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The Circle of (IT) Life June 3, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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For years, computers have been touted as offering limitless capability, with some fabulous new feature just around the corner.  Unfortunately, we’ve been delivering on that promise, over and over.  Mainframes begat minicomputers.  We then offered up personal computers.  Then we created local areas networks, which grew into wide area networks, which grew into the internet.  We offered simple file transmission, which turned into text-based email, which became multimedia email with attachments and embedded content of every flavor.  We developed FTP sites and bulletin boards that turned into web sites that exploded into the web as we know it.  Now we’re layering all sorts of services atop the web, making computers even more indispensible to an ever-increasing user community.

The problem is that all of the new stuff did not replace the old stuff.  It simply extended it, which means that we have to keep most of the old stuff running.  Even worse, we’re getting better and better at running all this technology, so users naively think it is getting easier and easier.  Email and internet connectivity used to be an amazing capability that astounded previously unconnected users.  Now, these services are expected to just be there, like electricity and running water.  Trust me, it is no less complicated to keep these services running now than it was ten years ago, but we are expected to do so with smaller and more focused staffs.

Think of IT as an expanding circle.  The new stuff is at the edge, where users see and appreciate cool new capabilities.  The infrastructure is everything in the circle, hidden from users but crucial to maintaining the edge.  Our job is to expand the circle.  Each time we grow the circumference (adding a new service of some sort) the area inside grows in proportion to the square of the change, so that the amount of interior stuff grows much faster than the visible stuff.  If each IT person can only cover so much area in your circle, you’ll soon be unable to keep up.  And as the circle gets bigger, each incremental change makes it that much worse.

Consider one of my favorite numerical illusions: if you stretch a band around the equator and add exactly one foot to that band, how far off the surface of the Earth will the band rise?  Most people think of the size of the Earth, compare it to just one foot, and answer with a tiny number.  The real answer is about 1.9 inches.  Since the circumference of a circle equals the diameter times π, and you just added 12 inches to the diameter, you added 12/π (3.82) inches to the diameter of the band.  The band lifts up by half that amount (since the radius of the circle is half the diameter) or 1.91 inches.

That number is the same, by the way, if you add 12 inches to a band wrapped around an orange.  The difference in the surface area?  Adding one foot to the band around a 3-inch orange increases the area inside the band by about 29 square inches.  Adding that same foot to the band around the Earth increases the area by almost half of a square mile! 

Which size circle would you rather support?

Snips and Snails and Puppydog Tails April 16, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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Apparently, little boys (and little girls, for that matter) were figured out long ago, content-wise.  CIOs, in contrast, seem to be in a state of constant flux.

As you climb the management ladder in IT, you remove yourself from the technology that attracted you to the field in the first place.  Your time is increasingly occupied with issues that allow your company to use information technology to further its business.  By the time you reach the top of the chain, your staff wouldn’t let you near a machine with a ten foot pole.  I have a notorious reputation as a Breaker Of Things; my staff visibly tenses up when I make the occasional foray into the data center to reconnect with blinking lights and cold air.

Given this career transition, what are CIOs made of?  My recipe: 40% accountant, 40% attorney, and 20% psychologist.  Here’s why:

  • Accountant: Good CIOs focus on business value.  Each company may have different ways to measure business value, but in the end it is a financial metric, not a technical one.  Moreover, the language of business is financial.  To have a credible leadership presence in your company, you must be able to translate technology into financial terms.  Sometimes those terms are in hard-dollar returns; in other cases it may be in terms of business advantage, time to market, process enhancement, or other fundamentally financial metrics.  If terms like EBITDA, GAAP, and SOX aren’t part of your vocabulary, or you can’t explain when to use expense versus capital dollars, you may be falling short in this area.
  • Attorney: Good CIOs know how to negotiate and close a deal.  Vendor management largely revolves around good contractual management.  You need the basic legal skills to understand contractual terms, assess liability, and understand how to build solutions that protect your company from a legal perspective.  So much of what IT confronts these days is about compliance, exposure, and risk management.  You must be able to work in this world comfortably.  CIOs may also be called upon to be deposed on behalf of their company and should understand the basics of litigation and representation.
  • Psychologist: When things go bad and systems unravel, CIOs may find themselves talking everyone else down from the ledge.  Technology is a great mystery to almost everyone; when it falls apart, you must be able to lead people to a stable solution.  Increasingly, the projects we sponsor are technologically straightforward (install a new reporting system) but socially difficult (and make everyone give up their existing personal spreadsheets).  This kind of social engineering can be quite rewarding but requires deft people skills and the ability to see the world through your users’ eyes.

