Ditch Digging for Professionals

August 24th, 2010

I spent the weekend digging ditches and it gave me some time to think about a few things. I was digging a trench for a phone cable, it was a service project for the Boy Scouts at the local summer camp. Volunteer service is a good thing, but that’s not really relevant to the topic on my mind.

I’m not sure where this mentality came from, but I’m one of those guys that believes that there is a right way and a wrong way to do just about anything. And most of the time the right way involves more upfront work, but much less work in the long run. This trait can get you labeled obsessive/compulsive, but it has served me well professionally. So here the group of 10 or so men and boys is filling in a trench and I’m thinking the whole time about the most efficient way to go about the work. First the big guys should do a rough fill using the shovels, then the rakers should pull the rest of remaining dirt in, and then the smaller boys should walk along the filled trench packing down the dirt with their boots. Well, one group does this technique and another group goes with a plan of let the spastic kids kick the dirt in with their feet, then have shovelers and rakers try to push the dirt packed by the kickers until the trench was filled. At the end, you could look up the trench line and see the difference in the work. But was even more interesting was how much longer it took the dirt kicking group to even finish their trench filling; and of course it looked like crazed monkeys had done it and much dirt was left packed into the adjoining grass.

In my role as an “Outsourced CIO”, I regularly walk into IT departments and server rooms, and I never cease to be amazed by how often the IT Manager or Network Technician apologies for the state of his office or the server room. And many of these rooms deserved to have apologies. I don’t want to get into a big conversation about methodologies for wiring cables, but have some pride in your work. Create an impression of competency and professionalism. Its one thing when an outsider like myself walks in, but what do you think other people in the company are thinking about your level of competency when they see that mess. It isn’t not usually “Hey, let’s give them some more money to buy things to throw in that mess.” If you want the executive management to take you seriously, probably one of the best/easiest places to start is the impression your environment gives them when they walk into it. The best IT outsourcing vendors know this. They love to get executives to tour their pristine facilities and show them their hand-picked staff of professionals. They know it creates a contrast with what these business leaders generally see in their internal IT.

And putting on a suit and pushing all those papers on your desk into a drawer is not the change I’m talking about. One of the most professional guys I ever worked for was the owner of a one-truck roofing company that I worked for during the summers I attended college. His dress was never fancy, but he was always clean and pressed (which is no easy feat for a roofer) and he was meticulous in his craft. There was even a certain way to sweep shingle granules off the roof at the end of the job. Short cuts were never taken, the truck was always clean and there were no radios on the roof (because it made you look like a bunch of hooligans). And he would always sign/date his work on the back of the chimney where you could not see it from the ground, but any other future roofer would know who had done the work. He had worked the neighborhood so long and so well, we would shingle roofs he had done 30 years before.
I remember one of the most enjoyable parts of working on the crew was after a day of hard toil in the hot sun, coming down and standing on the street looking at the roof we had just put on and feeling an incredible feeling of accomplishment. For him, it must have been his “millionth” roof, but he still seemed to care just as much. And that feeling was infectious.

So here’s what I learned from him:
1. Being meticulous is good business.
2. Working at a high level of professionalism can be done on any sort of job.
3. It’s much more enjoyable to work for/with high level professionals.
4. It takes discipline, but once it’s a habit, it’s hard to do otherwise.

Information Technology is changing. The future is the past. IT is about quality, maintainability and long term performance. The answer = craftsmanship. The future belongs to the true professionals.

Making life easier on the Bookkeeper

July 5th, 2010

 Although much of what I do revolves around technical strategies for businesses, I often find that my value as “objective observer” is as valuable as my “strategic IT advisor” skills.  I good example of this is spotting “Help the bookkeeper” projects.  These are projects that are based on productivity and efficiency logic that seems to make sense, but really doesn’t if you apply a little basic math and common sense.  It goes something like this “We’ll get all the salespeople to enter their information in this multi-page form so that when it gets back here in accounting everything will be very easy to enter into the system.  In fact, if the sales folks could look up all this XYZ information then that will allow the bookkeeper to skip several steps.”  And it’s not far from this conversation to the discussion about how to automate this with software and that’s when they make a call to the IT department.

I often think the major difference between an IT manager and a CIO revolves around the skill of politely asking “why the heck would you want to do that?”.  Many IT projects are well intended but are more about automating poor practices then major productivity improvement.

So in the example above, you have to ask “How many hours will this save the bookkeeper?  How many hours will it add to the Salespeople’s task load?  How much do these folks make?   And do these employees have the right skillset to do this type of work? “.  Often it comes down to an equation where the project is going to save 8 hours of a week of a $20 an hour bookkeepers time ($8-9,000 a year) and it’s going to do that at the cost of 20 sales people x 2 hours a week at $100 an hour ( over $200,000).  When you take in opportunity costs of lost sales time and the fact that sales people are generally not good at clerical tasks, you begin to get an idea of how a good idea can have terrible implications. 

So why do these projects get approved over and over again in corporate America?  Several reasons :

  1. It seems like a time/cost saver at first glance.
  2. The bookkeeper works for the CFO who has an office right next to the CEO.  This proximity and implied fiscal authority often causes a skew in logic.
  3. The return on investment (RIO) calculation is not taking all factors into account (like opportunity costs).
  4. The IT leadership is not stepping into the business strategy conversation and questioning the logic of the RIO. 

The last reason is the one that troubles me the most.  Some IT Managers view their job as “order takers” and “solution providers” to the business users.  They would be much more valuable as business partners who had ownership in the corporate strategy as a whole and had the skill set to effectively help the organization at that higher level.  But how does an IT Manager take on this higher role?  Sounds like a good concept for a future blog post.

What’s it all about ???

July 1st, 2010

Since you have found this blog, I guess I should explain why I felt it was worth writing.  My goal was to share my experiences as a “Traveling IT Advisor” or “Renta-CIO” as I discovered that people found my stories entertaining and in some cases educational.  I also felt that I needed an outlet to vent some of my frustrations over what I see as an immature industry (Information Technology) that is in the beginning of its’ adolescence.  There is a big change afoot as Computers and Software lose their “gee whiz” factor and begin to be treated just like any another tool.  There is also a big change coming for the professionals in this field.  More will be expected of us and “wizards” and “geniuses” will be given little opportunity to practice their chicanery.  Business people will stop treating the IT department as something special and they’ll realize that it is no different than finance, manufacturing or sales.  And CEO’s will no longer be able to say “well, I really don’t know anything about computers” without it sounding ridiculous.  Can you imagine a CEO saying “I really don’t know much about sales or finance.  I just let those young geeky guys handle all of that stuff.”

That’s not to say that it will not still be fun out there in the tech world.  It will just be a different type of fun.

I love my job as it lets me see inside a lot of businesses and many of these small to mid-sized business really benefit from techniques that are old hat in the Fortune 1000 companies (but they have their own problems).  And yes, I still like it when they look at me as though I was a “wizard” just because I made their business dream come true with technology, but heck, isn’t that why we got into this business in the first place.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to shed some light on how we all can continue to get that rush in the future.