IT and the Coronavirus

Data Director and current Northwestern MSIT part-time student Pramod Sadalage shares his thoughts on how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact the world of IT.

By Pramod Sadalage, Director of Data & DevOps at ThoughtWorks

In my role at ThoughtWorks, clients come to me and my colleagues to help transform their businesses into digital enterprises. I've been at ThoughtWorks for more than 20 years, and over that time I've witnessed technology bring about some incredible changes within the world of IT. 

The current COVID-19 pandemic is sure to lay the foundation for some seismic changes of its own. 

Pramod SadalageAs a student in Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Information Technology (MSIT) Part-Time program option, I'm learning how to apply leadership skills to IT that are allowing me to better manage and mitigate risk. That knowledge has helped me navigate work amid the pandemic, and it has helped me better understand three trends that I think will emerge once we're able to move past COVID-19 and return to life beyond the confines of our own homes.

Remote working will become far more common

I've been working from home exclusively for the past four weeks. Like so many people around the world, my travel to visit clients in person has been put on indefinite hold, but fortunately, I'm somewhat used to working remotely. Prior to the pandemic, we were given the opportunity to work from home one day a week, so the adjustment was not overly onerous.  

For many organizations, the shift to full-time remote work has been far more challenging. Previously, many companies would say that remote work wasn't possible because of privacy concerns or regulation and compliance requirements. The coronavirus has forced that attitude to change. 

Previously, many companies preferred having employees in the office because their security could be controlled more easily because their digital footprint would be within the company's network. If an individual was to work at home, either on a work-provided laptop or a personal computer, that control would be more challenging. But that is exactly what IT departments are currently having to navigate. 

These departments are quickly putting policies and directives in place to help employees understand how to work remotely and be safe in order to protect digital assets or intellectual property. These policies often state what services are approved by the company as well as established protocols for sharing information, such as selecting Zoom for all company meetings or requesting all internal information be shared via email and not a messaging service like Slack. 

The speed in which so many companies have enabled remote working has been amazing, and the best implementations have been the ones with good policy documents that are accessible and easy to understand. A dense, 50-page document is not productive. The policies need to be easy to understand. 

As IT departments continue to figure out how to support remote workers and compliance and security regulations are put in place, it seems likely that a mindset shift is going to occur and force companies to rethink whether it's acceptable for employees to work remotely. That shift will also enable companies to find talent where talent lives and not force them to move.

The value of cloud computing will become clearer

In December 2019, Zoom had approximately 10 million users on its video communications platform on a daily basis. In March 2020, that number ballooned to more than 200 million users! How did the company handle such incredible growth? The answer comes down to the solution's architecture.

Back when there were no cloud computing opportunities and businesses ran their own data centers, the only way to scale and increase digital capacity was to bring in additional servers and put them in a rack. At a time when we're supposed to stay at home and not visit our office, though, that option is not available. There is nobody who could bring the server in or connect it to the existing infrastructure. As a result, scalability is not possible.

For companies with data stored in the cloud, however, their IT teams can easily create virtual environments for people to work off of. That is why companies like Zoom and Microsoft — which saw its Teams tool be used by more than 12 million new users in a single week last month — have been able to scale so beautifully in this lull. Yes, Zoom has run into a number of privacy issues, but when it comes to operating without any glitches, I think Zoom has shined.

I think the number of cloud computing options will increase as a result of the current pandemic, and I believe company executives who are skeptical of the cloud for compliance reasons will go ahead and transition to the cloud because of its capacity for scalability. Our current situation has shown that some type of infrastructure that can scale on demand is going to be important. 

Whether a company opts for a public-facing cloud storage system like AWS or builds its own private cloud system is dependent on the company and its needs, but some type of infrastructure that can scale up or down on demand is going to be important. Not every company will need to host 200 million users, but some sort of flexibility is going to be useful and desired. 

An increase in empathy

This last change is more psychological than technical. As I mentioned above, remote workers existed prior to the pandemic, but oftentimes, I would find a disconnect between the people in the office and the person working remotely, particularly during meetings. There was no empathy for the person separated from the group. There was not necessarily a concern of whether or not that person could see what was being written in the meeting or hear what was being said.

Now, though, as everyone is remote, I'm finding that people are trying to better understand the experiences of the individuals they connect with online. With everyone now using videoconferencing tools, there is more of a recognition of the need for quality in video and audio presentation, as well as online collaboration tools like Trello, MURAL, and Lucidchart. I've seen a more concerted effort from others to make sure what is being said is being understood. More than that, I've also witnessed an increase in concern for others, with many meetings beginning with a simple query about how everyone is feeling. 

This may sound drastic, but I think this experience will be a great equalizer for the working world, particularly for those individuals who do — or will continue to – work remotely.  

Pramod Sadalage is the Director of Data & DevOps at ThoughtWorks. He also is a student in Northwestern Engineering's Master of Science in Information Technology (MSIT) part-time program option.