Valuable vs. fun: learning to love IT Asset Management

My attitude is that if you push me towards something that you think is a weakness, then I will turn that perceived weakness into a strength.

– Michael Jordan

As with so much in life, so it goes with IT: the parts that are fun aren’t always valuable, and the parts that are valuable aren’t always fun. Let’s talk about a hugely valuable side of IT that isn’t really much fun at all. And when it’s not fun, that means that it’s often neglected, and thus turns into a great weakness.

IT assets (hardware, software, systems, services) represent a major investment for most firms today. For “new economy” companies in particular, the cost of such resources (both bringing them on board and maintaining them as corporate assets) often exceeds expenditures in any area other than wages and benefits.

It’s astonishing, then, that firms (not to mention IT management specifically) don’t always embrace the ongoing hard work required to maximize the value of those expenditures and minimize the corporate risks involved. All too often, I see IT asset management (ITAM) neglected by IT executives because, well, it involves a discouraging amount of drudgery to do it right, especially over the long haul. This neglect occurs even more often when an executive succumbs to the latest faddish push for IT to focus on strategy and innovation to the detriment of fundamentals.

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The CIO and the fine art of vendor negotiation

“Don’t write about that,” I’ve been told by several colleagues, when I’ve mentioned that I was working on a post about how best, as the senior technology executive, to negotiate with vendors.  “You’ll give away all your tricks!” they’ve said.

Well, actually, no.  Here’s the main trick: this particular CIO doesn’t have any “tricks”, if by tricks you mean ways to outfox the opposition, or anything else that is best kept secret.  In fact, I’m not a natural avid negotiator. I’m not one of those people who looks forward to buying a new car because of the thrill of haggling with the salesperson.  But I’ve learned over the years how negotiations can best be structured for the optimal outcome.  Like cryptography, where greater obscurity isn’t equivalent to greater security, successful negotiation isn’t dependent on tricks or subterfuge.

I’m quite content to tell any vendor or salesman how I go about negotiating, because doing so doesn’t provide them any kind of advantage.  If anything, it’s beneficial to me and my company that all parties in the negotiation understand clearly the basic principles and approach that I’m using; it cuts a lot of the normal gamesmanship out of the equation.

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A case study of “going to the cloud” (SaaS)

Here’s one series of questions that’s great to ask a candidate for a senior position in IT, be it in project management, development, operations, or whatever: Tell me about a recent project or initiative for which you were responsible. What was the goal, and how did you ensure that the goal was achieved? What were the roadblocks you encountered along the way, and what did you do to address them? What mistakes did you make? What would you do differently if you were faced with a similar project or initiative again?

For this post, I’ll play candidate and outline the kind of full and detailed response I would be looking for as a hiring manager, based on a project from my own experience. Let’s use a relatively simple one: implementing off-site (Software-as-a-Service, known as SaaS) email, replacing a poorly implemented in-house email system. Today, this would loftily be called “going to the cloud.”  (Yes, I’m aware that cloud computing encompasses far more than SaaS, but that’s not my thrust here).

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Get multiple arrows for that quiver: selective and competitive outsourcing

As I’ve written before (“Offshore development: target the destination, even if you never go there“), the reality of the CTO/CIO’s life is to be constantly challenged to produce more. Most technology executives, given that challenge, focus on squeezing out greater efficiency from existing processes, which is of course a necessary and constant push. What many don’t do is recognize the importance of crisp, formal handoffs of software from stage to stage, and how those can greatly enhance productivity.

Software engineering lessons over the past decades have taught us that software architectural techniques such as encapsulation, data hiding, and well-defined module interfaces are essential practices as systems scale ever larger. Equally, the human side of software delivery needs those sorts of crisp interfaces and neutral handoffs: loose coupling, in other words.  Loose coupling entails “minimal assumptions between the sending and receiving parties.”  And an increased focus on internal efficiencies (plus deadlines and pressure) can sometimes lead a shop away from that, and into tightly coupled handoffs, because those seem faster and easier.  You don’t have the time to do it right, so you end up using a lot of time doing it over.  My argument is that (just as it is with object-oriented architectures) it’s worth slightly less efficiency-in-the-small, if certain sacrifices in the hand-off arena can help you attain efficiency-in-the-large.

