Remembering the Lessons of 2020

eWEEK PERSPECTIVE: Beyond a pandemic, major security breaches, the weirdest national election in memory, wildfires and economic crises, there was still much to be learned from 2020 that we can take back into our daily lives.

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By any measure, 2020 is a year most would prefer to forget. The uncontrollable spread of the COVID-19 virus and related economic crises slammed places and people in every corner of the globe. Here in the U.S., the federal government’s inept management of pandemic response was nearly overshadowed by what was, by any measure, the weirdest election the country has ever seen (and continues to suffer, thanks to a delusional president and his enablers). Toss in drought-fueled wildfires and a record-breaking hurricane season, and the arrival of a potentially fresh new year is exactly what we needed.

However, consigning 2020 to the trash bin with little beyond a brisk “Adios, sucker” is less than wise. Though the year contained harsh events and burdens, it also provided lessons worth remembering. Rather than peering into a crystal ball to see what lays ahead in 2021, let’s look in the rear-view mirror to consider what we’re leaving behind.

Work is a process, not a place

When workplaces are hotbeds of potential infection, supporting employees working from home (WFH) is a necessity, not a convenience. This is a point some businesses learned and executed far more quickly and effectively than others. However, the combination of increasingly powerful PCs, peripheral phones and internet services, along with the emergence of Zoom and other video calling platforms made WFH better than ever before. 

The tech industry has preached the gospel of remote work for two-plus decades, but most companies continued to believe employees required conventional supervision in local facilities until Covid-19 changed the stakes. The question remains whether “returning to normal” means resuming business as usual. It appears that at least a few companies understand that so long as the process of work is completed effectively, the place where it occurs matters little. If that belief spreads, it will fundamentally change the way people live their lives.

Security is more vital than ever

All in all, 2020 was a banner year for cybercriminals, hackers and state-sponsored cyber-attackers. Ransomware events aimed at local and state governments surged. There was also a substantial rise in ambitious data breaches, including the FireEye attack revealed in December that some experts believe will take years to sort out. Problem is that while most organizations recognize the importance of IT security, too few are effectively implementing security solutions. FireEye is a case in point, where attackers gained access to the company’s network by duping an employee into sharing his security credentials. Buying bigger, better, more expensive locks is hardly a solution when they can be easily compromised by human error.

Distance learning works, sometimes …

Distance learning technologies have been around for nearly as long as supporting remote workers and offices. However, 2020 provided less evidence of the benefits of the former than the latter. The shift to conducting classes online in public schools exposed wide disparities between communities, and the impact that inadequate funding has in effectively “leaving behind” low-income children and families. The move to distance learning also highlighted foundational cracks at many colleges and universities which struggled to maintain their facilities, complex programs and necessary staff. 

A substantial number of college students and their families decided a “gap” year or semester was a better use of their time and resources than what was being offered. There are few if any easy answers to these problems. Even the best intentions and most innovative technologies fall short in circumstances where face-to-face communication and hands-on collaboration are essential, or where socializing with others is a vital part of the learning experience.

Public cloud is not a panacea

Events in 2020 placed enormous pressure on public cloud companies, including AWS, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, Salesforce and Zoom to support online activities, events and streaming content. On the upside, those vendors did a mostly excellent job for customers, ranging from the smallest businesses to massive media and gaming platforms. On the downside, all suffered significant outages that impacted business customers. 

In the greater scheme of things, losing access to productivity apps or video calls for a couple of hours is something most companies can easily survive. However, as organizations continue to adopt public cloud to support key applications and processes, such outages have material impacts analogous to those occurring in on-premises IT. To date, most enterprises utilize public cloud services as adjuncts to their own IT infrastructures or in hybrid cloud deployments. Given the events of the past year, it’s likely that businesses will retain those usage models for the foreseeable future.

Normal is easier to lose than it is to regain

Among the most incomprehensible points to arise in 2020 was how little time was required for things to fall apart. While that often reflected the speed at which Covid-19 was spreading, it could be and was exacerbated by officials who were unwilling or unable to act quickly, speak truthfully or work effectively. As the danger and scope of the pandemic became clearer, the government-mandated shutdowns and quarantine orders disrupted commercial trade, especially the smaller businesses that are the center of many communities. As the pandemic continues, many of those locally owned and operated companies, including restaurants, retailers and service providers closed their doors permanently. Whether or how many of those businesses will reopen when Covid-19 is behind us is unknowable, but it seems likely that the impact on some communities will be severe.

Final analysis

While it is easy to focus on the losses incurred during 2020, it is important to attend to what was gained. Despite enormous challenges and personal danger, frontline workers put their fears aside and performed vital or life-saving tasks, day after day. Those same people, from grocery store clerks to mail carriers to first responders to health-care professionals to the maintenance personnel who kept facilities and equipment clean and operational, continue their work today and deserve our full respect and gratitude. As 2020 and COVID-19 recede into memory, they are the people and the examples that will help transform what has been abnormally awful into a better, new-normal state of things.

Charles King is a principal analyst at PUND-IT and a regular contributor to eWEEK.  © 2020 Pund-IT, Inc. All rights reserved.