The Dilbert® Life Series: Mental Hygiene Is Counter Productive

There are times that IT people need to vent. Usually they do that amongst their peers. Sometimes they disagree with each other and they express that. Why? Well most of them are straight shooters, not politicians or diplomats.  Now don’t get me wrong. I do understand the benefits of politics & diplomacy and I most definitely see the need for it. They can achieve things more often than conflict or direct orders can. Mainly because they make the people think it was their own decision and/or choice. The drawback with politics is that it takes time and in some situations, unfortunately, you don’t have that luxury. Don’t forget IT Pros work in sometimes rather stressful crisis situations. The bad part about politics is that it can also be perceived as “shady dealings” but this is actually not true. This is a negative connotation due to the often very poor quality of politicians. But I digress. I actually love diplomacy. It’s the process that delivers me either the desired result or buys me enough time to for my sniper to get the range . Either way, politics and diplomacy gets the job done, when you fulfill one prerequisite and that is to have professional diplomats around. As you might have already guessed, that wouldn’t exactly be me Winking smile. Politics however is not the same as “political correctness” run amok. Don’t be afraid of people speaking their mind. Don’t let the fear of others hearing some strong language or an unpopular issue being discussed guide you. That alone will not kill a reputation or wreck a well-oiled team.

Reputations have a major flaw. They take a life time to build and only a second to destroy. Are you telling me your approach to protecting a reputation is making sure no one ever hears a bad word out of the mouth of an employee who’s ranting to blow off steam? Guess what? You’re doomed to fail. Don’t we need to protect people from being offended? Yes, but don’t take it to far. Chances are that the offence is both ways. So don’t restrict free speech & open communication too much. But perception is reality right? Good lord, get a grip and grow a pair. People need to vent, express themselves and be allowed to do that in an not overly politically correct way amongst their peers. These people are in the trenches together, they deal with all the shit and stress. They shouldn’t be worried or stressed about using the proper diplomatic approach to everything they say. Political correctness can be taken too far. It makes for a very hypocritical, bottled up with frustration, unhealthy work environment. Amongst comrades you need not have to worry about that. And for crying out loud, I really do hope that humanities only hope for decent behavior is the fact that things are forbidden or regulated.

One shouldn’t judge IT managers or team leaders by the fact none of their team members ever curses or vents. Let alone some silly dress code. No, that T-shirts saying “You’ve read my T-shirt. That’s enough social interaction for one day” will not ruin professional relationships. Acting on those things remind me of micro managers. Meaning they focus on small issues for all kinds of reasons, non of which have anything to do with them being good managers. Do you want to know what you IT teams are worth? Look at the members. Do they stick up for each other? Are they not afraid to stand up and speak up about issues that are “threatening” one of them or their boss? Do they get the job done? No I don’t mean that they wear a tie, are in the office at 08:30 or never ever vent, I mean do they get the job done. Even at night, during those wee hours of the morning when needed or just even when is more convenient for the business? That should tell you a lot. That’s their PR without the glossy brochures.

Next to that it also has some other negatives associated with it.

  • First of all you lose your eyes and ears. Trust me, your IT people are your boots on the ground. They see, hear & know a lot as they deal with the entire organization. No matter how many tests, technology and reports you got at your disposal your people are a very valuable resource of information on what’s going on in the company. IT  as an bio indicator so to speak. From problems with vendors, storage issues, dysfunctional project managers to insane analysis and architects who’ve become a bit to enamored with the esoteric part of their job. In other words, if you want to know what going on let your IT staff speak their minds without fear. Create an environment where they can do that. Otherwise they’ll shut up even when they better open their mouths.
  • You’re flushing the morale of your troops down the drain. When people feel frustrated they need to vent, not be censored. That leads to unhappy employees and instead of having “undesired” verbal statements about a situation you’ll be hearing some very unsettling complaints about your stupid company. You might not like those either but you’d better listen and learn from them instead of saying that such talk “ist verboten”.
  • Don’t block the vents on a steam engine. They are there for a very important reason. Their proper functioning is to assure that the pressure doesn’t build up to high, thereby preventing the engine from blowing up. Same thing here, speaking their minds relieves pressure , stress and prevents frustrations. That’s a good thing as human beings under high pressure tend not to become diamonds even if they are bio carbon life forms. Chances are they’ll explode out of proportion when it really shouldn’t happen. A bit counter productive don’t you think?

