Monthly Archives: May 2012

Corporate culture and women in IT

So, I want to start this blog post by stressing that, like all of my posts, according to Gartner’s policies, it is strictly personal opinion. But I feel like this issue is important, and that I can say something constructive in the conversation around the role of women in technology and the culture of technology as it relates to women.

Last month, Dell held a customer and partner summit in Copenhagen, Denmark. During that event, keynoted by CEO Michael Dell, “entertainer” Mads Christensen delivered a set of comments throughout the afternoon that began with, “The IT business is one of the last frontiers that manages to keep women out. The quota of women to men in your business is sound and healthy,” (and asking the women, “What are you actually doing here?”) and ended with telling all the men in the room to promise him they’ll go home and say, “Shut up, b*tch!”

Journalist Christiane Vejlo live-tweeted and blogged the event, and it’s since started something of a growing firestorm on the Internet. Dell acknowledged in a tweet that the remarks were “inappropriate”, and today has issued an apology — in the relatively private confines of Google+.

I find the entire incident to be appalling. I’ve attended conferences in Copenhagen in the past, and indeed, all over the world. I cannot imagine another global technology company which would have scheduled this speaker for an event. (VMworld Europe is in Copenhagen. Can you imagine VMware hiring that guy to entertain?) I’m somewhat surprised they actually allowed him to continue speaking once it was clear that he was going to be offensive — or for that matter, not issuing an official apology from the stage at the time, or even stopping the “show” early. These are not borderline-offensive remarks. These are outright hostile, and I imagine that any line manager at Dell caught uttering them to his staff would be promptly escorted out the door by HR. Given that, the apology should have been issued in Dell’s normal press release channels, and not in the limited-viewership world of Google+.

However, in reading the comments threads on the various news articles about this, I’ve been struck by a lot of the commentary — from the doubting this-is-a-feminist-lie “show video or it didn’t happen”, to “women are biologically less fit to be in technology”. It makes me reflect upon my career in technology, the conferences I’ve been to, the client organizations that I’ve seen, and the way that I’ve been treated.

This is a shortened form of the much longer post that I originally wrote, in the interest of not writing an epic; I may post the rest separately at some later date, but for this, I’ll focus on just one observation.

Corporate Culture Makes a Crucial Difference

I’ve spent over a decade at Gartner, and I’ve dealt with an incredible array of IT organizations, and in each of those organizations, you’ll find a different attitude towards women — and therefore a different proportion of women, especially at the mid- and senior levels. (Note that I’m talking about the IT operations and development, excluding the admins, procurement, non-technical project managers, etc.)

However, in most of the IT organizations I’ve dealt with, there are either plenty of women, or there are a handful of women (maybe even zero or one woman in a technical role); there’s very little in-between. Note that this can be different in different parts of the organization; you might have a team that for whatever reason is particularly good at hiring and keeping women, but in general, if it’s just a team, that team is anomalous in an otherwise male organization.

For instance, there are a huge number of successful women in US federal government IT — and, for that matter, minorities historically severely underrepresented in IT (i.e., non-Asians). Rigorous nondiscrimination, along with the availability of successful mentors, leads to hiring and promoting women — in technical and technical management roles that require ‘hard’ skills as much or more than ‘soft’ skills. This includes places that you would normally expect to be male bastions, like the 3-letter agencies — and in traditionally enormously male-dominated specialties like InfoSec. Teams are mixed-gender and mixed-race; the balance suggests that these organizations attract an enormously disproportionately high percentage of qualified women and underrepresented minorities. My experience is that those people are just as competent, if not more so; quality is not being sacrificed, probably because they get a better hiring pool.

On the other hand, I’ve also visited a Fortune 500 company where the Gartner salesperson was explicitly told that they weren’t comfortable with a woman telling them what to do, and that we shouldn’t bring any more female analysts by to visit them — they said would rather deal with a man, even if that man did not have the same level of subject-matter expertise. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t meet a single woman in IT there. (That’s not an isolated incident; I have many more stories of this sort, although that one is notable because they had dealt with multiple superbly-expert female analysts.)

