Tech in the time of COVID-19

March 13, 2020 ยท 6 minute read


In each issue of the “Cloud Irregular” newsletter, I’ll try to provide a useful piece of commentary on some tech-related topic. After that I’ll let you know about any new stuff I’ve published, or upcoming talks. Then I’ll give you something extremely silly, just to cleanse your palate, and we’ll be done.

Sound good? If so, throw in your email at the bottom of this post.

How COVID-19 will affect the tech industry

Look, nobody wins in a global pandemic. I keep seeing these takes like “Buy $Zoom!” or “This must be a good time to work at Disney+!” and, like, no. It’s not the greatest time to be working, period.

I mean, yeah, Disney will pick up some streaming subscribers (offset by the increased per-user cost of serving them – binge-watching platforms are like all-you-can-eat buffets, you clear higher margins when people consume less per ticket). But the parks are shutting down and the movies are getting delayed. It’s not a magical time at the mouse house.

I even believe Slack may take a hit in the world of Peak Remote Work, just because their videoconferencing is so terrible. If your business suddenly depends on video meetings, you’re probably looking hard at MS Teams now.

Here are some other things I think may happen in the tech world as COVID-19 continues to weird everything. Disclaimers: I’m mainly thinking about the US, and am wrong a lot.

Core systems at elevated risk

This is super morbid, but man, we are not in a good time to have your business continuity depend on a semi-retired mainframe programmer. The most vulnerable demographic to COVID-19, people over 60, make up a huge percentage of mainframe specialists. And yet COBOL, which recently turned 60 itself, still runs 70% of global transaction processing systems. As terrible as it is to contemplate, what happens to our core infrastructure (think finances, utilities, etc) if 15-20% of the people who know how it works are suddenly put out of commission by the virus? Be prepared for some weird glitches and disruptions, and maybe make some offline backups of things you care about.

Distributed work is here to stay…

On the bright side, I guarantee that every risk assessment meeting for any IT project will now have someone ask “what happens during the next pandemic?” COVID-19 has sunk into our popular consciousness in a way that no event of our lifetimes has – not even 9 / 11 – because it’s physically dangerous and economically disruptive like nothing we’ve faced since World War II.

I think this will affect the organization of companies even more than their technical decisions. Do you think Amazon is thrilled that their entire brain trust is under soft quarantine in a COVID-19 hot zone? You wouldn’t put all your servers in one AZ, so why put all your best people in Seattle? Decentralization is coming, working from home will rise, and I think the days of Seattle and San Francisco as exorbitantly-priced company towns for tech are numbered. Once you see that knowledge work can get done just as well from anywhere (and it absolutely can, believing otherwise is groupthink), the rest is inevitable.

(I saw somebody snarking on Twitter that we shouldn’t expect to learn any lessons from coronavirus – after all, we didn’t make any sweeping societal changes as a result of Sandy Hook or the Iraq war. The difference, sadly, is that those disasters didn’t hurt powerful people and their money.)

…if you have work

What I said in the very first Cloud Irregular is truer than ever: cloud vendors are reducing the absolute number of people required to deliver technical solutions. And we’ll feel the full effects of that in a recession. Headcounts are already disappearing as stock prices fall and companies tighten their belts. A lot of jobs will be eliminated over the next couple of years: DBAs replaced by cloud database services, integration specialists by integration automation platforms, and lots of custom internal projects by cheaper off-the-shelf solutions. If you sense that your work is repetitive or redundant, the time to skill up – or become a highly sought-after COBOL programmer! – is now.

More surveillance tech

South Korea seems to have a handle on their epidemic. They did that with drastic and frankly dystopian measures, like GPS-tracking infected people to trace prior contacts. Fear has a way of making these things seem okay.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see the US pass some sort of Patriot Act II that gives the government broader powers to keep tabs on citizens in case of outbreak. You thought the facial recognition wars were bad, wait for the infrared body temperature sensors gating public places.

The end of Peak Conference

I’ve been a conference organizer. I believe tech conferences have value. But let’s face it, a lot of them are wrappers around thinly-disguised vendor sales pitches, while consuming wasteful amounts of time, travel, and swag. Taking an industry-wide break from them isn’t the worst thing.

Tech conferences will be back eventually. In the meantime, I think a lot of marketing departments will figure out that conferences never had a great ROI for them, and double down on getting out their message through digital channels. I hope the conference scene that returns will be more community-focused, more local, and have less astroturfing from sponsors.

The future is health-y

Generations are shaped by their environment. The people who grew up in the hardships of the Great Depression invented conspicuous consumption. My generation, which grew up with the internet, has put a lot of faith in “pure software plays”, a lot of which have turned out to be rather impure ways to exploit service workers.

COVID-19 is going to explode interest in things like public health, genetics, and epidemiology. Technology has a big role to play there. I believe we will see tremendous innovation in health sciences over the next decade, and a corresponding decline in some of the frivolous stuff that VCs have been funding. And that would be a good thing for everyone.

While all “inessential” work is shut down, I think a lot of us will figure out that we want to be doing something essential.

Stay well out there.

Links and events

My event calendar is of course empty right now, though I am scheduled to speak at O’Reilly’s Infrastructure and Ops conference in June. We’ll see if that happens or not.

I started working full-time at A Cloud Guru in late January. I’ve been producing a lot of content as part of that job, so will just link a few highlights here:

Finally, the biggest news: I can share the cover for my upcoming book!

The Read Aloud Cloud

“The Read-Aloud Cloud” is an introduction to cloud computing that your kid – or even your CEO – can enjoy. It’s also probably the only book ever written in which a triceratops fights an IBM-401 mainframe. I’ve been giggling nonstop for the last several months while writing it, and can’t wait to share it with you.

Pre-order links coming soon.

Just for fun

March Madness may be cancelled, but #CloudMadness is in full swing. Help me crown the greatest cloud service of all time!

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