be at home Monday." IT says, "Okay, I may have to open 25 - 100 tickets in order to do that, but we're going to focus [on] that and we're going to make that happen."

The reason we're able to do that is that the business has a clear need, the business says "for us to survive, we must be able to continue. We have to have business continuity, go do it." And then that team can reject all of those other distractions, all of that reactive, non proactive… you know - the myth of multiple co equal top priorities? "What's my top priority?" "Well, you have three," and as a logical person (which most people in technology are), you just kind of go hmmmm.

But in this case, we've given IT some very clear missions, complex missions, missions that they have never done before. I think there's a sense of calm, and I'm hoping that it is earned goodwill, on the part of lots of aspects of the business that have never really considered that IT has always been an essential service. That it has always been a place that can be counted on in a crisis to prioritise, to discard distraction and do what needed to be done. That's one of the things, to your point of the new normal, I'm hoping that part of the new normal is that we're able to say, "Wow, our IT team, they can do pretty much anything, we want you to this whole idea of this business transformation and modernisation." If we made that a business priority, and allow IT teams to prioritise other projects that seem really important, but aren't, what would they do?

It's almost like a sense of recovered value, or I'm hoping that for an enlightened businesses, it will be a realisation that there is additional value to be gained from its technology team that maybe it wasn't aware of, that currently can be distracted by gravel and sand and competing priorities and unclear objectives.

iTWire: I'm always wondering if IT is a victim of its own abilities, that we did it, and we did it without complaining, and therefore, from the people who don't know how hard it was, "Aw they did that, that wasn't hard, there's nothing big there."

Hubbard: Right? Well, do you think some of that is also when a something is a cost centre, you basically have a SLA for screaming and pain. As long as the amount of alarm is low enough, then you keep bringing your investment down and down. Once upon a time, computers were new when your business had one and another business didn't. You had Harvard PhDs running the machines, you gave it whatever resources that were available.

This was also a time when 56% of CS graduates were female, and it was a very academic approach. Those systems got whatever they needed. Once everybody had computers, it turned into a commodity. In a commodity situation, now you have a cost centre, and you win as a business by offering commodity services at the most efficient cost. I'm hoping that it's a chance to remember that running cheapest or letting immediate short term quarter to quarter budget costs really is the thing that binds you, when you were trying to make big leaps in ability, such as a focus on DevOps for 2021 sort of thing, or "We're going to be all cloud by X", that never works. Especially if it involves humans or culture change or something else. This year, businesses have recognised even before COVID, to not focus so much on the "pie in the sky" but let's admit that we have a skills gap that we are going to have to fix. And maybe we are under resourced and understaffed. And maybe we have pushed that too far to the point that we expect everyone to be a miracle worker.

iTWire: …and miracles don't last forever. Does the report show this?

Hubbard: One of the data points in this year's IT Trends Report was about expanding responsibilities. Not as many silos where I'm a network engineer, or I'm the application engineer, or, I'm the DBA, but instead, these roles are becoming much more blended as applications no longer fit in these neat stacks.

I mean, you say to a DBA, "Oh, hey, so we got this Redis Mongo thing that's running in AWS that we inherited because it was cool, and it had its own budget", but now everyone has that. That's on you, IT because it's commodity. It's like, "You're a DBA you understand this?" Well, no, that's an object data in a SQL database and memory caching appliance or memory caching application that's clustered and dynamically allocated in Kubernetes is something much more like what a developer would look at.

But for operations, those roles are now more blended. To say, I'm an application engineer, now, well, what does that mean? If you're on SDN, if your network is NSX, or you are managing your branch offices with SD-WAN, are you a network administrator? Are you an application administrator because you're using a GUI or you're using scripts. We're beginning to see a realisation that those roles are really beginning to cross and that those teams are working together, not so much out of necessity, but just out of function and training, and businesses are beginning to have a better focus on what resources they need to provide to the teams to be successful.

iTWire: Three things came to mind from all of that. First of all, when I first got into computing in the 1980s, I could do everything with PCs. I could build them, I could program them, I could sell them, I could talk about all of the applications that were available. In fact, I used to install 20 meg hard drives, and I could tell you every file was on my drive and what it was for. Secondly, are we the victim of the CEO's, shiny tool syndrome, that somebody tells a CEO, maybe a teenage son or a golfing buddy… "Hey, you know, I've got one of these, you should have one too."

