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August 24 2011

With IT leadership, the "how" is as important as the "what"

The other day my IT operations leader entered my office in a state of confusion. He had just been reviewing our uptime statistics and was baffled by what he saw.

In 2010, on one particular web stack we had an uptime of 99.88% (translates to about 10 hours of an outage). But when he looked at our data for 2011 to date, we had 100% uptime. While clearly glowing with such a result, his confusion was based on the fact that we had not implemented any specific technology or fixes in this stack to garner such impressive results. He said: "I am very proud of these results. I just don't know what we did to achieve them."

In this instance he was asking the wrong question. It was not what we did. It was how we did it.

Doing things right

Our IT strategy is and will always be focused on doing the right things. Getting positive results is the bottom line. But while doing the right things is essential, it can be equally important to do things the right way.

It is my belief that a fleshed out IT strategy reconciles predictability with innovation. It will seldom fly to just have one or the other. Both are required and they must feed off each other.

The core challenge essential to implementing both is finding the right blend for your organization. I have written about it here. In the first year of our IT transformation much effort was expended on putting in place good process to support the right level of predictability. It's a work in progress.

Getting the right level of process consistent with culture and organizational needs is a science unto itself.

The IT team made good progress in process areas such as IT governance, project management best practices, IT service management, business analysis and change management. It is in the latter that we gained particularly positive results.


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Managing change

At its core, change management is about moving from one state to another to achieve a desired result while being adequately prepared and managing to an acceptable level of risk. It is also an important vehicle for communications between individuals and across teams.

Put bluntly, change management is good business.

Change happens all the time within IT. What contributes to the definition of a world-class IT organization is how that change is accomplished.

As O'Reilly IT entered 2011, we decided to be very deliberate about change. We agreed that we would be hyper-judicious in the infrastructure changes we made. We became priority junkies. Every time a change was identified we asked questions such as whether it was a priority, if there were alternatives, and studied the consequences of not making the change (see the change tool later in the blog).

And as we did that, something extraordinary happened.

The IT operations team started to get the most important projects deployed. Distractions became manageable and the priorities process kept everyone on track.

But most of all, we experienced increased infrastructure stabilization.

Of course some stabilization occurred because the improvements that were being made were being applied through a rigorous change management process. But, moreover, there was greater stability because less unnecessary change was being applied.

Change management was helping us make changes successfully and it was also helping us to determine what changes not to make.

Good process still gets insufficient focus

In IT, most of the time technology gets all the press. We get excited by new innovations and start-ups that introduce cool new capabilities. We are thrilled when a big player disrupts the market with something really compelling. And we should. We live in amazing times and new technology is a big part of that.

But often lost in the enterprise is that while technology represents a part of change — albeit, a critical part — the processes to implement and manage that technology are as important (and often more) than the technology itself.

I would guess we have all seen a great technology fail in an organization because of non-technology reasons. At the same time, I bet we have all seen how good technology coupled with good processes has resulted in excellent results.

When my IT operations leader observed great things happening despite technology, he was inadequately recognizing how we were working. For all involved it provided a rewarding "aha" moment.

Quick tool to manage change

I will conclude by sharing a brief tool that both IT and business can use for managing technology-related change. These are the minimum questions that must be asked for every change. They are simple questions, but all too often one or more is omitted when embarking on a change that expends scarce enterprise resources:

  1. Why [Governance]: Is the change aligned and essential to achieve business objectives?
  2. What [Measurable Outcome]: Is it understood whether it is a technology or process (or both) that will provide the desired result? Can the outcome be measured?
  3. Who [Resourcing]: Have the appropriate participants been identified for this change?
  4. How [Methodology]: What approaches have been identified to execute and manage this change?
  5. When [Prioritization]: Has sequencing been agreed to relative to all other objectives?

If both IT and the business are in agreement on the answers to each of these questions, you've just taken your IT management up a few notches. And you might just find a few people surprised by the positive results.



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March 09 2011

Seldom a love story: IT and end users

No signToday, the IT department is often a victim of its success. With technology increasingly at the center of business initiatives, the demand for services is an insatiable. And while most IT professionals come to work each day to be productive and add value, more often than not, it's an uphill battle to keep internal customers happy. Working either harder or smarter hasn't necessarily produced the customer satisfaction dividend anticipated. Moreover, it has served to increase expectations of what can be provided and it has continued to raise the bar for IT.

Typically, IT will deliver the right thing at the right time (as long as there is leadership support and good requirements), but it can be painful getting there. Internal customers will be happy to get their solution, but they might not be happy in the manner it was done. It's a perception issue. IT is too often judged almost exclusively on how something was produced rather than what was delivered.

Should IT be chasing kudos or trying to get the job done right?

In the service business, success is often measured by having happy customers. In the marketplace, happy customers are repeat customers. Organizations with internal service departments are not usually subject to these types of competitive pressures. Sure, cost must be managed otherwise a service may be better performed outside the business. But even where cost is higher, organizations continue to enjoy the benefits and pay the premium of keeping many services internal. For example, they can exert maximum control and are not subject to continued contractual interpretations and disputes. With that said, if you're a captive cost-center, quality customer service has to be driven by something else such as culture, incentives, or vision. In other words: it's a choice.

If an IT team is delivering quality services and products but still not meeting, say, the speed of service expected, that might be an acceptable trade-off. In other businesses, quality may suffer in place of speed. In project management, there is a maxim known as the triple constraint. That is, changing one of the following: speed, cost, and scope usually results in an impact to the others. In service delivery, the triple constraint is often quality, speed, and customer satisfaction (underlying these is a fourth, the inadequately addressed component of risk.)

