IT, the CIO, and the business need for “roof projects”

Have you ever had to replace the roof of your house? It costs lots of money, and there’s no visible or immediate benefit. Metaphorically, that situation comes up astonishingly often in IT organizations that struggle with how to get “roof projects” prioritized and worked on.  “Roof projects” (a term of my coinage, as far as I know, in this respect) in a company consist of facilities or systems that need upgrading or major work to continue functioning, even though that work may not provide immediate business-visible value.  Just like the roof on a house, some systems shouldn’t wait until they experience failure before they are attended to.

Understanding the notion of “roof project” seems obvious, even common sense, yet it proves necessary to “sell” it constantly within an organization, even to people who understand it intellectually.  IT roof projects are often also quite difficult to communicate the value of, since they rest not only on abstract assessments of risk, but also involve technical details that business people find arcane.  The conundrum then becomes how to “sell” such business-lifeblood-affecting projects to a skeptical clientele who mostly just wants new functionality, and who collectively yawn at IT technobabble (to them) like “middleware” and “protocol.” Everything has to be business-driven in the end, I firmly believe, but it’s a catch-22: users tend to drive only what they understand and which benefits them directly. Neglected or grossly deferred maintenance/upkeep (which is what happens if you never prioritize and do the roof projects) mounts up over the years, until eventually a company can be completely paralyzed. Picture a roof that should have been repaired 10 years ago; would you want to live in that house?

Let’s look at a couple of concrete IT examples I’ve had to deal with:
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A rational CapEx purchase and tracking process for IT

How often does someone in your company (often the CIO, or the CTO, or the head of infrastructure) end up running through the halls, waving a purchase order that “has” to be signed off that very day, or else key systems will allegedly go dark? Maybe you’re in the fortunate situation of being in a company where this frenzy doesn’t happen, but in my experience, that’s unusual.

I’ve written before on the importance of technology carefully shepherding its fiduciary responsibilities. Nothing contributes to the IT stereotype/stigma as much as a loud demand for a major purchase, at the last minute, justified solely by dire predictions of doom, and topped (often) with acronym-laden technobabble. Amazingly, it’s not that hard to avoid this situation, if you exercise a little forethought and planning.  The benefits of doing so are indirect as well as direct: you can change perceptions of IT into being viewed as a partner of business concerns, rather than as a troublesome, risk-fraught, and confusing cost center.

It all goes back to Management 101: plan the work, then work the plan. Surprises are a bad thing. Not only do you need a solid plan, but then you want to diligently track actuals against that plan. None of this is exactly a radical idea, yet I’ve served as an executive now in at least three different companies where none of it was happening before I arrived, with respect to capital expenditures.  To the extent there was a capital expenditure plan for the year at all (as opposed to just one big CapEx number!), it had been thrown out the window by February. Sure, this can and does happen in fast-paced Internet companies in particular, but the rankling thing was that no one really was tracking the changes against plan, or could envision how funds were shaping up for the year. Even if a plan has undergone radical changes, there still needs to be a current plan. Walking in, any executive (not to mention any auditor!) should be able to see one or two core documents that detail that current plan, as well as the progress against it.  If that’s not there, then the technology area (and by extension the whole company) is just operating by the seat of its collective pants, and that’s not acceptable.

Here are the minimum elements of responsible CapEx stewardship, in my view:
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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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Mantra for IT: “Participate in the process rather than confront results”

Let’s sail into a stretch of a metaphor this time. You probably know by now how much I embrace metaphors as a way to impart, often via a concrete example, ideas and concepts that are hard to grasp. So let’s go way back and talk about a metaphorical influence from long ago.

When I was in early high school, we would occasionally spend English class watching and then discussing a variety of short subject films, many of them from the fertile minds at the National Film Board of Canada.  Some of these films, described by the NFB as “socially engaged documentary”, bordered on (or transcended) the bizarre; they thus spurred all sorts of avid arguments among teenagers, easily as much as Ethan Frome or Wang Lung, the more literary staples of the curriculum that I can remember from that year.  There was one such film in particular, in fact, that has stuck with me for decades.  After some digging, I’ve finally been able to identify it by name and origin.  The researchers at the NFB have now kindly confirmed for me that the film is titled “I.B.M.”, and that it was directed by Jacques Languirand. When I reflect on it, the film’s staying power with me makes sense, since it not only features IT elements, but also serves admirably and in multiple ways as a metaphor for IT issues.

