Our reality: A more digital future

Moderated by Rick Badie

Let’s peer in to our technological future and see what awaits us. Top experts recently gathered at Georgia Tech to do just that, and surmised we must embrace computational literacy if we are to comprehend devices that allow the blind to see and the deaf to hear. Today, a Tech dean writes about the new generation of computing and its effect on the fabric of our lives. Elsewhere, a business executive, citing a strategic advantage, talks of the value of keeping IT departments in-house rather than outsourcing.

Reality of a more digital future

By Zvi Galil

If you go shopping for a new car this holiday season, you might discover vehicles that can drive themselves down virtually any public street or highway. For proof, just visit San Francisco.

Meanwhile, according to U.S. Census data, the most common occupation in 29 states is some variation of truck or delivery driver.

Why do I mention those two trends?

Take a moment to consider what happens when they collide. What will that mean for the U.S. economy? For our education system? For the country as a whole?

These are big questions, and there are a lot more like them. On the horizon is an age of truly ubiquitous technology, when computation and networking are woven throughout the very fabric of life, from the clothes on our bodies to the walls of our buildings. At Georgia Tech, we recently convened leading experts to peer into this technological future and examine how it will affect us.

The future they described and dissected will demand that citizens be not just literate, but computationally literate. It will include devices that allow the blind to see and the deaf to hear; prostheses that can be controlled via cognition like Luke Skywalker’s robotic hand; personal medical interventions made possible through big data analyses of social media feeds, and biometric fashions that react to one’s physiology and communicate information to those around us. (All of which, by the way, are possible today in preliminary form.)

This future also includes far larger phenomena, such as a “new economy” whose capacity for professional independence could produce a new labor movement protecting the rights of individuals; or an actuarial reality in which one’s physiology together with DNA can predict health and disease with frightening accuracy.

Who should be privy to such data? At what cost should it be available to individuals?

Depending on your particular perspective, you might have walked away from our gathering feeling exhilarated, unsettled, optimistic, anxious, reassured, terrified or all of these things, all at once. Humanity is now capable of such amazing technological feats that we have become the sorcerers of old, wielding magic nearly beyond comprehension against the forces that would do us harm.

But one need only read the news each day to know we are just as capable of directing our magic against ourselves, with or without intent. As one visiting speaker said, “We are on the verge of a new generation of computing ‘substrates’ that can leverage the complexity of life in all its glory. But we have to wrestle now with what should we do, not just what could we do.”

These questions cannot be answered at Tech. But they can and should be asked, repeatedly, not just of our own professors and students, but of the people who visit our campus with experience of the wider world. The future these answers portend will demand that technology not be left to the technologists. It will demand that society at large — journalists, executives, clerks, lawyers, artists, doctors and, yes, truck drivers — engage with these changes.

My colleagues and I believe strongly the future is a positive one. We invite anyone with a serious interest to connect with Georgia Tech and help us chart the best path forward, one that balances humanity’s scientific precocity with our innate — and imperfect — nature.

Feel free to ride to Midtown in your self-driving car.

Zvi Galil is dean of the College of Computing at Georgia Tech.

Keep IT in-house

By Joe LeCompte

To outsource or not to outsource? This is a question posed time and again by companies regarding information technology. Often, they go with the former because there is a perception IT isn’t core to the business. They believe outsourcing is an efficient way to reduce costs. However, an argument can be made that keeping technology in-house is just as cost-effective as outsourcing, if not more so, because in-house teams bring a valuable strategic advantage to the table.

While a company may be paying less per hour for outsourcing, it can often take much longer to get tasks completed — which means outsourcing slows down processes. More importantly, you miss the opportunity to leverage internal business knowledge.

Say you are outsourcing your infrastructure management and ask for a development server. Odds are, you just get a server. If your IT team is in-house and has the advantage of understanding your strategic initiatives, it may ask a few more questions and then make recommendations on potential ancillary configurations. Outsourced IT will give you what you ask for, not what you really need. In-house IT has the context to make a better business decision for your company.

According to TechTarget, Atlanta’s Home Depot has its information technology department review and report on customer satisfaction scores. That’s certainly not your traditional IT responsibility. Similarly, Target is moving IT back in-house after realizing the strategic value of technology to the organization.

Demand for cloud computing and analytics has made in-house IT expertise a treasured asset. As a result, its job description has changed, as well as the department’s desire to align with the business users it serves. While technology professionals still cite lack of clarity on objectives as the top barrier between their department and the business, alignment has progressed by nearly 20 percent since autumn 2014, according to a survey our team conducted earlier this year.

What might surprise some is technology has played a tremendous role in furthering that alignment. The consumerization of information technology and rise of cloud-based automation software, for example, has enabled IT to step back from what are considered more tactical activities, like setting up servers and provisioning technology, and focus more on executing initiatives that have greater visibility and carry a larger impact throughout an organization. IT has embraced automation, in particular.

With IT in-house, there’s more of an opportunity for collaboration that can benefit entire organizations. The reality is, when a company outsources too much, it loses a significant competitive advantage. There is system knowledge, environmental knowledge and process knowledge; knowing how to pull all three together creates a leg up. Organizations that outsource IT don’t realize they’re hitting only one or two of the three and creating major gaps for their businesses long-term.

What can be done to keep more of these professionals in Atlanta, and furthermore, in-house? The good news is Atlanta is already off on the right foot because we are home to IT candidates from nationally ranked programs at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Georgia State University. According to the Georgia Department of Economic Development, our state is considered the fifth-largest IT employment cluster in the U.S., with 200,000 high-tech professionals.

As the role of information technology continues to shift from doer to strategist, more opportunities need to be created within organizations for IT leadership and growth.

Making information technology an inside job is the best long-term solution when you weigh the pros and cons. By cultivating an environment where IT has a voice and the chance to make an impact on the business, everyone wins.

Joe LeCompte is principal at PMG, an Atlanta-based information technology and services company.

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