As I wrote in my previous post, referring to the constant business-driven pressure to “put eight pounds of manure into a five pound bag” when it comes to delivering technology projects,

The main insight here is that finding a viable way to outsource some projects is your ticket to expanding the bag.  I’m not even talking about offshoring here, simply about being able to take a chunk of your project load and hand it to an outside entity to get done.  If everything could be done that way, then you’d be constrained in your project load only by available money.  Sadly, in many shops, almost nothing can be done that way, due to too much interdependency of systems, too much background lore required, and no processes in place to allow for external entities delivering changes into current production environments.  My position here is that it’s a key part of your job to change that situation: to work actively on decoupling the interdependencies so that you at least have the option to leverage outside help more effectively.

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Offshore development: aim for it, even if you never go there

As I wrote last time, a large part of my reason for opposing offshoring is because I’ve rarely, if ever, worked in a company where I felt the necessary prerequisites were in place to be able to even consider offshoring as a viable option. Let’s go into that in more detail now.

I’ve observed before that managing the incoming flow of projects is often reminiscent of trying to stuff eight pounds of manure into a five-pound bag. In other words, you have more to do than you could ever get done. You will constantly be challenged, and should be challenging yourself, to find ways out of that dilemma: either, how can you become a better stuffer, so to speak, or, how can you expand the size of the bag itself. I assume that you’re doing everything you can to maximize the effective allocation of your resources so that you are more efficiently stuffing the bag. So, what about increasing the size of the bag? Well, additional internal headcount is usually hard to come by, and it also takes a fair amount of management overhead to scale a department prudently. The push is usually for short-term delivery of a project; increasing your own headcount can work in the long run, but almost never in the short term (read Fred Brooks’ classic The Mythical Man-Month).

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The pitfalls of the implicit “buy” bias for IT systems and services

I wrote last time about how there are twin truths to the buy vs. build dilemma: outsourcing can be a superb way to leverage external expertise and keep your own team focused on core functions; yet, outsourcing is not an easy or friction-free choice, and it’s easy to simply substitute one set of problems with another.

Note that I’m not specifically addressing offshoring here; rather, my comments pertain to any time you engage an external entity (across the big pond or across town) to perform a development or operations task instead of using your own people. I’ll have more to say about the specific subject of offshoring soon.

As Scott McNealy basically challenged Bill Howard at Sun, why not outsource (i.e., buy) everything and build nothing yourself? If that’s now the implicit going-in position regarding IT systems and services for many of today’s executives, then here are a few important (and often overlooked) things to consider, pitfalls of the “buy” side of the equation:

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Buy vs. build, and why Scott McNealy thinks the CIO doesn’t need a staff

I’m going to unabashedly steal someone else’s anecdote for this post. I’ll justify doing so on the grounds that the anecdote has stuck with me since I heard it; I’ll talk about why, and why I tend to repeat it to my staff at opportune moments. Starting with this post, I plan to follow on with additional posts discussing more nuances of this very critical topic of buy vs. build.

About 5 or more years ago, I went to a CIO forum hosted at Sun Microsystems by their then-CIO, Bill Howard, who has since retired. At the time, Howard ran IT for Sun, with a staff that probably numbered in the thousands. His anecdote was about how he was frequently nagged by Sun chairman Scott McNealy about the size of his IT staff. Scott, according to Bill, was of the decided opinion that Bill could accomplish all he needed simply by having himself and an assistant, and outsourcing all the rest to external parties.

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Is there any CIO/CTO out there who is still inclined to answer a desk phone?

Just a quick one, this time, in what may become an ongoing motif of describing some of the pet peeves I’ve developed in this role.

For years now, I’ve been unable to answer my desk phone. Or rather, I’ve been unwilling to answer it, at least for calls that I can tell are coming from sources external to my own company.

Nineteen times out of twenty, any external call is almost certainly a cold call from a software or hardware or services vendor. It’s as bad as dinner hour used to be at home, before the advent of the National Do Not Call list. Sometimes I even detect the telltale blank pause that occurs while the automated outbound dialer, robotically jumping for joy at having landed a live one, is routing the call to a real person. The caller is often obviously reading from a script, rapidly.

They want to impart things along the following lines:

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