Hubbard: I think that's where we were headed. The takeaway is that the cost of complexity has finally hit the budget. To your point of where the versatile IT pros are the versatile people who can just do anything, don't worry about it… just give it to IT, they'll figure it out. The victims of their own success by not raising their hand and saying, okay, I can't. And in fact, it's a whole culture of that, where IT professionals believe that they can and believe that the expectation is that they should, and they're not allowed. Don't raise your hand or you are not that super utility player, the "do heroic things, but don't ever be a hero." And so, the shiny and new syndrome, I think that's exactly it. That has driven so much complexity and the rate of complexity is accelerating so rapidly that complexity in and of itself has become the big hairball.

For example, for SolarWinds products, the main advantage is that it puts everything into one view. It's relating storage, applications and cloud into single dashboard where the data is related and it makes it easier to move around, because it's modular, you pick what fits for you. We followed that path, a number of other vendors such as Cisco on the networking side… That cycle of complexity goes up until the point that vendors can't sell anything because enterprise says, No, you're not selling us another thing. We're stuck in the complexity and then they focus on driving complexity down increasing simplicity. Virtualisation was a big answer that VMware made, I can't guess… a trillion dollars?

So by solving that problem of what we were racking and stacking in terms of all these bespoke storage, and networking, and actual physical metal boxes, and cabling, and all the rest of they said, Hey, listen, it's too complicated. It's too complicated. We got this thing - we're going to abstract all of that for you and we're going to simplify that. The VMware tax is a simplification tax, a tax that is reducing the costs of insurance against and mitigation of complexity.

So now to your point, yes… we've ramped right back up again and the complexity is still increasing because that uptake in cloud, that uptake in a bunch of new cloud native technologies that are now being pushed into IT. That uptake started a few years ago. And now it's built momentum. As there is more deployment, even if we don't add any new tech, the amount of deployment of that technology is increasing the deployed complexity. Getting that under control, we can put a number on it now like the cost of that complexity, in terms of staff efficiency outages, security vulnerabilities.

Businesses are now being able to quantify what that actually costs. And once that happens, once the CFO, CEO, COO, once somebody other than CIO can say, you've got a complexity problem over there that's beginning to hamper our business. It's not the technologist's fault. I mean, they're trying to solve problems. I don't want to go and blame anybody. But once it rises to that level in the business, then it's easier for everyone to stop and address it.

When a vendor comes in and says, "Oh, hey, we've got this this bamba-weenie 5000 thing" (you just got a weird hitchhikers reference). You just gotta have this thing. It's gonna change your business," and you say, "Okay, well, how does it fit into our monitoring infrastructure?" And they say, "Oh, well, you, you know, Go right? So you can just build your own…"

No, just No! Because the incremental benefit of that new tech is outweighed by an increase in complexity. I think that a big part of it is that the complexity has gotten to be the largest problem in and of itself and I think is part of what's driving a lot of this new reflection in simplification through staffing, training and other fundamentals.

iTWire: So are we on the downslide towards something more 'commoditisation' of our IT? I know cloud's going to help that. We all use NetSuite and Cisco and whatever else and say, I want to bolt together some very simple pieces. And if that's true, where are the small players? Are they cut out? Because it seems to me that the big companies are starting to own the whole space.

Hubbard: That's a really interesting question. You and I remember the days when the IBM sales rep, right, I'm sorry, the "HAL" sales rep, I won't say IBM, would come into a big pharmaceutical company, for example, and they would basically say, "Hey, listen, Bob, I gotta tell you, your ERP and sales processes here, I've never seen anything like it. You are… this is beauty that this is the core. This is the secret sauce of your business. And we're going to come in with our professional services team and our wealth of technical knowledge in hardware, we are going to build you an automated system that exactly replicates your special sauce. No one else is going to have what you have. And it's going to transform your business." That's the way it was for 20 years. And so you would go spend $150 million on SAP you would go do… I watched American Airlines spend some real money on some things back in the day. And Salesforce came along and said, "Hey, listen, we've got an 80/20 or 90/10 solution, it's going to do most of what you need. And then the other 10%, you're going to save so much using it that you're going to not mind reengineering your business processes around this product. And oh, by the way, you'll be able to hire people off the street who are qualified and using this thing and they'll be productive on your sales floor day one." And a bunch of people said, "What, no, that's impossible," and the early adopters who jumped on and got involved in that, were the ones that saw that, that gain.

And so to your to your question, I think that's true. I think you're seeing more and commoditisation. The whole point of cloud, if you think about it, is the cloud providers are the largest single providers of infrastructure globally, and they are MSPs, that's what they are. They are a managed service provider for infrastructure and they offer a programmatic interface to manage it.

