IT Pros are not feeling the love from Microsoft

Are IT pros getting the short end of the stick at Microsoft these days, or is that just a misperception fueled by fear of change and the unknown? Debra Littlejohn Shinder tackles the question head on.

Microsoft has traditionally catered to two distinct groups in the technical community: developers (programmers or coders) and IT professionals (systems and network administrators, security specialists, and network architects). The former write the software and the latter install it, manage its operation, and troubleshoot problems.

Typically these two different job categories attract people with very different skill sets and personality types. Coders are usually mathematically inclined and tend to be more introverted, preferring to work with machines and not completely comfortable in social situations; these are the folks who often fit the "nerd" stereotype.

IT admins spend much of their time supporting, training, and responding to their organizations' computer users and often must also interact with management personnel. They need well-honed people skills. They also must understand the technology, but at the operational level rather than the code level. To many of them, programming languages are foreign languages.

For computers to fulfill the needs of business, both roles are important. As the company making the software that powers most business scenarios, Microsoft has built internal support systems aimed at each of these communities. This is typified by their two popular subscription services: MSDN for developers and TechNet for IT pros. However, over the past few years, I've been hearing a lot of grumbling from the IT pros that they are feeling a bit neglected, and this talk has intensified over the past year. Is it true that Redmond's passion for IT professionals has cooled?

Who's your daddy?

To understand Microsoft's relationship with developers and IT pros, it might help to look back at the company's origins. It was founded, formed, and shaped by Bill Gates and Paul Allen, consummate geeks who cut their computing teeth on FORTRAN and COBOL and spent their free time in high school writing software programs and figuring out how to exploit bugs in the timeshare mainframe to obtain free computing time. During the early years of Microsoft, Gates is said to have reviewed every line of code in the company's software and to have rewritten much of it. After running the company for roughly a quarter of a century, he handed the CEO position over to Steve Ballmer in 2000 and took the title of Chief Software Architect, a pretty clear signal as to where his first love still resided.

Ballmer, the current head of Microsoft, is a businessman -- not a geek. At Harvard, where he and Gates met, he managed the football team while Bill and Paul were fiddling with code. He graduated (unlike Bill, who dropped out to start Microsoft) and went to work in product management at Procter & Gamble. He attended the Stanford Graduate School of Business. However, although he might not be a developer, his actions indicate a longtime admiration of them and enthusiasm for what they do. One of his most famous onstage performances is the over-the-top chant of the mantra "Developers, developers, developers."

The old flame burns hot

Microsoft's love affair with developers, then, is nothing new. But it seems to have heated up over the last couple of years. Mary Jo Foley, in her ZDNet blog, recently reported on an internal memo indicating that the company is increasing its focus on developers. Recent personnel changes and reorganization decisions seem to bear that out. Some saw the replacement of Server and Tools president Bob Muglia with Satya Nadella as indicative of this new direction. There is also a big push to woo talented developers for various teams. For example, the company recently announced changes to the application submission process for Windows Phone 7, in response to feedback from the developer community. Microsoft has also released an iOS-to-WP7 API mapping tool, in an effort to persuade mobile developers to port their iPhone apps to the Windows Phone platform.

Microsoft regularly hosts a number of conferences aimed at the developer community, such as the Professional Developers Conference (PDC) and MIX. In an inordinate show of affection at PDC 2009, Microsoft gave all attendees a free Acer Aspire 1420P convertible tablet PC. The Microsoft India website is currently advertising a contest for Windows Azure developers, wherein the top six applications will win their creators an all-expense paid trip from India to Seattle.

As a matter of fact, if you look closely you'll notice that the new emphasis is not just on developers in general but specifically on developers working on cloud-based applications and the Azure platform. In fact, it appears that -- in keeping with its "all in" commitment -- Microsoft is moving most of its investments (both money and talent) to its cloud products. And that's one of the things that has IT pros so scared.

Cloudy days ahead for IT admins?

I first started hearing the rumblings from the IT pro community back as long ago as 2006-2007, in conjunction with the first serious wave of talk about Software as a Service (SaaS); this was before the concept morphed into "the cloud." I remember Microsoft touting SaaS, even then, as the future of software,  and I remember the pushback from the IT pro community. Their concern: In this vision of a world where companies don't need an IT department, what happens to me and my job?

The problem was that nobody ever really effectively answered that question to their satisfaction. It was glossed over, with SaaS advocates mumbling some insincere-sounding generalities about how "the jobs won't go away, they'll just change." Most IT pros weren't convinced.

Cloud proponents seem to have recognized, this time around, that in order to get widespread adoption, they are going to need to win the hearts and souls of the IT professionals whose recommendations, in many cases, have a lot of influence over the decision-making process. I'm seeing more of a concentrated effort to show IT pros the benefits of cloud computing, and of course we're now being offered a more palatable option -- the private cloud -- at least as a transitory mechanism. Nonetheless, while they might not be as adamantly opposed as they were five years ago, IT pros aren't yet rushing to embrace the cloud.

You have to remember that most people are resistant to change -- even when it's positive change. When told that their roles will "evolve," most see that as an indication that, at the very least, they'll need to do a lot of work (probably unpaid, "off duty" work) to develop new skills that are applicable to the new environment. Despite headlines such as "Why Cloud Computing Won't Kill IT Jobs," that very article acknowledges that a whopping 75% of the IT pros with whom the author talked are still afraid of being pushed out by the move to the cloud. And many of those I've talked with see Microsoft's "new" focus on developers -- especially Azure devs -- as indicative of the fact that IT pros are no longer important to the company because they aren't going to be around much longer anyway.