This isn’t to say that you can forget your technology roots.  Inside your organization, you need the technical chops to evaluate solutions, challenge your people, and be able to hold your own in the occasional hallway debate.  CIOs lacking business skills will fail outside their organization; CIOs lacking technical skills will fail inside their organization.

Is There An ROI For ROI? February 25, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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One of the mantras for effective IT management is ROI: computing the Return On Investment for a proposed IT project. If the ROI shows that the investment can be recovered in some reasonable timeframe, the project is approved.

This kind of analysis works well for tangible projects in which the return and the investment are both equally measurable. If you are replacing one piece of hardware with another, or renegotiating a service contract at a fixed price, ROI can be very helpful as part of your decision process.

In general, you can easily compute the “I” of any project. Hardware, software, service, support, consultant fees, travel costs, employee salaries: these are all easily measured and tracked.

Unfortunately, many IT projects yield an important return that is completely subjective. How do you measure the “return” on an effective disaster recovery plan? How about license compliance or endpoint security systems? In general, any project whose end result is the avoidance of an undesirable situation cannot be evaluated using ROI. Hopefully, the rest of your management team probably agrees with this and won’t ask you to try.

Other projects are more fuzzy. Projects that yield efficiency or process improvements are often subjected to misguided ROI analysis in an effort to numerically justify an essentially intangible project.

I once consulted with a firm that justified an internal portal on the grounds that implementing an internal search engine would save (literally) millions of dollars. The reasoning went like this: if every employee searches for a document once a day, and each search is just one minute faster than the old manual method, and there are 50,000 employees in the company, you can save 50,000 employee-minutes a day, or about 833 employee hours, or about 104 days of effort each day across the company. At an average salary of $20/hour, you are saving $16,640 each and every working day! With 250 working days each year, you’ll be banking $4,160,000 every year! They argued that this was actually quite low, since they really expected searches to save more than a minute each, and their average salary didn’t include benefits. They really did all this with a straight face and a big PowerPoint presentation.

I asked if they would be receiving an actual check for $4 million each year. They looked at me blankly. I asked again how they expected to account for this enormous amount of money each year. Again, blank stares. It was clear I didn’t understand their methodology (and wasn’t drinking their Kool-Aid). I stopped asking and kept working on the system.

In general, if you are attempting to do an ROI analysis, and you find yourself factoring in average salaries, or total employee time, or some similar item, just stop. The only time you can use salaries and people is if you can count the number you will be laying off as a result of the project. Headcount reduction counts toward ROI; headcount repurposing does not.

The reality of being a CIO is that we often need to assess and greenlight projects based on intuition, good business sense, and the ability to manage risk and reward. Many projects will improve employee efficiency and give time back to be used for other business purposes. Workflow, collaboration, communication, sharing: they all make a huge difference in our businesses. IT is a key enabler of all these things. They yield intangible benefits with a real impact on your business. Don’t diminish them by trying to reduce them to a simple number. The real value of these things is truly immeasurable and the benefit to your business five years from now is completely unimaginable.

Bottom line: stop looking for numbers where they don’t exist, and start unlocking value wherever you find it.

“You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out!” February 5, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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These words have become part of our vernacular in America, the adult response that crushes the hopes and dreams of every kid who ever hoped to own a Red Ryder BB gun.  They were made famous, of course, in the movie A Christmas Story, which has become an American holiday classic on a par with It’s A Wonderful Life and surpassing Miracle On 34th Street.

