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Digital Transformation: The Coder’s Business Codex

Coté demystifies what the term "digital transformation" means for developers.

Michael Coté November 23, 2020

Who will speak for the various, meaningless phrases and jargon that fills our ears? “Digital transformation,” for example. Year after year, surveys of Very Important People in the form of Gartner’s CIO Agenda Report and others show rising interest, even “do or die” desire for digital transformation. These efforts seem to always be behind: They’re either underfunded or in the process of getting more funding; skilled people are consistently hard to find. And the headwinds! Always with the macro-global headwinds.

But surely a company must transform in order to remain competitive. Indeed, if all these executives are craving “digital transformation” and complaining about how hard it is to achieve, it must be something very important, right?

Well, sort of.

Computers are awesome!

The problem with “digital transformation” is that it’s become an umbrella term to mean any spending on or change to IT. We need to implement remote working? Then we need digital transformation. Our goal is now better analytics? That means digital transformation! Upping our sales through Instagram? Roll in the digital transformation!

When a term is used for everything, it loses its meaning. In such cases, I like to replace “digital transformation” or whatever the phrase of the moment is with “Computers are awesome!” Doing so helps me remember that all people are talking about is using computers to conduct business.

Rewriting your organization

In my codex, for developers, “digital transformation” means changing how your organization thinks about, does, and uses custom written software. The business functions, innovates, and prospers because of developers’ work.

We used to say things like, “You’re either becoming a software company or losing to competition that is.” But while I’m no slouch when it comes to using hyperbole to make a point, this phrasing overstates it a bit.

“Software is eating the world,” on the other hand, means that how you write, run, and evolve your own software is one of your core differentiators. And those differentiators are the reason customers buy your stuff over your competitors’ stuff, hopefully at a higher price—think Apple vs. Android phones.

When you’re using your own software development and innovation abilities to make your organization great, you’re doing digital transformation.

But what, exactly, is the “transformation” part? That’s about the software. And when it comes to software—from producing it to using it to run the business— most organizations are, er, terrible. I’m sure you’ve used such software, likely from your telcos, insurance companies, grocery stores, and/or government agencies (ask me about renewing my passport and voting sometime, and be sure to bring some tacos and beer).

Most organizations think about—and have thought about, for decades—software as little more than paper clips. Really, really expensive paperclips. Software is seen as a tool, specified to meet certain initial needs, delivered, and then run. There’s little attention or care paid to evolving that software, let alone using it as a method to constantly discover new ideas, new ways of working with customers, and new ways of improving the business.

The Bermuda shorts imperative

As an analogy, think of a general store. Imagine that the store has been built, the shelves have been put up, and the store owners are deciding on the products with which they’ll stock those shelves. If they followed the mindset that most organizations do with software, the store’s layout and the products it carries would rarely change. Never mind if Bermuda shorts came back (fingers crossed!) or cup-and-ball ceased to be such a red-hot toy, the store wouldn’t change.

For many organizations, software is their primary storefront. And just as our imagined store has to evolve to stay alive (perhaps adding the trendy hoops and sticks that the tots are mad for), that software needs to constantly change.

Please, no more transforming

Those of us in IT are no strangers to transformation. We’re constantly beset by executives telling us that it’s either “change or die.” Vendors and cloud providers delight in such exhortations as they drive new sales (Hi, it me!). However, while over the years many of those new systems and software have increased performance and lowered costs, it’s rare that sweeping IT change actually changes the business, let alone the core business model.

What’s lacking is the involvement of the rest of the organization. No matter how good developers and operations people get at software production, how drunk on Lean Startup product management and DevOps IT get, to enable transformation, those who are tasked with running the business need to “shift left” into the software development process.

Here, for developers, “digital transformation” means programming the business, changing how an organization works with every pull request, every item in the backlog, and every deployment. (Like I said, I’m no stranger to hyperbole.) If your business is being digitally transformed, it means your code is changing how the business runs—maybe even what it ultimately is.

So, the next time you hear “digital transformation,” try not to throw up in your mouth and roll your eyes. Think of it as a chance to get your hands dirty with (shudder) THE BUSINESS. You undoubtedly have many opinions that start with “Why don’t we…?” or “Wouldn’t it be better if…?” Or my favorite, telling phrase: “What do those people even do?” (telling because, like, maybe it’s more that you should have figured it out already). Now’s your chance to see how the rest of your organization functions by looking above that ever-blinking cursor.

I am, however, getting a little ahead of myself. Yes, IT is great at software and stands at the ready, waiting to shoot rays of transformation into the sky—pew! Pew!—but you do need to make sure you are actually following best practices and, you know, building and running your software well. Those best practices are like flossing: We all know we should be doing it, how to do it, and the consequences of not doing it, but few of us actually floss.

So grab your digital floss. In part two, we’ll look at what IT needs to do in order to get ready to enable digital transformation.