“Survival of the Fitters.”
I don’t know whom to credit for that wonderful line. I first heard it from Fred Snow, a vice president with the distributor TechData, but he says he picked it up somewhere else.
In any case, I’ve been stealing the line with glee, for not only is it a nice play on words, it’s a perfect description of the PC marketplace these days. It describes the results of both last year’s downward pricing pressure on PC hardware vendors and the market’s swing to Windows applications on software vendors.
That phrase came to me again last month. I’d gone off into the woods, so to speak, for a week, to get away from my daily routine and think about where management of the corporate computing function is headed.
“Survival of the Fitters” indeed. How better could we describe the upheavals in IS management over the past decade — and especially the last two or three years?
So many of the themes that have defined business computing during the ’80s and ’90s are really variations on that idea.
With the advent of PCs, savvy IS managers steered a course away from shared-logic systems toward putting power on the desktop.
With the advent of usable LAN technology, smart IS people relinked those desktops in a different kind of grid — what a friend of mine who runs IS at a southeastern bank calls a “power grid” — via LANs.
With the increasing power of servers and super servers, and greater throughput throughout the network, IS staffers are now going through the process of downsizing and rightsizing, delivering to their users levels of power and information access they’ve never had.
In sum, the fitters have survived.
That’s been at least as profound a cultural change as it has been a technical one. IS people in the ’60s and ’70s were not exactly known for their flexibility. Anyone who worked with a typical corporate MIS department circa 1970 remembers all too well the inflexibility that seemed almost genetic: Was there, somewhere on an org chart of the IS department, perhaps a box marked Director of Intransigence?
The advent of desktop systems and LANs didn’t change the attitudes of some IS people, of course. A few are still installed in positions where they can be genuinely dangerous to their companies’ health; others remain in their departments but have been shuffled off to safer, meaningless, “administrivia” jobs.
Many more of the old IS hard-liners (read: manifest non-fitters) have retired. And some downsized themselves: Seeing the handwriting on the wall, they exited their corporate jobs for IS positions at smaller companies.
In other words, the non-fitters did not survive.
Make no mistake: This has been a harshly Darwinian period. Those who adapted, survived; those who did not, disappeared. Not since the advent of the modern corporate IS department in the 1950s had there been such a challenge to IS staffs; never have so many IS people been swept out by the winds of change.
On my retreat, I was struck that today many IS people find themselves in the early stages of a similar encounter. But the contest isn’t between flexibility and inflexibility — who would argue today for inflexibility as a virtue? — so much as it is between embracing diversity and resisting or complaining about it.
We can no longer flee from mixed-hardware environments — PCs, Macs, workstations, mainframes, minis — or mixed-software environments — Windows, OS/2, NT, NetWare, Univel connected to NetWare, etc.
And we’ve got to stop bitching about them.
When I write a follow-up to this column in the issue of Feb. 3, 2003, it’s going to be about those IS managers and staffers who embraced diversity, and by making its mastery the hallmarks of their departments, not only survived but prospered in the 1990s.
And about those who, baffled by an exploding universe of computing hardware and software standards, tried to bar the door — and have disappeared.