‘Traditional’ is not a dirty word

Sometimes ‘new’ and ‘disruptive’ really doesn’t make sense

As an industry analyst, I take a lot of briefings from IT vendors and service providers. Most of these begin with a spokesperson framing the discussion around some kind of industry narrative. Listen to enough pitches, and you tend to hear the same things over and over again. Depending on who is telling the story, the future is defined by public cloud, hybrid-cloud, multi-cloud, Agile development, DevOps, AI ops, hybrid-work, etc, etc. And let’s not forget the mother of all topics around which many stories are told at the moment – digital transformation.

Working in a company that does a lot of primary research within the IT community, this can sometimes be a little wearing. Why? Well, because the picture we usually get when surveying IT leaders and practitioners tends to be a lot more down to earth. It’s not that IT teams aren’t interested in emerging ideas and technologies, it’s more that they know from experience that ‘new’ doesn’t always mean ‘better’ – it usually depends on the context.

Against this background, it was refreshing to receive a briefing from Ed May, CEO of Microsec, a company we might loosely describe as a ‘software house’. Founded in 1979, and with upwards of 500 developers spread around the UK, Eastern Europe and India, Microsec is well-established. It takes on development and integration projects from mid-size and large enterprises across a range of industries.

When pragmatism trumps Agile and DevOps

The conversation was refreshing because May talked primarily as a business person focused on driving his company’s commercial success by solving customer problems in a very pragmatic way – almost the complete opposite of a technology evangelist. When I raised the fact that it was unusual to look at a development-centric website and not see it plastered with words like ‘Agile’ and ‘DevOps’, May laughed and replied: “Yeah, we’ve invested a lot over the years training people up on the latest methods, and we’ll typically offer an Agile approach when presenting to clients. But to be honest, most of them are not ready for that style of engagement.”

He went on to explain that when commissioning development work, many clients still want a traditional approach in which you agree what’s going to be delivered up front and price it up accordingly. When I asked about pricing in and managing variables and unknowns, he said: “This is where experience comes in. As an example, we do a lot of work in the area of supply-chain tracking. When faced with another project of this kind, we’re in a good position to work with the customer to define a specification that we’re confident will meet the requirement and can be delivered in a predictable way. Even if it’s something we haven’t tackled before, there are usually big parts of the requirement that are similar enough to other engagements for us to make an assessment.”

Old vs new, or the best of both worlds?

We then chatted a bit about the analysis and design disciplines that ageing developers like myself grew up with, and how these can still be very relevant today – despite some of the great advances we have seen in the software development space. I agreed with May when he said that the traditional and new were not mutually exclusive, and in line with this, he highlighted that his teams frequently use the latest methods behind the scenes to assure efficiency and quality, even if it’s not visible to the customer.

While my conversation with Microsec was in the context of outsourcing development work, the principle is the same for internal IT teams. Shifting business stakeholder mindsets and coaching them to change the way they budget and account for IT-related costs isn’t always that easy, and can’t be achieved overnight. A CIO I was discussing this with recently put it very well when he said: “It’s often about picking your battles, getting people used to new approaches where it has the most impact, then broadening out from there once you can point to a couple of successes”.

In the meantime, there’s nothing wrong with using proven, traditional methods when you know they’ll get the job done.

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