Smuggling Web Practices into the Enterprise

How fast can the enterprise change?

At last year’s Fluent Conference, I kept having the same conversation with attendees from large companies. They had come to the show with a mandate from their bosses to figure out how to bring that fast-moving web work into their slow-moving enterprise systems.

I enjoyed some of that same conversation this year, but also a different note: even with management support, making that transition was difficult. Some parts meshed, others were difficult: changes in one place could reverberate through many others. The whole concept of “rapid prototyping” fit badly with a variety of technologies and approaches meant to minimize unpleasant surprises. Even eight years after the advent of Ajax, a variety of server-centric techniques limit the flexibility of front-end developers.

Someone at lunch said that “the technology helps, but the culture matters.” A few others talked about how everyone wanted better front-end work, but thought it could be grafted easily on existing back-end practice. The shiny parts are easy to talk about, but the plumbing is harder.

I was happy to see Bill Scott (@billwscott) of PayPal take on these challenges in his keynote. Bill wasn’t smuggling anything—that would be difficult under the title “Clash of the Titans: Releasing the Kraken.” He was brought to PayPal to change the company, to bring the lean “build – measure – learn” approach. In a risk-averse world, with “a 20-day class on how to use their version of Spring,” Scott had to change the “culture of a long shelf life” (something publishing folks are starting to do as well).

It’s a hard-hitting talk, calling for major change, skunkworks projects, and shifts in both company culture and technology.

Bill Scott is in a good place—he’s well-known for bringing web approaches to companies that need them. It seemed clear from comments after, though, that lots of attendees wished they had that kind of leverage. “I need to get my manager to watch that” was one start, but it’s going to be a challenge for a lot of people.

If you work at enterprise-scale, what does your web process look like? Does it take full advantage of the web’s rapid prototyping cycles? How deeply intertwined are your front end and your back end? Do you have just a bit of polishing to do, or do you need to shift models completely? Are you smuggling, walking boldly, or already there?

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