In the same way, that when people adopted SAP's [Hubbard should have said SalesForce here, he corrected himself later] processes that were a little more straightforward, simple, and a narrower set of things that you could do and adjusted their business around it, they got all the benefits of the commoditisation of Salesforce. Same thing with Azure or AWS, is that once you learn how to use their interfaces and their APIs, you can command/control practically an infinite set of resources whenever you can afford in the same way. And yes, it is just as hard to learn to deploy 10 things in AWS, as it is 10,000 things. But once you make that hop up the learning curve, you can now extend it and the application complexity increases, but the number of tools that are necessary to manage it does not increase at the same rate. You can go hire somebody off the street who's got certifications for AWS or Azure, and they're going to be just as effective on site. That's the thing with HCI. I'd say Azure stack falls into the same category, it's like, "oh, you want on-prem? Oh, but you want the benefits of a software actuated infrastructure. Hey, let me show you this thing called Azure Stack. It's really cool. Don't even worry about what we're doing up here. This way you can hire somebody who knows Azure and then you still get paths on prem HCI." [You're thinking] "I can't move my banking, I can't move my medical data. It's got to be on-prem but I'm just sick and tired of managing a storage controller and a SAN. I don't want to have to deal with all the east west traffic and optimisation, I just want big Legos. And when I run out of capacity, I just want another block that I put in here and it manages itself." That's cloud. That is what cloud is selling only it's on-prem. It's interesting to see these solutions that were born in the cloud, they were really more proven and polished in the cloud, but now beginning to return on-prem still answering that complexity problem.

So, I think you're right. I think the commoditisation is probably one of the single biggest outcomes but also seen as a, not a solution in and of itself, but a natural outcome of a desire to improve efficiency, cut cost and get complexity under control, if there's less to manage, there's just less to manage.

What do you think will happen when the industry starts widely outsourcing, specialist functions? Does IT begin to really lean on MSPs more? If your campus network is essentially Wi Fi and distribution, and almost everything else is off-site, you still have those business functions, you still have analysts who need access to special queries. Is there a point where MSPs start to come in and essentially provide the commoditised services by concealing the individual specialties that are part of a particular business?

iTWire: That was almost exactly my next question. I can see a role for people to come in and package all that up and dump it on somebody's desk and say, "here you go, you're working!"

Hubbard: With so much of that, I don't know… I think a lot of that gets lost in the conversation. Executives and leaders and to some extent, senior technology managers don't want to talk about feeds and speeds, they don't, they don't want to talk about the nuances of different types of fibre. It's not about the technical details anymore. Now, it's about providing business services. By the same token, you have technologists who are trying to actually deliver services, and they don't want to talk about business. They're interested, they need to know that they're aligned with the business, but the details of how the business works and budget, and the rest of it - they don't care. They want to actually solve problems with technology and make the world a better place to tech.

We're beginning to see it more in this year's report, that the idea is not when you try to get business and technologists together to create a superset of all the jargon in technology or gobbldy-gook that each one of them speaks and instead, create the intersection of those two sets and instead of expanding the conversation to include everything, to narrow the conversation down to just the common elements. When one of those groups is speaking to the other and they feel themselves going to jargon, that does not streamline the conversation.

Going back to the COVID example; We need to get everybody working from home to save the business. If I'm a technologist, everyone working from home means about 1,000 things to me that I have to do. Saving the business means about 1,000 things to the COO, the CEO, but they both are necessary to align effectively to have the same outcome. Streamlining that communication down to what the business needs without using business jargon, and technologists feeling empowered to speak to business more about what the business needs.

I'm just as guilty as I still write at least a little code every week - I'm just as guilty as anyone else! But that thing of where you feel like this person is speaking to you with a lot more authority about the business maybe of [mentally] going immediately to technology, because it's something that you absolutely understand and instead, like both sides, being willing to pause and take a minute and find that common ground is how you solve big problems, like the huge set of infrastructure changes that are necessary in order in a time of global pandemic.

To be continued in part 2.

 

 


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David Heath

David Heath has had a long and varied career in the IT industry having worked as a Pre-sales Network Engineer (remember Novell NetWare?), General Manager of IT&T for the TV Shopping Network, as a Technical manager in the Biometrics industry, and as a Technical Trainer and Instructional Designer in the industrial control sector. In all aspects, security has been a driving focus. Throughout his career, David has sought to inform and educate people and has done that through his writings and in more formal educational environments.

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