But most corporate cultures aren’t so blatant. Instead, there are subtle and not-so-subtle indicators about the degree to which women are welcome and respected; these messages come from the top, but may also be reflected in the culture of an individual team, especially given the attitude of a line manager, technical lead, or influential engineer. These things generally directly correlate to the probability of hiring, retaining, and promoting women.

I find it to be an interesting indicator of a company and individual’s assumptions when they’ve read my official Gartner bio (which emphasizes my background in operations and engineering) and how much they ‘talk down’ to me technically nevertheless — particularly when I frequently also had a male analyst colleague on the phone without a technical background, despite having the bios, there were still plenty of people who would de facto assume he was technical and I wasn’t. (Note to AR folks: I hate this.)

Conferences are one of those places where the company’s hidden attitudes come to light. Does the company make use of booth babes? Does the company respect a code of conduct that ensures that presentation material (including from outside speakers) doesn’t contain unprofessional imagery and examples? Is the entertainment particularly targeted towards men? (Note that yes, IT demographics encourage targeting men, but perpetrating this also ensures that it will remain men.) There are comfort things for women, as well — for instance, does the conference provide adequate security and response to harrassment?

And of course: Does your company CEO witness your company-hired entertainer make grotesquely offensive remarks, and not apologize instantly on behalf of your company, to your partners, clients, and employees, for having been party to this?

If you work in technology, regardless of whether you’re male or female, ask yourself: What do I really think about women in technology? And the lack of women in technical roles? How do my attitudes influence my actions, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways?

The Tip of the Spear

So I caught an interesting Horses for Sources blog post via Twitter — Phil Fersht of HfS called out a blog post of ISG’s Stanton Jones discussing the Gartner Magic Quadrant for Managed Hosting that I published earlier this year.

Stanton Jones’s argument seems to be that analysts sit in ivory towers, theorizing about suppliers, and making broad general statements about the market, whereas sourcing consultants actually get down and dirty with clients who are buying stuff. He says, “Analyst research is not at the tip of the spear, where buying and selling is actually occurring.”

However, that’s not actually true at the end-user-focused research firms like Gartner and Forrester. As an analyst at Gartner, I can do over a thousand one-on-one (or one-on-client-team) interactions in a single year. Each of those interactions represents a client who is considering what to buy (or build), and then going through the procurement cycle. They’re short-listing vendors, writing RFPs, wanting to discuss RFP responses, negotiating contracts and prices. It is absolutely the tip of the spear, and critically, over the long term, you also get feedback from the client as to the success of their initiative, so you’re hopefully not throwing out advice that turns out to fail in the real world.

So yes, something like a Magic Quadrant provides broad, generic advice (although I do try to orient my advice towards specific use cases). But that’s all that written research can get you. However, nearly every Gartner client buys access to inquiry, so that they can get those one-on-one, freewheeling entirely-custom interactions — so they can say, this is my exact situation, and get to Stanton Jones’s “I’m a multinational company who wants a company that can support a transformational infrastructure sourcing initiative” and ask which of these vendors I’d recommend.

By the way, if a client asked that question, I’d tell them, “You don’t want a managed hoster for this. Try discussing this with our strategic sourcing analysts, or with our data center outsourcing analysts.” (And it’s not improbable that this would be caught at the level of our client services organization, which would look at that question and say, gosh, this doesn’t sound like managed hosting, maybe you’d like these other pieces of more appropriate research and a discussion with these other analysts instead. For negotiating that kind of deal, by the way, Gartner has a consulting division that can do it; analysts don’t do the kind of work they, or a competitor like TPI, do.)

One more note: If I published in an MQ the feedback, good bad and ugly, that I’ve gotten from clients using service providers “on the ground”, I would never ever actually be able to get the research out, because it would undoubtedly be caught in a zillion Ombudsman escalations from the vendors. But if you talk to me on an inquiry, I might very well tell you, “In the last six months, every customer I have talked to of Vendor X has been unhappy, which represents a big swing in their historical quality of customer service,” or even “Customers who use Vendor X for Use Case A are happy, but those who have Use Case B think they lack sufficient expertise with the technology”. Client inquiry volume at a big research house like Gartner gets you enough anecdotal data points to show you trends. Clients want the ground truth; that’s part of what they’re paying an analyst firm for.

