5 Digital Transformation Mistakes Infrastructure Leaders Make

April 14, 2022 Bernard Golden

Senior IT leaders, motivated by both the changing nature of our economy and more recently, the COVID pandemic, have decisively shifted their focus toward applications. The industry catchphrase for this shift, digital transformation, makes clear its dual nature: directed toward the digital future while at the same time acknowledging that the existing environment must be modernized—in other words, transformed. 

Tasked with enabling this new breed of applications are operations groups. To succeed, they must build a digital-ready environment that can move at the speed of cloud native competitors. Key ingredients in this initiative typically include: 

  • Use of one or more hyperscale public cloud providers in addition to the existing on-prem infrastructure

  • Adoption of containers and Kubernetes to enable use of common application artifacts across the entire application lifecycle

  • Creation of a platform group charged with managing a developer-friendly computing environment

Notwithstanding the resolve operations groups demonstrate to support digital transformation, I’ve seen many such initiatives falter or fail completely. Even when backed by the most determined of teams, many digital transformation efforts collapse in disappointment and recriminations. Common to the majority of these unsuccessful launches are one of the following five mistakes.

1. Failing to obtain business/IT alignment

The phrase digital transformation symbolizes the shift in IT’s role from “supporting the business” to “running the business.” The old approach required IT to receive a set of instructions from its business counterpart and faithfully execute them. The new reality of digital means that business and IT have to co-create the company’s market offerings. 

Unfortunately, many infrastructure leaders remain committed to the traditional order-taking processes, failing to understand that they must actively participate in defining those offerings. Aligning business strategy with IT workstreams is critical, and the best of today’s IT organizations prioritize alignment as a first-order requirement.

2. Lumping all applications together in the digital transformation bucket

While every company has digital transformation opportunities galore, every IT organization also has legacy systems aplenty. Critical to successful business/IT alignment is figuring out a plan for each application: Some applications need to be replaced with a cloud native version; others could benefit from being moved to a scalable public cloud from a resource-constrained on-prem environment; still others should be left as-is because they’re working just fine, thank you very much.

To ensure budget and talent are directed toward the most important opportunities, IT—in consultation with its appropriate business counterparts—must sort the application portfolio in the right action category, then further prioritize according to the categories that require investment.

3. Making digital transformation infrastructure-centric 

Digital transformation requires agile infrastructure, available on-demand via cloud computing, and container orchestration. However, too many infrastructure groups leave existing practices in place, which finds them layering slow manual processes over fast infrastructure and failing to generate any improvement in overall speed.

Application developers have been conditioned by the big cloud providers to expect instantaneous resource availability, and they require nothing less from their employer’s platform. All parties that interact with the platform must be engaged with its design and rollout in order to ensure application development practices can operate at cloud native speed.

4. Failing to streamline the path to production

Even if developers can rapidly access development resources, and the underlying platform operates at cloud speed, it doesn’t mean that the overall application lifecycle will move any faster than it would have pre-platform. That’s because if legacy practices lay undisturbed between the developer’s fingertips and code artifact deployment, the net effect of agile infrastructure efforts might be stymied or severely degraded. 

For example, if a testing group has to rebuild new artifacts from scratch in order to assess release quality, that introduces a delay into the path to production. Worse, it also introduces uncertainty as to whether what’s tested is what eventually goes into production.

One way to streamline the path to production is to undertake a value stream analysis, which maps out each step in the journey—from code complete to running in production—and identifies any steps that hinder the path to production. Many organizations are surprised to discover steps that no one was really aware of, or find low-value manual steps that can be conducted independently of the main production path. Automating or removing bottlenecks in the path to production can produce enormous improvements in throughput.

5. Scaling without proof points or experience

Sometimes enthusiasm outruns ability, which is something I’ve frequently seen with digital transformation efforts. Senior IT or business leaders mandate immediate action, the need to have an external authority develop a Big Bang transformation initiative leads to large consulting contracts being signed, and the entire organization subsequently swings into frantic activity. The ambition is understandable; the result, however, is often chaos.

The reality is no one begins their running career at the starting line of the Boston Marathon. Runners begin with noncompetitive jogs and gradually work up to more challenging competitions by rising through the ranks of community races and less-competitive distance races, and then qualifying for the big time.

IT organizations must take a similar path to digital transformation. Instead of mandating an unreachable objective and inviting failure, the right approach is to start with smaller projects that expose the organization and its members to working with cloud native technologies and allow it to incrementally build skills and processes to use as scale templates. By following a less demanding path, the organization will reach its digital transformation destination more quickly.

Achieving cloud native success

Digital transformation is an imperative for both companies and IT organizations, no matter their industry or size. Successfully moving to cloud native capabilities is the foundation needed to remain a viable entity in tomorrow’s economy.

But success requires more than being aware of what needs to be done and having the ambition to achieve it. Much in the same way running the Boston Marathon requires planning, preparation, and execution, so too does successful digital transformation. If your organization can avoid the five mistakes IT leaders commonly make in the heat of the current digital transformation race, it will position itself for cloud native success.

Further reading

Modern Application Development: A Step-by-Step Guide

How Tanzu Enables the Three Cloud Transformations

Get Thee to the Cloud: App Modernization vs Cloud Transformation (webinar)

About the Author

Bernard Golden is an Executive Technical Advisor at VMware, and serves as part of the Tanzu Value Advisory team, which works with the company’s most important customers to help accelerate their digital transformation initiatives. Named by Wired.com as one of the 10 most influential people in cloud computing, Bernard is the author or co-author of five books on open source and cloud computing, including the best-selling cloud computing book of all time, "Amazon Web Services for Dummies."

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