The movie is based on the works of Jean Shepherd, weaving together a number of his best short stories with his childhood quest for the BB gun at the heart of the film.  While millions have seen the film, far fewer have read his books on which it is based.  And that’s a real shame.

On a whim, I recently dusted off In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and read it once again.  And once again, I sat and laughed out loud at stories that I have enjoyed over and over since I first read them when I was 12.  Jean Shepherd is perhaps the very best raconteur of the 20th century, with an ability to paint a picture with words that very few can match.  His depth of vocabulary, his turn of a phrase, his cynical yet sweet style are just perfect.  If you even remotely like the movie, by all means, buy and read his books.

In the 60s and 70s, Jean Shepherd had his own radio show on WOR out of New York.  Each year, he would travel down to Princeton for a live performance during graduation week.  My Dad and I would sit in a sweltering lecture hall packed with hundreds of other people and laugh until we cried.  His timing and language were just superb.  Everyone knew the stories, and knew how they would turn out.  He knew we knew.  And we still laughed until our sides hurt.

Many years later, while running the Unix data center for Harris Corporation, I began talking with Art Hayworth, one of the mainframe guys, about Jean Shepherd.  I was astounded to discover that Art’s mother had been a fourth grade teacher in Hammond, Indiana (which became the fictional Hohmann in the book and movie) and had taught both Shepherd and his little brother Randy!  Art had lived a few streets over from Cleveland Street, where Shepherd grew up.  The fact that it was all real (sort of) made the stories all the more delicious.

Beyond the pure enjoyment I get from his stories, Jean Shepherd reaffirms for me the power of the written word.  He wrote the stories in In God We Trust in the early ’60s.  They describe his childhood during the Depression, but as I read them 45 years later, they evoke an image as real and compelling as the day he wrote them, or even when he actually lived them, 70 years ago.  The movie, as good as it is, cannot come close to creating such an experience.

As we become immersed in broadband imagery, I fear we are letting go of words, with the best efforts of bloggers notwithstanding.  At every level, success requires communication, and communication requires words.  If you want to get really good at words, write them.  Lots of them.  And read lots of them, too.  Starting with Jean Shepherd.

Trust But Verify January 29, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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I once worked in a company where the President had, in a former life, been a nuclear submarine commander. Needless to say, he had many fascinating stories. He also had an uncanny knack for uncovering the one thing that you had missed, or forgotten, or simply done wrong. When there was some sort of operational failure, he would methodically dig and dig until he uncovered the root cause. He then expected you to fix it, and then to implement some plan that would prevent the problem from ever happening again. Invariably, as he went about one of these rock-turning expeditions, he would repeat that fundamental rule: “You get what you inspect, not what you expect.”

A simple rule. Don’t assume that things are done correctly. Confirm, with your own eyes, that they really are right. Ask pointed questions. Look at logs. Pull on wires. Click things that aren’t supposed to be clicked. Make sure it really works, the way you understand it to work.

This makes a lot of sense when you are living in a submarine. One mistake in that environment, and hundreds of men die. Make a big mistake in a nuclear submarine and millions of people could die.

Working for someone with this philosophy can be frustrating. When my boss would come digging into my world, I would cringe and wait for the inevitable “aha!” moment. Over time I realized that the best way to avoid such moments was to adopt a similar attitude and find the problems before he did. I started doing my own inspecting, finding and fixing things before they became visible problems. Our operational metrics really improved. And the lesson had been passed on to another generation.

Obviously, you cannot inspect everything, all the time. But everything can be inspected, at some point, by someone. As a leader, you need to engage in enough inspection to ensure that your people, and their people, will be inspecting everything else. As they inspect more, and you come to trust their inspection, you’ll find yourself inspecting less. Much to their relief, I might add. But don’t ever stop inspecting entirely. The possibility of inspection is often enough to ensure appropriate attention to detail.

Unlike a nuclear submarine commander, most of us do not operate in a world where lives hang in the balance based on our operational decisions. But businesses do, and with them come customers, and employees, and shareholders, all relying on a small group of operations people to get it right, every time. Are you willing to bet your job on what you expect, or are you going to take the time to inspect your world?

I expect you will.