My Web Doesn't Like Your Enterprise, at Least While it's More Fun

The other day Jesse posted a call for participation for the next Velocity Web Operations Conference. My background is in the enterprise space, so, despite Velocity’s web focus, I wondered if there might not be interest in a bit of enterprise participation. After all, enterprise data centers deal with the same “Fast, Scaleable, Efficient, and Available” imperatives. I figured there might be some room for the two communities to learn from each other. So, I posted to the internal Radar author’s list to see what everyone else thought.

Mostly silence. Until Artur replied with this quote from one of his friends employed at a large enterprise: “What took us a weekend to do, has taken 18 months here.” That concise statement seems to sum up the view of the enterprise, and I’m not surprised. For nearly six years I’ve been swimming in the spirit-sapping molasses that is the Department of Defense IT Enterprise so I’m quite familiar with the sentiment. I often express it myself.

We’ve had some of this conversation before at Radar. In his post on Enterprise Rules, Nat used contrasting frames of reference to describe the web as your loving dear old API-provisioning Dad, while the enterprise is the belt-wielding standing-in-the-front-door-when-you-come-home-after-curfew step father.

While I agree that the enterprise is about control and the web is about emergence (I’ve made the same argument here at Radar), I don’t think this negative characterization of the enterprise is all that useful. It seems to imply that the enterprise’s orientation toward control springs fully formed from the minds of an army of petty controlling middle managers. I don’t think that’s the case.

I suspect it’s more likely the result of large scale system dynamics, where the culture of control follows from other constraints. If multiverse advocates are right and there are infinite parallel universes, I bet most of them have IT enterprises just like ours; at least in those shards that have similar corporate IT boundary conditions. Once you have GAAP, Sarbox, domain-specific regulation like HIPAA, quarterly expectations from “The Street,” decades of MIS legacy, and the talent acquisition realities that mature companies in mature industries face, the strange attractors in the system will pull most of those shards to roughly the same place. In other words, the IT enterprise is about control because large businesses in mature industries are about control. On the other hand, the web is about emergence because in this time, place, and with this technology discontinuity, emergence is the low energy state.

Also, as Artur acknowledged in a follow up email to the list, no matter what business you’re in, it’s always more fun to be delivering the product than to be tucked away in a cost center. On the web, bits are the product. In the enterprise bits are squirreled away in a supporting cost center that always needs to be ten percent smaller next year.

Anyway, with all of this in mind, I went online and watched some of last year’s Velocity talks on video. I wanted to get my own sense of whether an enterprise point of view might add something to the proceedings or whether it simply missed the mark.

The message in the talks seemed to distill down to “this stuff is serious; it’s important to be disciplined at it; and it’s not just a sideline, it’s critical to the business.” Hello! That’s the enterprise talking. Watching the video I could almost hear that Enterprise Step Dad slapping his belt into the palm of his hand while muttering “governance” and “zero baseline budgeting” under his breath. Wait a few more years until all your expensive pre-depreciation legacy infrastructure meets the declining margins of a maturing industry, and presto, you’ll have an enterprise too.

“The web is great and the enterprise sucks” sentiment that Nat captured in his post (and that I sometimes spout myself in various guises) made me think of this quote about George Orwell. He had a penchant for complaining about the conformity of little English towns:

“He spoke defensively, as if he feared I might blame him for this urban pastoral.  It was a Victorian guilt, and in many ways Orwell was a Victorian figure, for, like most people ‘in rebellion’, he was more than half in love with what he was rebelling against.”

Put another way, we complain about the enterprise, but maybe it’s because we work in places that are in a state of perpetually emergent chaos. Naturally, we as individuals aren’t contributing to the chaos; but when other people are involved, enterprise-like control has a certain appeal.

Or, could it be that the web is moving into its post emergence period and all of this rebellion against enterprise control is heightened by our collective intuition that an era is winding down?

I think Silicon Valley gets this at a subconscious level… all the thrashing around with green tech, bio this and that, automotive, politics, etc. Sometimes it seems like the geeks are talking about everything except what made them geeks in the first place. At one level this really stems from a genuine “do stuff that matters” impulse, but at another level I think it’s a realization that the fun part of the web is probably more behind us than ahead of us.

The web is about 12’ish years old and maybe we’re worried that our precocious and brilliant technological discontinuity is set to enter a rather dull adolescence. Nothing left in it for us but weekends full of travel soccer and irritating teacher-parent conferences about that latest Myspace incident. It all sort of sounds like a collective “Honey, this one’s a teenager, let’s have a cute new one.”

Radio in the 20’s, jet aircraft design in the 60’s, Bell Labs, the “golden era” of television, a thirty year boom in chemistry starting in the 30’s… They all eventually became dull too when their declining novelty curves crossed the rising ones of legacy cost. We’re probably fewer than ten years away from a web full of cubicle-dwelling Dilbert-esque cynicism just like the kind found throughout yesteryear’s “it” industries. But by then all the cool kids will have moved on to building sea floor geo-thermal something-or-others, solar flare catchers, or Gods help us, hand cranked desalination plants.

I’m not saying that the web’s moment is over, it’s too early and there is still too much opportunity for that, but I don’t think we’ll keep seeing tens of thousands of our best and brightest migrating westward every year to work for a granularized, digitized, and de-glamorized advertising firm that buses its employees to work. Ten years from now the Mad Men sequel will be skipping the three martini lunches to satirize cafeteria donut burgers.

There is a wonderful side to all of this. It’s the side I try to focus on in my real job. All of this emergent stuff like open source, remote services, cloud computing, and etc. that happened on the web, hasn’t happened just for the web. It was mostly catalyzed there, but it’s impacting the enterprise too by changing those enterprise IT boundary conditions and the eco-system that the enterprise lives in.

Things like open source software may have never emerged from the shadows in an enterprise-only world, but with the web as host it has gestated to a maturity that the enterprise will accept. Plus it’s a culture virus (video) that carries emergent thinking into the enterprise right along with the software. For those of us doing enterprise work our goal should be to make control less necessary as we strive to develop “emergence welcome” zones inside, between, or along the edges of the traditional enterprise.

There are a lot more people doing “enterprise IT” worldwide then there are doing web stuff. So, technologies that shift the generativity of the web into the enterprise will unleash all that pent up talent and create a wave of innovation. For example, just imagine a world where Vivek Kundra is no longer considered all that interesting because enterprise IT shops everywhere are doing the kinds of things he’s doing in DC now, and more. What do you think?

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