Saluting Digital

Our lives have recently been infiltrated, possibly bombarded, and certainly peppered with the word Digital, and yet as IT professionals, its recent proliferation distracts from the purpose of its rise to fame.

Let’s start by stating those simple definitions which we can rule out: It’s nothing to do with fingers or toes.

There are links to means of displaying the time (Smartwatches?), and there are links to using or storing data in the form of digital signals, but it’s not really those either.

The final definition has a little more promise, and yet you may decide in reality it has little promise: “involving of relating to the use of computer technology.” The problem here is that ‘Digital’ as in ‘Digital Transformation’, or ‘The Digital Revolution’, or even ‘Digital Marketing’, has come more about than half a Century after the World’s first digital computer (ENIAC, 1946), and therefore as an industry our ‘Digital Revolution’ has been in full flight for over 70 years, to the extent that Moore’s Law (that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every year while the costs are halved.) was observed in 1965!

Transistors on a chip is a quite literal definition of digital though, and this is the trap we must not fall into.

As a Testing Professional, my personal approach is I can test anything, by which I mean my expertise within the testing domain enables me to just as easily test financial transactions as it does food ordering or immigration systems. The more recent incarnation of the meaning of digital shifts from defining it as a thing and moves to defining it as a way of doing things. Think Amazon selling books. Think Uber providing Taxis. Think about using computers to upset the apple cart.

Think of a trip to the supermarket. I was lucky enough to work for a global retail research centre in the early days of my career (and the latter part of the last Millennium!), and one piece of their research showed queuing at the checkout was the least favourite part of the shopping experience. This research was, I would suggest, nothing new.

The reason being that by 1984 the UK had 100 stores using barcode scanners at the till which had the impact of speeding up the checkout process by reducing queue times a little bit. By 1991 there were 5,000 stores using barcode scanners at the till, and these days it’s rare to find a shop not using them.

In 1998 shoppers started carrying the till with them in the form of handheld scanners, again enhancing the customer experience by reducing queue times. Although arguably we were now also doing some of the work of the checkout staff, with one member of staff able to supervise six checkouts simultaneously.

In approximately 2016 the hand-held scanner evolved further into a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) solution, with our precious smartphones able to host an app which enables scanning and talking to the supermarket’s checkout system.

And somewhere along the line was the introduction on online shopping. Probably best accredited to a book store run out of a warehouse near Seattle but who hasn’t heard of Amazon now, twenty-five years later? And when did you last buy just a book from them? Closer to home and to the supermarket example, Tesco.com was registered in the UK in 1996, perhaps earlier than you imagine, at about the time a plucky young intern joined a global retail research centre. And no, it wasn’t my idea. I made the tea back then.

The simple fact is every part of this supermarket journey is Digital Transformation, and it’s patently clear it’s nothing new. Barcode scanners at the checkouts represents a new technology enhancing the customer experience. Handheld scanners also improve the customer experience but reduce operating costs as one checkout staff member can now supervise six checkouts. BYOD reduces capital expenditure for the supermarket at the need to buy less handheld scanners.

This represents 35 years of Digital Progress, and it’s why the recent buzz around Digital bemuses me. As IT and test professional we need to draw upon our extensive experiences and help everyone as they finally catch-up with us. Let’s not forget Sogeti was founded in 1967 specifically to conduct a digital transformation!

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Alistair Gerrard

About

When my childhood dream to become a commercial airline pilot came crashing down, I fell back upon my long-standing interest in computers, which started with learning basic on a Commodore Vic 20. This journey ultimately led to reading Computing and Information Technology at university, via Amstrad 1512 (PC DD) and Commodore Amiga ownership, and a holiday job as front-line PC Support for both the Associated Examining Board and SMART Store Windsor (part of Andersen Consulting).

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