Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Best lessons about Cloud Computing 101 are actually for the one teaching the class

I’ve noticed that I have a tendency to get a bit impatient with the pace of cloud computing adoption.

Sure, there are lots of examples of leading-edge companies that are dabbling with it. And, I know some big ones that are making notable strides as well. And folks like Werner Vogels are talking about the great progress that’s been made (see his Structure 2010 conference keynote summary here).
But I keep forgetting that things generally don’t happen quickly in IT. Even revolutionary things. Or maybe the correct way to phrase that is *especially* revolutionary things.
When I signed on as the instructor for the Cloud Computing 101 session at the recent CA World conference, I didn’t realize how clear this would become. In fact, my first worry was how to navigate the definitional debates that rage in the industry (often in 140 character bursts) and get to some of the more advanced topics during the session.
How do you start talking about cloud computing? Humbling lessons for the “experts”
But, as I started to think about my audience a bit more, I realized skipping the basics would be a big mistake. In fact, I learned some pretty instructive lessons myself simply from leading the Cloud 101 session, lessons that I think most of us involved in cloud computing would do well to remember.

Those of us immersed in discussing the possibilities and realities of cloud computing in the industry (check out http://twitter.com/clouderati/all for a good start at that list) have a tendency to listen intently to the others doing much the same thing. Some people call it the vendor “echo chamber” – picture this one filled with clouds, of course.

The problem, though, is not with all the talking about cloud computing. The issue is with the listening. Or rather, with *not* listening. If there’s one thing that a room full of customers trying to learn the basics about cloud computing will teach you, it’s to worry less about you think you want to say and instead listen to what they’re asking.

Here are a few humbling lessons I learned along the way while presenting Cloud 101. They seem pretty basic, but that’s my point:

Lesson #1: Don’t leave out the definition or fail to explain your terms. Without it customers will be lost. But explain where to go from there.

We amuse ourselves with jokes about how passé it is to define cloud computing. We all know that the industry debate about the definition of cloud computing has been overly convoluted and filled with bluster. In fact, this bluster is what makes things like this old James Urquhart joke funny: “Question: How many cloud experts does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: Define 'lightbulb'."

I’ve even made a bit of fun of the definitional talk myself last year when I was asked to write a “what is cloud computing?” article for a local New York pub.
But, in fact, definitions and starting points are useful. James Staten of Forrester recently posted a very good article called “Could Cloud Computing Get Any More Confusing?” doing exactly this – providing basic definitions -- years after he published his first research on the topic. In my Cloud 101 session, I tried to do the same. Why? Let’s just say that during the part of my presentation where I covered the basic definition (I used the NIST definition), for example, I had people taking pictures of the screen. The basics are important. So, I guess: mission accomplished.
A key point I emphasized throughout, though, is that a basic definition should be a starting point for your organization’s discussion of cloud computing, not something to be slavishly followed or picked apart under an electron microscope. Your definition needs to have some key basics, and then be the thing that you need it to be in the real world (here’s a pointer to a back & forth I had with Lee Gomes of Forbes on this same topic a few months back).

Lesson #2: Arguments that you think have been debated and put to bed are only now being considered by those just getting started.

My session also reminded me that just because you, Mr. Presenter Guy, are tired of a given line of discussion (like, say, on whether or not private clouds are really clouds or are simply "false clouds"), doesn’t mean you should ignore it. Instead, take the time to lead people through the debate, talking about both sides, letting them benefit from the experience of hearing from someone who has thought about this quite a lot. But, in the end, let them make up their own minds.

Lesson #3: Use real-world examples. Even if they seem basic – or if you’ve heard them many, many times before
On advice from a Carl Brooks tweet (@eekygeeky, editor at SearchCloudComputing), I made sure to include particular customer examples from across the industry to illustrate the different things cloud computing can mean and do. Those real-world examples from organizations like Intuit, Raymond James, Eli Lily, the New York Times, and the U.S. government (Congressional hearings notwithstanding) are few and far between – and often over-used. But that’s OK. Sure, we need many more of them. But they bring this highly conceptual stuff home.

You want proof that customers are interested in these stories? The session by CA’s Sudhrity Mondal called “The Process and Pitfalls of Moving to the Cloud: Lessons Learned from Actual Cloud Implementations” had 25 people attending -- in the last CA World time slot, on the last day. That’s saying something.

