My first job was as an engineer helping design hardware for “big iron” enterprise servers, the kind that are as big as a good-size refrigerator (or, if you live in one of those insanely small New York or San Francisco apartments, almost as big as your living room). Those systems were shipped to customers’ data centers and became the engines running databases, ERP applications, CRM systems, and more. The hardware and the application software were rather complex, giving IT a critical role to play: monitoring and maintaining hardware, monitoring and tuning application software, managing upgrades, and more.

The Cloud Disruption

That’s increasingly the world of the past. There’s been a lot written about the new “cloud era” (for example, Bloomberg’s article about how traditional vendors are finding themselves disrupted by the cloud). Not only are established organizations doing more and more in the cloud, but also a lot of new companies (Snowflake included) are eschewing data centers altogether and running everything in the cloud–a recent Forbes article went so far as to say that the San Francisco startup explosion is a direct result of the fact that cloud and software-as-a-service (SaaS) have significantly lowered the cost and complexity of getting a new company off the ground.

That leaves IT in a world that’s rapidly changing under its feet. For a lot of IT departments I’ve talked to, that’s a pretty scary change. One reason for the concern is certainly that if cloud and SaaS are taking over the traditional IT responsibilities mentioned above, will IT professionals jobs be next? However, it’s not just that–there’s also legitimate concern that cloud infrastructure and SaaS are opening up a Pandora’s box of shadow IT where standardization, security, availability, and compatibility are inconsistent at best and forgotten at worst.

Finding a New Purpose

So what role, if any, is there for IT in the cloud era? From my experience working with a lot of different organizations, there’s an even more critical and impactful role that IT needs to play. The proliferation of cloud and SaaS applications makes it increasingly easy to end up in a morass of complexity, incompatibility, and siloed information. IT needs to be the strategic partner that helps its customers choose, deploy, and integrate cloud and SaaS in a way that avoids chaos and complexity while increasing innovation and productivity. More specifically:

  • Deliver more, faster. A common IT challenge is that the number of project requests far exceeds what IT can deliver. Using cloud and SaaS, IT can deliver more projects faster, increasing innovation and productivity across the organization.
  • Prevent silos and ensure integration. By proactively helping to choose and deploy SaaS applications in a coherent, integrated way IT can prevent shadow IT from leading to incompatible and inaccessible silos of information and insight that get in the way of business planning and decision making.
  • Deliver world-class solutions. It’s prohibitively difficult and expensive for IT to be the best in the world at everything it’s traditionally been asked to do–world class at datacenter operations, at monitoring, at capacity planning, at security, at application tuning, at application troubleshooting, etc. But cloud and SaaS enable IT to raise the bar, finding and choosing vendors and products that deliver the highest standards of capability, performance, security, availability, and more.

Cloud and SaaS make it possible for IT to stop being consumed with being the mechanics of technology, a role that ultimately limits IT to a cost center. Instead, IT can focus on being the enabler of projects that deliver differentiation and strategic advantage. After all, it’s wonderful to be a good do-it-yourself car mechanic, but the driving is an awfully big part of the fun.