It's a worthy goal to be both a world-class customer service provider and a producer of high quality products and services. It's possible to manage the service triple constraint without too many trade-offs. But to be that organization requires an important operating principle: IT must rarely be the arbiter of priorities. That role must live squarely outside of IT.

Changing IT from an organization of "no" into an organization of "go"

I've seen it repeated throughout my 20-year IT career: internal customers come to the IT team with a need and it's IT who says it can't be done. Customers get frustrated and they have a poor view of the IT team. Usually they are saying "no" because of a capacity issue rather than a technical limitation. When IT says no to a customer, what they're really saying is that something else is more important. That's IT being an arbiter of priorities.

Yes, it goes back to IT governance, something I've discussed as being absolutely essential to business success.

But while IT governance can work as a process at the leadership level, it will fail when the IT team doesn't have the understanding and the language of the process to support it as it manifests downstream.

When confronted with a priority decision, an IT staffer needs to move arbitration back to the business.

The staffer typically wants to know what to do, not whether they should do it.

Therefore, you must transition your staff from saying "no" to asking questions about priority and capacity. It certainly can be the case that more than one request has priority. If so, it's now a question of investment. Spend more and you'll get more resources.

Bottom line: these decisions are made by the business, not by the IT staffer who's just trying to do the right thing.

Internal end-users and IT may never have a love affair, but if roles are better defined and understood, all parties will be less frustrated, have greater empathy for where they are coming from, and customer satisfaction will be firmly focused on the quality of the product or service being provided.

Photo: Encouraging No-No’s by jurvetson, on Flickr



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March 02 2011

3 essential skills for IT professionals

Whether you are preparing for a career in information technology (IT) or you are a seasoned professional, it's important to know what skill needs are emerging in the marketplace. As I review the technology and business landscape, I've made some observations about what I believe will be increasingly valuable proficiencies to bring to the table.

Demand for certain skills or an increased focus in specific areas is being motivated by drivers such as the commoditization of IT, which is moving many countries to more right-brained jobs economies; by the data deluge, which is presenting considerable opportunity to understand business in completely new ways; and by rigorous competition in the marketplace, which is forcing greater velocity in the generation of new service and product ideas.

Many roles within IT will continue to be valuable but may be more sensitive in the long run to the business landscape shifts we are experiencing. Rather than a decreasing need overall, I predict we'll continue to see a greater role for IT in the future as well as IT skills being an important part of almost every information worker's inventory of capabilities.

It's also fair to point out that we'll see new skills emerge that we can't even imagine right now. For example, in the mid-1990s it would have been near impossible to predict skills in search engine optimization (SEO) or the whole range of IT careers that have spawned from social media.

The following three skill areas will find high demand in the marketplace either as standalone careers or in combination with other skills.

1. Coordination

In the context of IT, coordination is a skill set that provides guidance and oversight for the smooth interaction of multiple activities and their positive outcomes. It certainly includes project management, but it's not limited to it. People who can bridge relationships between disparate participants, such as developers in an offshore location and testers at a local facility; accommodating cultural differences, advocating for collective success, and expediting answers to questions and concerns, offer significant value.

The IT coordination skills can equally live in the business, the IT organization, or in a third-party provider. In a world where achieving results can often require the participation of a multitude a loosely related resources, effective coordination skills are paramount.

Acquiring great coordination proficiency certainly comes with experience, but preparation should include focusing on negotiation skills and communications in general; problem solving techniques; understanding the fundamentals of project management; and acquiring time management and prioritization methods.

2. Analysis

Our digital world is creating mountains of new data. In fact, we are experiencing exponential growth in its volume. As an example, every two days now, we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003. It's both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is clearly making sense of it. The opportunity is using findings in the data for competitive advantage.

It's becoming clear that large volumes of data can reveal new insights that were previously unknown. As examples, analysis performed on unstructured data scattered across the web can reveal sentiment on people and products. Examining the patterns within social network connections can tell us a lot about where authority resides.

It's within this new context that we see demand for people with skills to identify and extract valuable data; perform extensive analysis on it; discover patterns and hidden secrets contained within; and make sense of it for decision-making purposes.

To acquire these skills includes training in critical thinking, analysis tools, presenting quality communications through writing and visualization, and statistics.

3. Innovation

We've seen large parts of IT turn into commoditized products and services. As an example, email is not a competitive advantage and it's largely dominated by one vendor. Whether you keep that capability and its attendant skills in-house is largely a cost and risk decision. Many organizations are reviewing their internal IT capabilities and concluding, that unless they are creating new value and a distinctive advantage, they simply remain a necessary cost center.

IT leaders are being tasked to reduce the cost center component to a minimum while ramping up the competitive elements of technology. The c-suite is requiring the IT organization to commit the biggest percentage of their available capacity to partnership activities with the business in creating new opportunities. It's this driver that is increasing the demand for innovation skills.

Innovation is the most abstract of the three skill areas in this blog as it is often the hardest to quantify. But it does include a wide range of skills that contribute to the conversion of ideas into net new business value. These include research, applied research, product evaluation and recommendations, problem solving, championing a new idea, and building a business case for investment that includes cost-benefit analysis.


As you consider your IT career, you might conclude that none of these skills are central to your interest. That's okay, too. My view is that, should you choose another IT path, it's still worth considering whether any of these three areas can complement your core interest. Whether you want to be or continue to be a programmer, business analyst, system administrator, or quality assurance analyst, adding one or more of the skills above can only add to your advantage.

We're guaranteed that the needs of the IT jobs marketplace will continue to change, but if each of us is ready to acquire new skills, a career in IT will remain one of the most lucrative and exciting of the professions.



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