Lesson #4: If you have first-hand experiences yourself, talk about them.

Not everything, though, starts from ground zero. Once you’ve laid the ground work about the basics, make use of your real-world experience, especially when it’s something counterintuitive or unexpected.
One of the things I made sure to bring up was something that those getting started often miss: IT culture is often one of the biggest (if not *the* biggest) stumbling blocks. Not technology. Politics, organizational issues, and existing processes are all disrupted by cloud computing. That’s something that organizations need to plan for, but that often gets overlooked. Better to know that up front, I say. (As does former Cassatt compatriot Ken Oestreich, now at Egenera, in a recent blog.)

Lesson #5: When speaking about cloud, start at the beginning – exactly where customers are starting. And don’t forget to listen.

I had a whole bunch of material in my presentation about advanced, “trending” topics that I figured we’d get to once we sprinted through the basics. It didn’t happen. Yes, folks will want to know about legal issues, the concept of devops, hybrid clouds, and where we are with standards. But cloud computing is a big enough topic that you can’t get through it all in a single one-hour session.

Start at the beginning. And go slowly enough to enable yourself to listen. I had session attendees chime in with thoughts on the topic throughout the session. They expressed concern about losing control if they used public clouds. They asked if cloud computing wasn’t simply virtualization. Both were great topics to cover, and are very straightforward issues that everyone has to deal with as they start. Thankfully the audience didn’t let me skip right over them.

Lesson #6: There’s too much info to cover all at once, so point out where else to go.
At some point in every cloud computing overview presentation (or is it just me?), the audience gets that worried, glassy-eyed look. They start to think through all the implications of what the cloud can help with, all the new issues it brings up, and begin getting a little concerned. And they wonder how to throw themselves into researching the issues that just popped into their heads. I used this as a great opportunity to pitch blogs and other resources that may not be as well known as they should be.

In my Cloud 101 presentation, I mentioned blogs from folks like Joe Weinman, Christofer Hoff, Laurie MacVittie, Bernard Golden, James Urquhart, and others (many of which are in my blogroll here). I mentioned the cloud computing customer write-ups being done by Gartner’s Tom Bittman and others. I pointed out events like Structure, Cloud Connect, and even Cloud Camps. And, yes, I even mentioned Cloud Commons and this blog. The goal is to help others get up-to-speed faster by pointing them to sources that the rest of us have had to discover on our own over the course of several years.

Lesson #7: If you have an opinion, share it as such. Give practical, useful advice. Give them something they can use as soon as the session ends

I could have put up lots of detailed maturity models, complex and convoluted explanations of what to do, etc., but I think that’s a mistake. Instead, start folks with a snapshot of how to get started: some on-ramps to try or places in their org where they might be able to get their feet wet.

So at what stage of cloud computing adoption were the people in my session?

No doubt the CA audience isn’t the most advanced or cutting edge. Evidence of that: Cloud 101 had the biggest pre-registration (70) of any of the cloud and SaaS track’s sessions at CA World.
I polled the room and the vast majority of folks hadn’t yet started with any sort of cloud computing work. Instead, they were in the early investigation stage. Given the Cloud 101 topic, you might wonder why all this surprised me. But I guess this underscores my point: it’s easy to forget that starting with the basics means, well, starting with the basics. Remember, I had people taking pictures of my slides (and they were no work of art, I confess – one of my evaluations was pretty clearly not complimentary about the slides themselves).

Was I successful?
So, people are hungry for basic cloud computing information. And those of us working in the space should try hard to make sure they can get it. And to portray what’s going on with cloud computing in a realistic, hype-free way.

Did I manage to do so? I think so. Sure, I spotted someone snoozing in the back at one point, but, hey, no one’s perfect. An encouraging sign, though, was the answer I got to one of my last questions: when I asked if people thought cloud computing was a fad, they said no. It wasn’t something they’d necessarily be going whole-hog on in the next 30 days, but it was something they believed was here to stay.
Which means I bet I get to give this Cloud 101 presentation again sometime.
If you have similar experiences – or even markedly different feedback -- I’d love to hear it. Post a comment or drop me a line in e-mail or on Twitter.
Also, if you’re interested in my Cloud 101 slides, you can e-mail me at jay.fry@ca.com. They will be available on the CA site, but aren’t up there yet for some reason or another (like, maybe, I turned them in a bit, well, late).

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