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'Petting zoos' become IT tools to sell tech

NASA, NBC Universal, others take creative approaches to introducing people to new tools

PHOENIX -- In the era of corporate adoption of consumer technology, the options for IT managers are increasing.

Introducing these new devices and apps, showing how they work, and getting feedback on them, is leading to the creation of IT "petting zoos" in a variety of organizations.

That's a warm, fuzzy name for what many still call a testing laboratory, skunk works or a sandbox.

But consumerization is changing everything.

In many companies, technology adoption is an activity that now extends well beyond the IT department and management suites.

A petting zoo can be in a virtual location, a physical location, or both.

It is a cross between a showroom floor at Best Buy and a testing sandbox.

It is where new technology options, either software or physical devices, are made available for almost anyone in an organization to touch, test, evaluate and offer feedback.

Tom Soderstrom, the CTO of NASA Jet Propulsion Library, is a proponent of petting zoos because it fits into his broader notion about where IT is going.

"The mega trend" said Soderstrom, is to enable environments that allow any employee "to work with anyone from anywhere with any data using any device at any time."

Soderstrom told attendees of the Computerworld Premier 100 IT Leaders Conference here that he sees his consumers, the lab's employees, innovating on top on whatever tools IT provides.

That might mean, for instance, that the help desk may be more concerned about helping an employee use a mobile device as an innovation platform instead of operating it.

"The help desk of the future is going to be where the help desk shows us and helps us learn how to write applications for those devices, not how to turn them on," said Soderstrom.

It also means different attitudes in areas such as security.

"Instead of saying 'we can't do that' (because of IT security concerns), they say 'here's a better way of doing that," said Soderstrom. "We have to make IT security cool because the new generation is all about mobile apps."

Inside the NASA petting zoo, there are all types of devices, ranging from Parrott Drones, flying robotic-type devices that can fly around with cameras, to camera enabled robots that can substitute for humans. The latest iPad will soon be added, he said.

JPL also has a virtual petting zoo for testing software.

At NBC Universal Media, Michael Fabiano has a petting zoo that includes some 30 tablet devices. It's not quite the same concept as used by NASA, but there are similarities.

Developers use the tablet to test out how content looks at them, while others in the organization will can examine them for their own purposes, said Fabiano.

Someone from another brand in the company or a literary agent can look at what we're doing and see how a children's book, for instance, looks on an iPad, Kindle or Nook.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov , or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com .

Read more about data center in Computerworld's Data Center Topic Center.


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