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After 60 years, it's time to reexamine how we label and think about information technology, and to give the profession a fresh start.
The term “information technology,” was coined 60 years ago in November 1958 by Harold J. Leavitt and Thomas L. Whisler in their Harvard Business Review article “Management in the 1980’s,” which speculated about what would happen to the American managerial structure with the coming wave of technology.
Not only did they name it, it stuck. Now, 60 years later, those of us with wide-ranging jobs in technology, from DevOps to network architect to chief innovation officer are referred to by the irksome catch-all: “IT”.
So what’s wrong with that?
IT, short of course for information technology, is an old-school title in a new school world. It incites the same quiet rage as calling a human resources professional "personnel" or an executive assistant a "secretary". It’s just not what we do anymore. IT calls to mind botched passwords, Internet connection errors, and monitors that don’t work (have you tried turning it on?).
IT came of age at a time when technology was foisted upon a workforce that wasn’t ready for it. A generation prepared for the typewriter was instead given a PC, VisiCalc, WordPerfect, and an email address. As a result, copious amounts of coddling, tutoring, and round the clock safety net support was required just to keep up — enter IT as the universal fixer of things.
At the same time, resources devoted to advancing artificial intelligence were diverted to the PC. So, we essentially took a major break from advancing machine learning with AI to learning how to use the machines of the PC era. This took a toll on our industry, because a lot of smart technology people ended up, to put it bluntly, playing professional babysitter for offices on tech training wheels. To be clear, there will always be a need for tech people in the repair and maintenance track. They keep the lights on and fix what’s broken with precision and skill. But for years, that was the only task we were called on for.
Today, we’re in a different place, the pendulum having swung decidedly back in favor of imagining and building the future, and putting the resources and talent behind it. We find ourselves at a pivotal point where the exponential proliferation of data and computing power is meeting increased social acceptance to bring the future to the present rapidly.
At Power Home Remodeling, where I serve as chief innovation officer, our department is called Business Technology — BT for short — which I believe is the most accurate and direct way to describe what we do. We’re designing new experiences in every facet of the business, from employee to consumer, and we’re seeing major results linked directly to services that originate in BT. Creating a BT department that will take your company to the next level requires a full buy-in from the CEO, a permanent seat at the table, and a commitment to long-term investment.
Looking back, our BT model was born the day we chose to build our own technology instead of buying it. We learned the business inside and out, which allowed us to design technology that supports the entire company. It was so transformative that you can pinpoint BT’s birthday on Power’s revenue growth chart because the growth line turns from incremental to exponential. We grew from $27 million in 2007 to $700 million today because we’ve chosen to be a technology company that provides home remodeling services, just like Netflix is a technology company providing on demand video streaming capabilities.
Despite the persuasive argument for business technology, IT is still the dominant industry descriptor. A simple search on Glassdoor in the Philadelphia area showed more than twice the jobs posted for information technology (2,923) versus business technology (1,423). It won’t happen overnight, but the time is coming where our existential impact on the business shows up in the name of our department.
I don’t want to give off the impression that we are obsessed with titles in a pretentious way. Aside from wanting to create new, awesome things, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. At Power, we call our app support team Ninjas and the desktop and infrastructure support team Samurais. And our scrum teams have names like Defenders, Titans, and Nova Core. Why? Because we’re technology people, and we embrace being a little bit different than everyone else. We’re actually just big kids with giant imaginations. We’re people who see the future, know how to create it, and want to bring everyone else along for the ride. We’re magic makers with a shared vision. We just need a canvas big enough to sketch out everything we see in our imaginations, and the resources to make it a reality.
We are so much more than IT. Power’s BT team goes way beyond processing help tickets and change requests, we are creating new functionality and future oriented solutions that add value to the business.
So, as we celebrate 60 years of information technology, let’s all wish it a happy birthday, celebrate its contributions to the world, and give it a great send off to a well-earned retirement.
Timothy Wenhold is chief innovation officer and partner at Power Home Remodeling, the nation's largest, full-service exterior home remodeling company headquartered in Chester, Pennsylvania.
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