As I recall the five-minute film, it features an unchanging close-up view of an automated keypunch machine, punching out a series of IBM computer punchcards with a mysterious and incomplete common message. The film shows the cards sliding into place and getting punched, one at a time, then rolling off into the output hopper. Only parts of the full message can be read at first, since some of the letters of each word are omitted or obscured. Little by little, though, over the course of the film’s duration, each successive card that is punched contains more and more of the message, until it becomes clear at the end of the film that the text reads, “Participate in the process rather than confront results.”

Think about the wisdom and depth of that line: “Participate in the process rather than confront results.” Three ways come to mind of relating this metaphor to IT, to its role across the enterprise, and even to effective IT management of staff. They share a common aspect: the duty (and the reward) of emphasizing participation over passive observation.
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More astounding IT utterances

A few months back, I wrote a post on various “Astounding Sayings” that I’ve encountered in my career in information technology.  It turns out that it’s been one of the more popular posts I’ve written, judging from page views, so in true Hollywood fashion, it must be time for a sequel.  I am retitling it slightly, though, to distinguish it from the Peterisms I post from time to time.  The point of writing about the “astounding” sayings was that they usually reflect misguided energy (or, to put it bluntly: wrong-headed thinking); the point of the Peterisms, on the other hand, is to distill and communicate absolute, undeniable, sublime truth and wisdom at every possible turn. (Hopefully it’s unnecessary, but just in case, <insert smiley face here>.)  Hence, I’m now going to call these non-truthful, unwise sayings “astounding utterances” instead.

Here are two more such utterances, with moral-of-the-story observations for each.  Note: as before, these are true stories.  I may have changed some of the facts, lightly, to make them less identifiable.  They also always come from at least several years in the past, to provide a healthy amount of distance for everyone.

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Getting an IT assessment: pitfalls to watch for

One key ongoing goal of mine is that I constantly strive to pay attention. In this case, specifically, through web logging reports, I can see the Google searches that drive people to this blog every day.  One of the most common of these, it turns out, is people searching on the phrase “how to improve IT department”. Another is “IT assessment”.  I somehow picture bleary-eyed CEOs and COOs, late at night, pondering how they can get more throughput or better results from IT, and turning to Google in their frustration.

Since it’s in essence a frequently requested topic, let’s talk about it.  I’ve been on both ends of such assessments, multiple times.  I’ve done them, and I’ve had them done for me.  Before entering into such an assessment, it’s worth considering some of the surrounding issues and common pitfalls.

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Start simple: a corporate desktop/laptop refresh model

Here’s a topic that frankly shouldn’t even merit a post — it’s that much of a no-brainer if you think about it.

Yet, in the real world, I’ve found that it’s anything but a no-brainer, at both small and large companies.  What I’m referring to is the need for organizations to track their laptops and desktops.

Shockingly, many/most organizations don’t do even close to a satisfactory job at this.  The U.S. State Department recently made the news for losing track of as many as 10,000 laptops.

OK, chalk that up to government, perhaps.  But admittedly, in any bustling, active enterprise, keeping tabs on machines, and who’s using what, isn’t a cakewalk. Even Microsoft has its issues in this arena, and turns to “rolling its own” applications as a stopgap.

Astonishingly, most organizations I’ve observed:

  • Don’t know how many machines they actually have
  • Don’t know their current penetration of laptops vs. desktops
  • Tend to budget by the seat of their pants for replacements for the coming year
  • Can’t tell you precisely where a specific purchased asset has been deployed
  • Don’t know the “aging profile” of their population of desktops and laptops (e.g., how many are more than a year old)
  • Don’t relate the actual handling of the asset (e.g., replacement after three years) to the financial handling (e.g., spreading the capital expense over three years from an accounting perspective). Replacement tends to be demand-driven, meaning (usually) crisis-driven.
  • Don’t have a solid process, or any process, for decommissioning a machine that is past its useful life.
  • Don’t have the ability to tell a given employee when his or her machine will be replaced.

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Executive questions, IT answers, pizza parlors, and speed chess

Let’s mix some metaphors today, and attempt to relate them all to the world of information technology and project management.

I have a good friend and colleague, one of the top IT consultants I know.  He’s able to execute crisply at the detail level while keeping the big picture in mind; he’s especially good at balancing on the fine line separating necessary diplomacy and straight-shooting directness.

For reasons I find simultaneously admirable and unfathomable, this indefatigable person, whom I’ll call Gunner here, is planning on opening a pizza parlor as a sidelight, and is currently embroiled in the process of threading the various bureaucracies and logistics to make his vision happen.  We talk about this regularly, since I am a great pizza fan.  In a recent conversation, he reported that he had just gotten city approval to use a specific lower-cost piece of equipment, news that greatly increases the chances of the pizza parlor actually becoming a reality.  So I, of course, immediately asked when opening day would be.

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