When I completed my time at IBM, I worked in IT for a year and then moved to consulting and pre/sales, a technical business savvy guy I said I’d never go back to an IT role because the culture and work didn’t suit me. I’m not an office person, I also don’t participate in office politics but instead enjoy focusing my efforts on the customer, learning and team I’m working with. My philosophy is if that your not achieving and learning then your customer isn’t happy, your not making money, the team isn’t growing and having fun.
After 22 years in the various roles of consultant, manager and pre-sales I decided to take a break from travelling and work in IT again for a few years for the purposes of refreshing my hands on experience in day to day operations, budgeting, road mapping, firefighting to name a few. The experience gave me much insight into IT departments and the businesses perspective of them. Specifically, the budget struggles, staffing inadequacies, FUD, skill set issues, dogma and politics I experienced and the businesses perspective of IT.
What are the specifics of my learning? Here are some points that stand out the most:
- Business view of IT – They don’t want to deal with IT. In general, they feel IT doesn’t understand the Business, their needs, isn’t able to service demand and are difficult to work with. The challenge for IT is to develop business acumen, relationships and break out of their silo. It will benefit the business and their careers by improving their strategy, execution and communications skills.
- IT is Cost center – as a result cost cutting to improve bottom line is always on the executive teams mind. Though IT is a small % of costs (3-4%) its still a focus. But smart companies will look to other areas to reduce costs such as real-estate and people intensive manual labor activities (think automation) for cost savings as opposed to shutting down quality assurance disciplines, architects and project management offices. With SharePoint generally being a nice to have, funds are scarce for the platform and is therefore managed haphazardly.
- The older the culture and people the more dysfunctional the organization is in general. I understand why some companies don’t want to hire older people, places I’ve worked the past few years are very dysfunctional, there seems to be an age and tenure in organizations that breads dysfunctional/damaging behavior. This results in negativity, distrust, hate, team work breakdown, issues retaining new staff (Old staff push them out) and lack of incentive and drive.
- Untrustworthy managers – you cant trust them, they throw you under the bus and lie to protect themselves. From their perspective its about survival and your expendable. How to spot? Wont reply or communicate in email, talk to you separately from everyone else, gives you direction that conflicts with the team and or organization. This is one reason why so many IT people wont take risk, put themselves out there to get things done or do the right thing – trust is gone.
- SharePoint as service – Companies simply don’t view SharePoint as critical and therefore don’t allocate sufficient funds and resources. As a result the service quality is ok at best and full of technical and business risks. For example, common in financial institutions SharePoint is a nice to have with a low tier rating so minimal funds are allocated and high technical risk is accepted because its not business crucial – though the business users doesn’t always see it that way. For example, specific to an area I managed the BI systems utilized aging undersized hardware, the environment crashed almost weekly and corrupted, the lead architect and part time operator was let go, the SQL expert that maintained the environment was let go and requests for funding to upgrade and staff were turned down. To compound the problem there were no backups and the team wasn’t sure they could rebuild the environment. A worse case? Probably but an example of what IT is dealing with.
- Politics – after years of downsizing, outsourcing, no investment in employee training the culture is generally beaten up badly. This damages the teams ability to collaborate and motivation to achieve. People wont take risk, don’t go the extra mile and don’t trust and therefore don’t accomplish much. For example, an infrastructure manager would hide and deny problems and use his staff as scapegoats. The application manager involved would use his political leverage and spies to fragment teams so they would not collaborate and gain leverage over him.
- Agent of change – Being hired as a change agent can be an exciting and challenging role. The organization could experience improvements in culture, technology and operations. Assuming your well sponsored (at executive level) and a supportive manager, you could have a significant positive impact. But use caution when taking on such a role. Specifically, change is something most don’t like, it’s disrupts their routines. Also, you could expose problems that could be perceived as attacks on people depending on culture and how the executive team positioned your role. For me, at the accounting company I had a manager that’s a game player, used his staff as pawns and had zero management, people and communications skills. This lead to my role polarizing people. Some saw the advantage and others saw it as a threat. Ultimately I resigned – job wasn’t worth the money and headaches. As for the game playing management team, they are still there.
- Strategic thinking – the strategic thinkers are pretty much gone but there are a few scattered throughout the organization but most likely disempowered. Management and teams are focused on cost cutting and day to day fires. Many organizations are incurring additional costs due to not having empowered strategic thinkers such as architects and an executive team that is empowered, funded and has the acumen to think and execute strategically. Additionally, some management teams have only worked in one to two companies and don’t have a comprehensive perspective on topics such as managing IT environments (For some blatant risks are normal and their minds are not open to other approaches – this is the way we have always done it, or we don’t do things that way…).
- Silos – IT is full of them. Departments that generally should work together don’t work together for several reasons. Politics, infighting, waffling due to re-orgs, outsourcing to name a few. Often the external parties must learn the org chart and how departments interact because in many cases IT doesn’t for the reasons mentioned earlier. The larger and more re-orgs (M&As) that have occurred the worse the situation.
- Staffing and skill sets – with training axed and day to day operations the focus, most IT departments lack trained and experienced staff. Most everyone is a generalist doing their best with what they have and learning on the go. This best effort approach leads to services/solutions that aren’t necessarily designed with proper requirements, take forever to build properly, not built and tested nor operated well – quality suffers. People do their best but they don’t know what they don’t know. Often new services/solutions are tested and stabilized in production by operations. Also, staff get blamed and because they are not supported by management with proper training and often stretched to their limit on any given day. As result, burnout, animosity, vindictive behavior become the norm and they resent their manager and the company. Example, one company didn’t have a quality assurance team, skills and tools – this was normal for them. Another had downsized the senior technical team so SharePoint and SQL Server ran wild.
