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Building a digital business: 5 key skills for central IT

You might not expect that moving to digital applications would require so much change, but the digital world upends assumptions and imposes transitions - even transformations.

Not so long ago, most business transactions required analog interactionsa face-to-face meeting, a phone call, or a faxed response. Today, customers expect to accomplish real-world business tasks using nothing more than a browser, a mobile device, or even just the spoken word. 

Digital change is difficult, no questionIt changes a company's markets, customers, and products. Enterprise IT groups are usually responsible for building these new digital applications, but success requires collaboration between IT and the business side.

In a successful collaboration, each party brings specific skills to the table. The business side will need updated product management and marketing expertise. But what will IT need? It won’t surprise you that building new digital applications requires change on the IT side. To be successful, IT organizations will need to recruit a new set of skills, ranging from user experience (UX) experts to microservice architects and even evangelists.

IT leaders should consider co-locating these new hires to achieve a critical mass of skills. Gartner recommends this approach in its concept of bimodal IT, which is focused on helping IT departments manage the transition to a digital business environment. 

So what skills does this digital nirvana require? Once you get past the splashy slides of an analyst firm or the exhortations of a conference speaker, it takes real work to birth a digital offering. That starts with people. If you’re staffing for the digital age, here are five skills that you absolutely must have in your organization:

1. UX expert

The importance of user experience in the digital world cannot be overemphasized. As I described in my recent article comparing mobile apps produced by two different banks, delivering a useful digital experience requires the integration of convenience, usability, and, crucially, complete functionality. One bank I mentioned in the article limited monthly mobile deposits to a laughably low amount. No doubt it thought the ability to remotely deposit checks was wonderful, but in practice, I found the service less useful than an ATM deposit. Promising convenience and then failing to deliver is worse than not promising it at all.

Many IT organizations view UX experts as people who know how to build interfaces for a given form factor, such as a mobile application. In reality, UX extends well beyond interface design and coding. It requires the ability to understand the user requirements put forward by product managers and imagine them as a personal interaction between a human and a digital application. 

The latest development in UX is the concept of design thinking, which focuses on helping the user accomplish the job at hand. As this example from a designer at toymaker Lego illustrates, design thinking is about experiencing your product or service from the user's perspective. That's precisely why digital enterprises need design thinkers. 

2. Microservice architect

The differences between traditional and digital applications are stark. Traditional applications typically run on internal, static infrastructure. They expect stable loads and change infrequently. Digital applications are typically cloud-based. They experience erratic loads driven by external events or user whim. And the hallmark of digital applications is that they constantly change to deliver new functionality to a demanding user community. 

The monolithic application designs appropriate for traditional applications are no longer adequate. In their place a new design paradigm called microservices has emerged. Essentially, it partitions application functionality to components that communicate with one another via APIs. As a result, individual parts of the application can operate independently from each other, and also evolve independently to meet changing user needs. 

Netflix designs microservices so that even if the services are unable to complete a task, they still return something appropriate for the user. For example, if the service that returns a user's viewing queue can't do its job due to some kind of software failure, it will instead return a "vanilla" list appropriate to the user's demographics. This allows the overall Netflix application to display something meaningful despite the queue retrieval failure. It also allows the overall Netflix application to continue operating even if some portion is unavailable or degraded. 

Microservices are a powerful architectural approach, but they are complex to design and operate, and require real talent to implement properly. These skills are in short supply in the marketplace, so expect to pay a premium when you recruit.

3. NoSQL admin

Traditional enterprise applications typically run on SQL databases. These venerable warhorses come from a time of small application portfolios, when constant manual monitoring and tinkering by a database admin was a given.

Digital application data storage approaches are quite different. For one, they manage much larger storage pools. SQL databases find it difficult to scale to these levels. Moreover, digital applications have higher uptime expectations, so redundancy is necessary. Finally, this scale precludes individual instance attention; the storage system needs to monitor and manage ongoing execution on its own.

Fortunately, a new class of data storage product is in the market, and it goes by the moniker NoSQL. Typically, NoSQL databases are distributed, redundant, dynamic, and driven by key-value interfaces. NoSQL databases are good mechanisms to provide storage for microservices-based applications, so it won't surprise you that Netflix makes extensive use of Cassandra, one of the leading NoSQL products. 

In terms of deployed topologies, NoSQL products differ significantly from traditional relational database deployments. The latter commonly run on a single server or a small group of clustered servers, while NoSQL topologies often include dozens or hundreds of individual servers. Consequently, the traditional administrative model of tweaking an individual server's storage configuration is not common in the NoSQL world. After all, trying to tweak a couple hundred servers' worth of software would be a Sisyphean task.

Getting the best—and the most—out of a NoSQL cluster is not easy, and it requires skills quite different from those of a traditional database administrator. You'll either need to hire new people or provide NoSQL training to your current DBAs.  

4. DevOps engineer

Digital applications change frequently, with new code deployed daily, or even hourly. Yesterday’s manual, ITIL-based practices have given way to DevOps, which automates the various steps between a code change leaving a developer’s fingers and going into production.

Creating an automated code pipeline is another non-trivial job. For example, you need to ensure the automation process doesn't overlook important tasks like code scanning and load testing. Migrating from manual execution of these steps to an automated system requires examining each operations task and figuring out how to automate it. It also requires figuring out how to integrate with the output of the upstream task as well as how to trigger the downstream task that succeeds it. 

Some IT organizations place responsibility for implementing DevOps with developers, but that may not be wise. It requires developers to learn a whole new set of skills that are distinct from application functionality. For example, security scans are a crucial element of any DevOps implementation, but developers aren't typically trained to focus on security when they build apps. 

A better approach is to hire people with specialized skills in operations automation and application compliance. They focus on designing and operating the underlying DevOps infrastructure that developers use. This ensures a streamlined code-to-production process and allows developers to focus on what they do best: create applications. 

5. Evangelist

Most of us are familiar with the role of an evangelist. Tech vendors frequently deploy them as resources for meetups, informal discussions, and presentations at technical conferences. The evangelist's job is to influence potential users of a product without engaging in anything like a sales interaction. 

Why would an internal business function like central IT need evangelists? To be blunt, IT organizations need evangelists to influence IT colleagues who may resist moving to digital practices. Magic happens when two techies interact, focusing on technical matters, unburdened by deliverables or other demands. Of course, you can’t rely only on the skills and personal qualities of an evangelist to set organizational expectations. That requires senior executive sponsorship and attention. But evangelists can help IT organizations accelerate the process of moving from words to actions. 

New digital skills: Lessons for leaders

  • Many IT organizations will need to acquire new skill sets to meet digital business demands.  
  • Key roles include UX expert, microservice architect, NoSQL admin, and DevOps engineer.
  • Consider co-locating your digital business team to achieve a critical mass of skills.
  • Hiring an evangelist can help influence IT colleagues who may resist moving to new digital practices.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.