It is not my intention for this to sound harsh, but I think that it has to be said: “You are not special.” And by “you” here, of course, I mean your business. The organization that you, as an IT practitioner, support. For decades we have heard complaints about how modern education systems attempt to make every student feel unique and special, when awards are given out schools attempt to find a way, especially with elementary students, to make sure that every student gets an award of some sort. Awards for best attendance, posture, being quiet in class or whatever are created to award completely irrelevant things in order to make every student not only feel like part of the group, but to be a special, unique individual that has accomplished something better than anyone else.
This attitude, this belief that everyone is special and that all of those statistics, general rules and best practices apply to “someone else” has become pervasive in IT now as well, manifesting itself in the belief that each business, each company is so special and unique that IT industry knowledge does not apply in this situation. IT practitioners with whom I have spoken almost always agree that best practices and accumulated industry knowledge are good and apply in nearly every case – except for their own. All of those rules of thumb, all of those guidelines are great for someone else, but not for them. The problem is that nearly everyone feels this way, but this cannot be the case.
I have found this problem to be most pronounced and, in fact, almost exclusive to the small business market where, in theory, the likelihood of a company being highly unique is actually much lower than the large enterprise space of the Fortune 100 where uniqueness is somewhat expected. But instead of small businesses assuming uniformity and enormous businesses expecting uniqueness the opposite appears to happen. Large businesses understand that even at massive scale IT problems are mostly standard patterns and by and large should be solved using tried and true, normal approaches. And likewise, small businesses, seemingly driven by an emotional need to be “special” claim a need for avoiding industry patterns often eschewing valuable knowledge to a ludicrous degree and often while conforming to the most textbook example of the use case for the pattern. It almost seems, from my experience, that the more “textbook” a small business is, the more likely that its IT department will avoid solutions designed exactly for them and attempt to reinvent the wheel at any cost.
Common solutions and practices apply to the majority of businesses and workloads, easily in excess of 99.9% of them. Even in larger companies where there is opportunity for uniqueness we expect to only see rare workloads that fall into a unique category. Even in the world’s largest businesses the average workload is, well, average. Large enterprises with tens of thousands of servers and workloads often find themselves with a handful of very unique situations for which there is no industry standard to rely on. But even so, they have many thousands of very standard workloads that are not special in any way. The smaller the business not only the less opportunity for a unique workload but the less chance of it occurring on a workload by workload basis because they have so many fewer workloads.
One of the reasons that small businesses, even ones very unique as small businesses go, are rarely actually unique is because when a small business has an extreme need for say performance, capacity, scale or security it [almost] never means that it needs that thing in excess of existing standards for larger businesses. The standards of how to deal with large data sets or extreme security, for example, are already well established in the industry at large and small businesses need only leverage the knowledge and practices developed for larger players.
What is surprising is when a small business with relatively trivial revenue believes that its data requires a level of secrecy and security in excess of the security standards of the world’s top financial institutions, military organizations, governments, hospitals or nuclear power facilities. What makes the situation more absurd is that in pursuing these extremes of security, small businesses almost always result in very low security standards. They often cite needs for “extreme security” for doing insecure or as we often say “tin foil hat” procedures.
Security is one area where this behavior if very pronounced. Often it is small business owners or small business IT “managers” who create this feeling of distrusting industry standards, not IT practitioners themselves, although the feeling that a business is unique often trickles down and is seen there as well.
Similar to security, the need for unlimited uptime and highly available systems, rarely needed even for high end enterprise workloads, seem an almost ubiquitous goal in small businesses. Small businesses often spend orders of magnitude more money, in relationship to revenue, on procuring high availability systems compared to their larger business counterparts. Often this is done with the mistaken belief that large businesses always use high availability and that small business must do so to compete, that if they do not that they are not a viable business or that any downtime equates to business collapse. None of these are true. Enterprises have far lower cost of reliability compared to revenue and still do considerable cost analysis to see what reliability expenditures are justified through risk. Small businesses rarely do that best practice analysis and jump, almost universally, to the very unlikely belief that their workloads are dramatically more valuable than even the largest enterprises and that they have no means of mitigating downtime. Eschewing both business best practices (doing careful cost and risk analysis before investing in risk mitigation), financial best practices (erring on the side of up front cost savings) or technology best practices (high availability only when needed and justified) leaves many businesses operating from the belief that they are “special” and none of the normal rules apply to them.
By approaching all technology needs from the assumption of being special, businesses that do this are unable to leverage the vast, accumulated knowledge of the industry. This means that businesses are continuously reinventing the wheel and attempting to forge new paths where well trodden, safe paths already exist. Not only can this result in an extreme degree of overspending in some cases and in dangerous risk in others but it effectively guarantees that the cost of any project is unnecessarily high. Small business, especially, have the extreme advantage of being able to leverage the research and experience of larger businesses allowing smaller businesses to be more agile and lean. This is a key component to making small businesses compete against the advantages of scale inherent to large businesses. When small businesses ignore this advantage they are left with neither the scale of big business nor the advantages of being small.
There is no simple solution here – small business IT practitioners and small business managers need to step down from their pedestals and take a long, hard look at their companies and ask if they really are unique and special or if they are a normal business with normal needs. I guarantee you are not the first to face the problems that you have. If there isn’t a standard solution approach available already then perhaps the approach to the problem is wrong itself. Take a step back and evaluate with an eye to understanding that many businesses share common problems and can tackle them effectively using standard patterns, approaches and often best practices. If your immediate reaction to best practices, patterns and industry knowledge is “yes but that doesn’t apply here” you need to stop and reevaluate – because yes, it certainly does apply to you. It is almost certainly true that you have misunderstood the uniqueness of your business or you have misunderstood how the guidance is applied resulting in the feeling that those guidelines are not applicable. Even those rare businesses with very unique workloads only have them for a small number of their workloads and not the majority of them; the most extremely unique businesses and organizations still have many common workloads.
Patterns and best practices are our friends and allies, our trusted partners in IT. IT, and business in general, is challenging and complex. To excel as IT practitioners we can seek to stand on the shoulders of giants, walk the paths that have been mapped and trodden for us and leverage the work of others to make our solutions as stable, predictable and supportable as possible. This allows us to provide maximum value to the businesses that we support.