A Utility Model or Innovation in IT?

By Scott Menter, University of California, Irvine (CA)

Life in the more affluent regions of Southern California d'es not normally invite comparisons with the bleak existence one might experience in your average refugee camp. There is one event, however, that tends to remind us sophisticated, suburban, “Left Coast” yuppie types that we’re just one errant tree branch or lightning strike away from medieval-style anarchy. I refer, of course, to our unfortunate penchant for power outages.

Normally I never, ever, spend any time thinking about the people at Southern California Edison whose job it is to provide me with limitless, uninterrupted, spike-free power. Never, that is, until the lights go out. Then in the dark, sweltering room, as I’m tripping over the dog while trying to find where I left the flashlight the last time this happened, I suddenly find myself thinking about them a lot.

Fortunately, I cannot actually be arrested for these thoughts. And my desire to act on them rapidly dissolves as the hum of the air conditioners announces the return of the power and, with it, civilization as we know it.

Meanwhile, back at work, I’ve got about 40,000 customers of my own. These are smart, hardworking people who might think of my organization exactly the same way I think of the electric company:

  • E-mail is fast, reliable, and (relatively) spam-free.
    Response: Yawn.
  • The latest rewrite from our co-author in Kazakhstan took 23 minutes to arrive!
    Response: What idiot is in charge of this thing anyway?

For too many of us, that’s the whole story. We focus our efforts on reducing failure and providing a predictable basic service. As long as we’re not getting complaints, we must be doing something right. Right?

Wrong. Dependable performance is great, but it’s the absolute minimum that should be expected of us. Reliable service is noticeable primarily in its absence. I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer to be noticed more often than just when I fail. These days, though, getting attention for doing something right is harder than ever.

Let’s face it: Over time, the shine has come off the IT apple. Most undergraduates show up on campus with laptops (and they’re usually better than the one I have), the network is omnipresent, wireless is pervasive, and computing services are generally reliable. Even the most technically challenged among us now pay bills online, share photos on Yahoo!, and Google into the wee hours. The dazzle factor of technology has been trampled beneath the heavy spiked boots of unrelentingly dull PowerPoint presentations and wildly expensive printer cartridges that empty faster than a keg on the last day of finals.

So somewhere along the way, people began thinking of IT not as a source of remarkable new ideas and opportunities, but rather as a simple utility. The sad fact is that utilities, for all their importance, lack pizzazz. And pizzazz is a concept that we ignore at our peril.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not just talking about creating excitement around something that’s actually fairly pedestrian. If I were interested in doing that, I’d get a marketing job at a breakfast cereal company. “Pizzazz,” as I am using it, is what you get when you do something really new…something that delivers obvious, measurable value to the institution.

Here’s a pizzazz primer:

Delivering e-mail with attachments? Zero pizzazz. Automatically separating the attachments and dropping them into Web-accessible storage where they can be accessed or revised by all the correspondents, complete with version control? Mucho pizzazz!

Deploying a bunch of PCs into student labs? Lack of pizzazz. Deploying a bunch of diskless thin clients into student labs, eliminating the cost and trouble of keeping all those PCs free of malware? Lots of pizzazz!

When we start to think of ourselves as utility providers, we lose sight of the very thing with the power to reignite the passion our users have for technology (and, by extension, for us): innovation. Sure, we can provide reliable systems all day long. Forgive my saying so, but that’s too easy. You do not want your provost to look at your budget the way you look at your electric bill. As IT professionals, we are uniquely qualified to design novel and creative ways for the institution to instruct, investigate, cut expenses, or attract donors. By creating such opportunities for the campus, innovation leads to a virtuous cycle of bigger budgets, greater resources, and more innovation. And that, my friends, has got pizzazz.

E. Scott Menter is the director of infrastructure services, Network and Academic Computing Services at the University of California-Irvine.

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