Using feedback loops to improve IT department service

As I’ve written here before, I strongly advocate thinking of IT in general as a service organization to the rest of the business.

Any service organization needs one or more forms of “feedback loop” to be able to gauge whether it is successfully accomplishing its mission.  However, I’ve observed relatively few IT organizations that actively seek to implement such feedback loops on a regular basis.  At best, the IT executive does it informally by consulting with his peers at the executive table.  But with any such anecdotal feedback, the information gathered that way tends to be fleeting and unreliable, and it is especially influenced by strong personalities and emotions during crisis situations.

Here’s a better, and simple, suggestion, one that I’ve implemented to varying degrees at several firms with a good amount of success: Survey your constituents regularly and then publish the results.

Sounds daunting?  I promise it really isn’t, not in this day and age of easy-to-use web-based surveys.  With less than an hour of work, you can design and initiate a survey using a free service like Zoomerang or SurveyMonkey, and easily gather high-quality results (reports and statistics) in just a few days that can help you gauge (and present) how you’re doing.  Here’s how.

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Optimism, resilience, stamina: the make-up of the CTO/CIO

Here’s a disquieting little secret that few of us ever really acknowledge, maybe because it’s rather painful and also an unavoidable part of the fabric of our existence in IT. I don’t know how to say it more eloquently (or less bluntly), so here goes: being in information technology is hard. In our day-to-day dealings with stakeholders, with end users, with management, even within our own ranks, it’s common to hear some pretty discouraging and recurring things, voiced either explicitly or implicitly. For example,

  • “what have you (IT) done for us lately?”;
  • “what do you (IT as a whole) do all day?”;
  • “we’ve been asking for that system for years now and not gotten it”;
  • “how can that be so hard? Why can’t you just …”;
  • “at my last company we did that in just [names an absurdly short amount of time] and it worked really well.”

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Software development’s classic mistakes and the role of the CTO/CIO

Here’s a post of a type I rarely do: a reaction to an item recently posted to the Internet. Specifically, a day or two ago, Steve McConnell’s firm Construx, Inc. released their update of McConnell’s list of classic software development mistakes. This survey and its results is worth everyone’s time to read (and ponder) carefully. Their summary of the paper is as follows:

“Classic mistakes are ineffective software development practices that have been chosen so often, by so many projects, with such predictable results that they deserve to be called classic mistakes. Steve McConnell first introduced this concept in Rapid Development in 1996. Construx recently updated McConnell’s original list of classic mistakes and then conducted a survey to assess the prevalence and impact of these mistakes. This white paper shares survey results–both expected and surprising–and analyzes the survey findings.”

The Construx survey results document pretty much speaks for itself, and provides interesting detail that I won’t repeat here. Hence, this is a bit of a “piling on” kind of post, in part because I respect McConnell’s work in the extreme, but also because I want to add some “color” to what he intentionally presents with (relatively speaking) a “just the findings” deadpan dryness.
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Avoiding the Rubber Stamp maintenance renewal syndrome

As I discussed last time, everything you add to your environment (hardware, software) costs money in recurring fees. Part of the job of the CTO/CIO is to sign dozens of invoices, each and every week, that approve payment for the various elements in your infrastructure that have come up for renewal. And hey, we’re all busy. Anyone who’s been pestered by the company’s usually indefatigable accounts payable department knows the perils of not having signed off an invoice in a timely manner: in other words, you can’t afford to let them languish. Problem is, it’s relatively easy to fall into a “rubber stamp” mode, scribble a quick signature, and move on to the rest of your busy day.

Multiply that by dozens of invoices a week, 52 weeks a year. A few thousand dollars here, a few thousand there: as the saying goes, pretty soon you’re talking about real money. Careful scrutiny of each and every expense takes time and effort, but my view is that it’s one of the major responsibilities of the job. The amount of company expenditures that flow through IT places an important onus on you, the head of technology, to constantly be thinning the carrots, so to speak.

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Skills that have mattered to me as a CTO/CIO

This time on a more personal note: I’ve been reflecting lately about the various specific skills that helped propel me in my career, and how I picked those up. These are mostly metaskills, rather than specific technical capabilities. A number of technologies that I spent a long time becoming expert in are not listed, for example, in the interest of emphasizing the broader lessons, the mindsets, the “core understandings” that have molded my outlook. Are these skills applicable to you and to your path? Only you can be the judge. I offer them up simply as a catalog of things that I feel have boosted my career.

  • Writing. The ability to express one’s thoughts and plans in clear, logical, well-formed language is, I feel, the single most valuable skill to bring to the workplace, particularly in an executive role. Writing is not easy, and the result is by no means always perfect. But this skill is definitely top of the list.

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Nightmares before Halloween: bad dreams of the CTO/CIO

In honor of the season, I thought I’d share a few recurring nightmares, ones that unfortunately don’t seem to confine themselves to the fall time frame. All of these are chronic worries that have truly kept me up at night; most of them stem from actual real-life situations I’ve encountered.

1. Your CEO calls you and asks you why the web site is down… and you didn’t know it was!

When the company’s web site (or any other mission-critical system) is down, escalation mechanisms need to inform you and inform you fast. Of course, the site should rarely / never be down other than for scheduled maintenance, so putting yourself in that notification loop (subject to calls in the middle of the night) shouldn’t be too common and painful. If you’re not informed of these situations, I’d argue that either your team isn’t sufficiently on top of detecting them, or they’re “sparing you the pain” of being told. In truth, the pain has to be spread around. The onus of notifying management is one mighty incentive to make sure that the need to do so arises as seldom as possible. Don’t tolerate being part of (much less at the helm of) an organization that purposely or through omission sweeps things under the rug.

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Career tips for the CTO/CIO path

One of the most frequent questions I’ve gotten after starting this blog pertains to how one can work up to the CTO or CIO role in IT. This isn’t all that easy to answer, other than with some platitudes. Every career is different; every individual takes a separate path. I can’t exactly recommend to people that they take the path that I took, because there were certainly some odd stutter steps and digressions along my route. That said, I do indeed have some biases and thoughts about how a motivated, talented IT professional can position herself or himself for a top management role in IT.

  • Get broad. Strive to understand ALL of IT: development, quality assurance, operations, project management, architecture, user experience, PC help issues. And, of course, there’s no better way to understand those areas than to do some kind of rotation into each and every one of them, formally or informally. Diversify yourself. Doing so fully may require moving companies. One of my favorite Tom Peters’ quotes is “‘Repot’ yourself every ten years.” With respect to high tech, it needs to be more frequently than that.

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‘Rithmetic: quantitative approaches necessary in the CIO/CTO role

We’ve established the importance of targeted reading and writing for the senior information technology executive. I’d like to turn my attention now to the third R, ‘Rithmetic. Even though the “soft skills” of management are probably most crucial to a successful executive, IT is one area where quantitative skills are a regular (and, sadly, often ignored) part of the job.

I’ll have a lot more to say on each of these subjects in future posts, but for now, let’s outline the seven major arenas in IT where quantitative measurements and analysis need to be part of your arsenal. Some or even all of these will seem obvious and maybe even unavoidable; yet, some, astonishingly, have rarely (or even never!) been touched or attempted in more than one company I’ve seen. In fact, sometimes it seems that even established companies go out of their way not to be quantitative in several of these areas, running instead by “seat of the pants” and gut feel.

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