Amazon CloudFront gets whole site delivery and acceleration

For months, there have been an abundance of rumors that Amazon was intending to enter the dynamic site acceleration market; it was the logical next step for its CloudFront CDN. Today, Amazon released a set of features oriented towards dynamic content, described in blog posts from Amazon’s Jeff Barr and Werner Vogels.

When CloudFront introduced custom origins (as opposed to the original CloudFront, which required you to use S3 as the origin), and dropped minimum TTLs down to zero, it effectively edged into the “whole site delivery” feature set that’s become mainstream for the major CDNs.

With this latest release, whole site delivery is much more of a reality — you can have multiple origins so you can mix static and dynamic content (which are often served from different hostnames, i.e., you might have images.mycompany.com serving your static content, but http://www.mycompany.com serving your dynamic content), and you’ve got pattern-matching rules that let you define what the cache behavior should be for content whose URL matches a particular pattern.

The “whole site delivery” feature set is important, because it hugely simplifies CDN configuration. Rather than having to go through your site and change its URL references to the CDN (long-time CDN watchers may remember that Akamai in the early days would have customers “Akamaize” their site using a tool that did these URL rewrites), the CDN is smart — it just goes to the origin and pulls things, and it can do so dynamically (so, for instance, you don’t have to explicitly publish to the CDN when you add a new page, image, etc. to your website). It gets you closer to simply being able to repoint the URL of your website to the CDN and having magic happen.

The dynamic site acceleration features — the actual network optimization features — that are being introduced are much more limited. They basically amount to TCP connection multiplexing, TCP connection peristency/pooling, and TCP window size optimization, much like Cotendo in its very first version. At this current stage, it’s not going to be seriously competing against Akamai’s DSA offering (or CDNetworks’s similar DWA offering), but it might have appeal against EdgeCast’s ADN offering.

However, I would expect that like everything else that Amazon releases, there will be frequent updates that introduce new features. The acceleration techniques are well known at this point, and Amazon would presumably logically add bidirectional (symmetric POP-to-POP) acceleration as the next big feature, in addition to implementing the common other optimizations (dynamic congestion control, TCP “FastRamp”, etc.).

What’s important here: CloudFront dynamic acceleration costs the same as static delivery. For US delivery, that starts at about $0.12/GB and goes down to below $0.02/GB for high volumes. That’s easily somewhere between one-half and one-tenth of the going rate for dynamic delivery. The delta is even greater if you look at a dynamic product like Akamai WAA (or its next generation, Terra Alta), where enterprise applications that might do all of a TB of delivery a month typically cost $6000 per app per month — whereas a TB of CloudFront delivery is $120. Akamai is pushing the envelope forward in feature development, and arguably those price points are so divergent that you’re talking about different markets, but low price points also expand a market to where lots of people can decide to do things, because it’s a totally different level of decision — to an enterprise, at that kind of price point, it might as well be free.

Give CloudFront another year of development, and there’s a high probability that it can become a seriously disruptive force in the dynamic acceleration market. The price points change the game, making it much more likely that companies, especially SaaS providers (many of whom use EC2, and AWS in general), who have been previously reluctant to adopt dynamic acceleration due to the cost, will simply get it as an easy add-on.

There is, by the way, a tremendous market opportunity out there for a company that delivers value-added services on top of CloudFront — which is to say, the professional services to help customers integrate with it, the ongoing expert technical support on a day to day basis, and a great user portal that provides industry-competitive reporting and analytics. CloudFront has reached the point where enterprises, large mainstream media companies, and other users of Akamai, Limelight, and Level 3 who feel they need ongoing support of complex implementations and a great toolset that helps them intelligently operate those CDN implementations, are genuinely interested in taking a serious look at CloudFront as an alternative, but there’s no company that I know of that provides the services and software that would bridge the gap between CloudFront and a traditional CDN implementation.

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