IT Innovation and the bleeding edge

This is the sequel to my introductory post “IT leadership in the 21st century“.

IT Innovation and the bleeding edge

When IT is being used to drive innovation, it is by definition on the ‘bleeding edge’. This is because proven technology is in wide use, and it will not lead to much competitive advantage. There is nothing wrong with proven technology. It just does not give you that leading edge.

There is a lot of proven technology in IT. We quite know how to build reliable hardware, and a lot of software layers have been battle tested for decades. The core of much of server land out there is Linux, which is a remake of a remake of Unix, which was in its 10th edition when I worked for a while at AT&T Bell Labs in 1986. It would be an understatement to say that we sort of know how a good operating system kernel should look like. Even so, we are still regularly exposed to security bugs.

In programming languages the innovation is more recent. When I went to university Java was not yet invented. It is considered old school now. New programming languages still pop up in production, one example being Go (or golang) as developed at Google in 2009 (incidentally by people that I met at Bell Labs more than 30 years earlier).

Beyond programming languages we see innovation in the software delivery and deployment. Docker is the rage now, but it is not the end game.

You don’t need a lot of IT leadership for proven technology. There are no hard choices to make. You can just do what your peers do, or ask your supplier. And if you are on the bleeding edge, it is best to base that on proven technology as much as possible.

Real digital innovation takes real digital leadership

But real digital innovation takes real digital leadership. And this leadership has to both understand the business requirements as well as the entire path to the programmer who presses a button to deploy as well as the path from there to the customer’s screen. Of course, you need not understand every detail about it, but it pays to understand the general concepts, trade-offs and risks.

And generally speaking, right now the benefit is in feature velocity and the main risks are twofold. The first risk is in your own competence, the second is in smart adversaries hacking your system for personal data.

This is the new ground to break. That is the bleeding edge.


More in a next post at which point we have to consider the social and organizational dimension of innovating with and within IT.