- Attrition, layoffs, lost skills and knowledge – change is constant and with most IT departments not documenting applications and keeping it up to date, knowledge is lost and sometimes source code. Outsourcing and cost cutting are constant in IT these days, people, teams and departments being either outsourced, consolidated and or downsized. Once example is a project I worked on in Miami, Microsoft had scoped the work at month and $100k. I later head it took a year and $300k due to the person who built the solution Microsoft was replaced had left the company and there was nobody that knew how it worked and no documentation existed. Another example is of an Architecture and governance group that was completely downsized in NJ. All that remained were firefighters and some management to interface with business users and outsourcers. This creates a lot of pain for IT, waffles the organization and damages the culture – creates negativity, fear and damages collaboration.
- Firefighting – day to day break fix is the daily work routine of the organization. My analogy, think of a tap that’s open fully and filling the bath with water and everyone is focused on finding buckets to catch the water instead of turning off the tap. The quick fix of known problematic infrastructure and applications becomes the norm and doesn’t last. This frustrates and demotivates the doers, they can’t understand why management won’t fund the work to fix the problems. Consequently IT isn’t providing much value in these cases and therefore it’s easy to justify outsourcing of “IT plumbing” related jobs and why hosting services such as Office 365 are so popular. Example, day to day calls strung together throughout the week focused on firefighting and other topics they would revisit yearly but not be able to address due to lack of executive support and funding.
- Business acumen – in many cases the IT staff are so technology focused a wall develops between them and the business. As a result IT isn’t able to think about solutions that would help the business community or even converse with the business in any meaningful way. This becomes evident to the business which leads to poor reviews of IT and needless to say, poor adoption of IT investments. Example, business savvy staff didn’t want to interface/share information with IT. Another organization had so much distrust and animosity the teams could not work together effectively on business requirements.
- Outsourcing – outsourcing adds complexity and risk to day to day operations. Specifically, there is now a third-party involved in the management of the IT infrastructure (servers, network, datacenter etc.). At first glance outsourcing appears to reduce costs and risk but unless properly executed it creates additional risks in day to day operations, projects, work hand off and touch points, task execution response times. Outsourcing companies are highly leveraged and use inexpensive resources to do the work cheaper so quality is impacted which introduces risk. IT is viewed as provided services riddled with quality issues and delivers them slower than before being outsourced. What’s that saying, you get what you pay for?
- Downsizing – a direct result of this is lost skills and knowledge of the organization, processes/policy and IT infrastructure. I witnessed this a lot in my consulting days and but more so the past five years. Application source code, tools and knowledge of environment would disappear. For example, one company couldn’t articulate core business processes to me during on boarding, another lost a Network General Sniffer worth about $10-15k and customers saw the downsizing and were concerned about doing business with the organization.
- Project and initiative funding is scarce – There simply isn’t much money for applications and services not classified as business critical (if lights go organization can’t bill, service clients etc.). You might think SharePoint is critical or there might be a small population that views it as being so but if you look up the enterprise classification of it you find its most likely on a low tier. That’s not good because the lower tiers get less funding and attention. Some have gone several years without funding and are barely able to keep the lights on.
- Contracts – often they are not negotiated with performance measures and penalties that ensure that contracts work in the organizations favor. In many cases I found that contracts were very secretive and when I dug into them no performance penalties were present. Why? The people that wrote them were not experienced in writing contracts and purchasing often didn’t know what they were doing either.
- Venders – in most cases were just pushing their products and services with little investment in understanding the organization. They would talk about being a trusted advisor but invested zero into that relationship. venders bombard organizations with email and phone calls but rarely invest time facetime. For example, how do I know where your product fits? How will it help my organization achieve its goals? How do I sell it to my executive team for budgeting? How do I make sure its successful in the organization once its deployed?
- The new hire – with many of their colleagues downsized and more downsizing approaching, the longtime employees are not so willing to ensure a new hires success. Information sharing that enables the new hire is difficult to obtain. People are afraid of losing their jobs, the lifers negative and this coupled with a culture that devalues the employee – the new hire must figure things out themselves. Example, when asking long time employees about key work related processes that are not documented, the questions are followed by “well, the processes changes all the time and there not documented so i don’t know what to tell you’ or they simply stonewall you – why cant someone just cooperate? Why wont management kick this guy in the ass? There are many negative old (Physically or mentally) people that are burned out and are simply broken.
- Some organizations just can’t be helped – this is generally the case with companies going through mergers and acquisitions or they are on the tail end of it. Internally focused, waffling from re-organization, they simply can’t be helped since peoples focus is on job protection first, customer/work a distant second. Or simply the organizations culture has been destroyed from poor management, distrust, outsourcing, downsizing to name a few, in these cases people don’t collaborate much and won’t take risks in fear of being downsized or fired.
- Job descriptions don’t match actual job – I’ve experienced this before but not as much as the past five years. the job was completely different and not challenging actually. One hiring manager told me he knowingly exaggerated the role to attract an expert. One manager listed projects and when I joined they didn’t exist – no budget or executive sponsorship. He said the next time he added projects to his book of work he’d make sure the executive are on board and funding is available – really!!
- Hiring an expert – IT managers generally don’t know how to leverage an expert, they want things fixed, the pain to go away but don’t have the funding nor the authority to execute recommendations. This leads to perception issues within the organization (why isn’t it fixed? you have an expert?) and resentment and distrust from the experts side. The other problem that occurs is if the trail of problems (the expert finds) leads to the management team’s doorstep. Once this happens management changes their view on having an expert – needless to say it gets messy. Don’t hire an expert unless you have executive level approved funding in writing. As an expert, don’t join a company unless you have everything in writing, executive level sponsorship and exit plan.
Life lessons for sure and some very memorable experiences indeed and would I do it again? Yes I would because the best life lessons are generally the toughest to experience.