The Tinker and the Geek: Information Technology

Imagine you’ve just woken up and found yourself in a small kingdom someplace in Europe around 1200 AD. You wander outside, interested in your surroundings, and find yourself in the middle of a fair. Taking stock, you see a man standing in a tent across the way who appears to be tapping on something with a small hammer. Working your way to the tent, you find he is actually tapping out intricate patterns on a small silver disc. While you’re not certain what the disc is for, you take a moment to ask — as any geek would — “are you in the information technology business?”

The tinker, living in 1200 AD, probably doesn’t even understand the question. “What’s information technology?,” he might ask. But let’s consider the tinker’s business. What does a tinker really do?

He takes some material, combines it with technical knowhow, including the development and use of tools, to create a product he knows customers will want. He can’t just use any old tool, or any old technique — he must know something about the correct technology to apply to the problem at hand. And he can’t just hammer anything out on the little disc. He has to know what people are interested in buying right now — maybe down to the village, and the rich families within each village, or the nobility. He has to know when the fairs are, how to get from one to another, and how to keep from being robbed along the way. He has to keep up with the value of money, and the value of the things he needs in comparison to the goods he creates and sells.

If this all sounds vaguely like a modern company, that’s because it actually is. The tinker and Lenovo, or Apple, or any other business, have a lot in common. They all rely on technology to build things, and information to know what to build, who to build it for, where to sell it, and how much to sell it for.

You see, over my career, I’ve been told a large number of times, “we’re not in the information technology business.” I’ve worked for chemical companies, the military, and even information technology companies where the mantra is, “we sell a product, not information, and not technology.”

But the reality is different — every company is a technology company. They might not focus on building tools, but they still rely on technology to build something they can sell. Every company is an information company. They might not focus on selling information, but they still rely on information to build and sell.

As Jill Dyche recently wrote —

With the advent of trends like big data, businesspeople are more apt to see connection through the lens of information, consolidating key data in an effort to reach a single view of the business.

The key point, though, is to learn how to follow the shifts between the information and the technology. When IT first came into the business world, the focus was on the technology. Managers wanted to know all about the mainframe, or the desktop, or whatever. As computing has become ubiquitous, it’s come full circle — all anyone really cares about is the information that results from these systems, and not the systems themselves. As

The problem, as I see it, as we tend to be information technology oriented, while business, even though it is finally beginning to see the value of information, is focused on information technology. And maybe this isn’t so bad in many ways.

But in others, maybe it is — because you really can’t separate information and technology in quite the way it seems modern business wants to. The cloud, of course, is one attempt at separating information and technology, but I think we’ll find, in the end, that companies who move completely to the off premise cloud lose some measure of competitiveness. Doing the same thing as everyone else is doing will, in the end, produce the same results as everyone else is getting.

Technology does make a difference — because every business is an information company, and every business is a technology company.