I was at TechEd North America 2010 in New Orleans last summer, and fear and loathing of the cloud was apparent among many of the IT pros I talked to there. Bob Muglia's opening keynote address began with all that's wonderful about the cloud. Fifteen or twenty minutes into it, I noticed something I had never seen before during one of these keynotes: people were walking out. Later, I had the chance to ask some folks what they thought about Muglia's speech. "Not what we wanted to hear" was the response. "I felt like he was sounding a death knell for my career," said one more dramatic fellow.

A month later, a report from AMI Partners predicted that cloud computing would single-handedly annihilate 200,000 to 250,000 jobs in the SMB channel over the next decade. Is it any surprise that IT pros are worried about what they perceive as Microsoft's current "all cloud, all the time" business strategy?

Are IT pros evolving into developers?

At the same time that the future for admins is looking bleak in some quarters, the outlook for developers continues to be rosy. Sure, they need to learn new skills too in order to create applications for the new cloud platform, but Microsoft is bending over backward to help make that easier. They've put together free instructional videos to teach the fundamentals of cloud development from the very beginning, and they are providing a free (limited features) version of Visual Web Developer 2010 Express and a 90-day free trial of Visual Studio 2010 Professional.

MSDN subscribers are being offered complimentary usage of the Azure platform. Others can take advantage of the free trial, which gives you 750 hours of compute time, 20GB of storage, a 1GB Web Edition database, and 20GB in/out per month, all free through September 30.

On the IT pro side, some in the industry have complained that the documentation used by admins is becoming sparser and that there's less updating of the information. Product Help is, according to some, getting less helpful, and they seem to detect a push by Microsoft toward steering IT pros seeking information to forums and wikis, with more focus on the type of "community support" that's popular in the Linux community and a decrease in the amount of official documentation that's been thoroughly vetted by the company.

Some of the content creators whose businesses thrived over the last decade as they contracted to write whitepapers, product documentation, and similar content for Microsoft have noticed that they're now getting much less of this well-paying work. The company seems to be shifting to a new content creation model where more of the work is done either by Microsoft employees or by unpaid volunteers. Many of these IT-pros-turned-writers are finding themselves having to scramble for new sources of income. One area where good documentation seems to be especially needed: how to navigate the new, command-based administrative tools.

For several years now, I've been listening to IT pros complain that Microsoft seems to be trying to turn them into programmers. They've felt this pressure build as deploying and managing Windows products has become more and more dependent on programming knowledge and scripting skills. Examples include the advent of PowerShell, which some IT pros refer to as "PowerHell," and Server Core, which takes away the admin-friendly graphical interface and replaces it with a UNIX-like, text-based UI. Just last month, Brien Posey wrote about "The Disappearing Windows Server GUI" in Redmond Magazine.

Like it or not, Windows administrators are now expected to spend more (or even all) of their time in the "dark place" and learn all about cmdlets, scripts, functions, and executables. Some are excited about the opportunity to expand their skill sets and the flexibility it gives them, but many have to be dragged kicking and screaming into this brave, new world. A successful consultant once told me that "The reason I've always preferred Windows is because of the windows -- that is, the graphical interface. If I wanted to do everything at the command line, I'd just use UNIX."

These people are not happy about the new "minimalist" look of Windows, and some are taking it personally. They've even said they feel like the developers want them (the IT pros) to do too much of the programming work for them.

What can (or should) Microsoft do about it?

There's an old saying here in the southern part of the United States that "if Mama's not happy, nobody's happy." And if the people who keep the corporate IT departments humming aren't happy with Microsoft, the company might not stay happy for very long, either. Those folks have been some of Microsoft's strongest supporters and have recommended (or in some cases, demanded) that their organizations keep purchasing expensive Windows server and client licenses and stick with Microsoft productivity applications even when others started experimenting with open source software. They have frequently been the ones driving their companies to upgrade to the latest and greatest versions of Microsoft software because the new versions had features that made their lives easier.

If the doomsayers are accurate, many of those people will lose their jobs in the coming stampede to the cloud. But some will move up in their companies, out of IT operations and into management, and will be making decisions about whether and how those companies adopt next-generation computing technologies. If they believe Microsoft has let them down, they're not apt to cast a friendly eye toward Microsoft's cloud solutions -- so that even if the move into the cloud is inevitable, disgruntled former partners will select a different cloud provider.

In fact, many of today's corporate IT personnel may be the ones operating tomorrow's cloud datacenters. But if they believe Microsoft lost interest in and abandoned them, the best and brightest among them will be motivated to go to work for the company's competitors.

How can Microsoft be true to its commitment to the cloud without losing the loyalty of the IT professionals who have helped to make the company so successful in the first place? I think one way is to recognize that IT pros possess specific, important skills that will still have a place in the technology world for many years to come. The company needs to realize that with some rare exceptions, IT pros cannot easily transform themselves into programmers. The mind-sets, the personalities, and the work itself are too different. Stop trying to teach them more and more coding, and put the real coders to work developing the friendlier administrative interfaces and tools that the admins are going to want and need -- whether they're managing systems in a company's traditional IT department, in a public cloud provider's international datacenter, or in an organization's private cloud.

I'd love to hear what you think about this problem. Or is it a problem? Are IT pros really getting the short end of the stick at Microsoft these days, or is that just a misperception fueled by fear of change and the unknown? Should IT pros just stop whining and face the fact that, in the view of a company built by a pair of avid programming buffs, they've always taken a back seat to developers? Is the fear of and antipathy toward the cloud just unjustified paranoia or is it a real threat to tech jobs? Should IT pros be looking for a new line of work, or will they just be doing the same work in a different location? Post to the discussion forum and/or write to me at