Now this doesn’t mean you should stand for an all-out negative culture where all is piss and vinegar. Some venting is good, being a full time complaining sourpuss is not. Lead by example. By all means avoid e-mailing vents and frustrations. Words are volatile and dissipate. E-mail is very persistent. Maintain professional courtesy whenever possible.  While I think that respect needs to be earned, politeness and correctness can and should indeed be given. It goes along way when dealing with people. And the beauty is that by allowing people to vent and speak their minds you help achieve this. All you have to to do is maintain balance and don’t let the morale and the culture go south. So forget about dress codes, punch clocks, “mental hygiene” measures. They indicate another much worse problem. Management failure. Sure you can blame the issues on that T-shirt or someone’s venting. Perhaps you can even fool yourself into believing it. Perhaps it even helps you sleep at night. But it sure will not help you improve your business. For that you’ll need to put the good managers, diplomats & politicians in the right place instead of trying to rely on never needing those particular skills.

Exchange 2007 & 2010 Event ID’s: 2601, 2604, 2501 & Users Can’t Access Mailboxes / Public Folders On My Day Off

I took the day off as I needed some time to deal with government administration. Good thing this is a blog about IT issues because holey crap what a time eating, confusing and rather pointless mess government administration can be. The process to get to the desired outcome is very tedious, prone to misunderstanding & pretty inefficient . What the entire duration of the process and the number of administrative entities involved contribute to the desired result is a mystery. It’s pure show and window dressing. But OK, we took the day of to finally get it all sorted after 5 months of patiently waiting for this day.

So I sleep until 08:00, get up and head for the kitchen for a jar of coffee. With the only Java I truly like in my hand I make my way to the home office. I check mails/alerts from System Center, Support Requests etc. I’m like a responsible guy dude, even when I need a day off. I do monitor the condition of my projects in production and I do step in when needed and document my findings. It keeps me honest when I design and sell my solutions. Beware of some architects that are not the ones having to deal with the crap architectures they design, they are often empty suits. Anyway, I see an issue that could be a warning of more to come. Someone has a problem with Outlook 2007 which reports the following error (translation from Dutch):

“Unable to expand the folder. The Microsoft Exchange Server computer is not available. Either there are network problems or the Microsoft Exchange Server computer is down for maintenance.(/o=<DOMAIN>/ou=Exchange Administrative Group (FYDIBOHF23SPDLT)/cn=Configuration/cn=servers/cn=<dagmember1>)”

Now I know that user. Smart, diligent and reliable. That user even provides the relevant and necessary information in their support request. Yes they do exist and HRM should hire those exclusively. So in combination with that error we knew we did not have an PEBKAC or ID-10T on our hands but a real issue.

I quickly check that DAG member node Outlook of that user is trying to connect to but I know that due to maintenance their mailboxes currently reside on another member of the DAG. So i could very well be just the public folders. Bingo. A quick test reveals this to be the case. Also the Windows 2008 R2 server and Exchange 2010 itself are running perfectly fine, happy as can be, except on that one node we see the Application Event Log messages:

Log Name:      Application
Source:        MSExchange ADAccess
Date:          8/19/2010 7:12:43 AM
Event ID:      2601
Task Category: General
Level:         Warning
Keywords:      Classic
User:          N/A
Computer:      dagmember1.company.blog
Description:
Process MSEXCHANGEADTOPOLOGY (PID=1620). When initializing a remote procedure call (RPC) to the Microsoft Exchange Active Directory Topology service, Exchange could not retrieve the SID for account <WKGUID=XXXXXXXXXXNOREALIDXXXXXXXXXXXXXX,CN=Microsoft Exchange,CN=Services,CN=Configuration,…> – Error code=8007077f. The Microsoft Exchange Active Directory Topology service will continue starting with limited permissions.

Log Name:      Application
Source:        MSExchange ADAccess
Date:          8/19/2010 7:12:43 AM
Event ID:      2604
Task Category: General
Level:         Error
Keywords:      Classic
User:          N/A
Computer:      dagmember1.company.demo
Description:
Process MSEXCHANGEADTOPOLOGY (PID=1620). When updating security for a remote procedure call (RPC) access for the Microsoft Exchange Active Directory Topology service, Exchange could not retrieve the security descriptor for Exchange server object DAGMEMBER1 – Error code=8007077f. The Microsoft Exchange Active Directory Topology service will continue starting with limited permissions.

Log Name:      Application
Source:        MSExchange ADAccess
Date:          8/19/2010 7:12:43 AM
Event ID:      2501
Task Category: General
Level:         Error
Keywords:      Classic
User:          N/A
Computer:      dagmember1.company.blog
Description:
Process MSEXCHANGEADTOPOLOGY (PID=1620). The site monitor API was unable to verify the site name for this Exchange computer – Call=DsctxGetContext Error code=8007077f. Make sure that Exchange server is correctly registered on the DNS server.

I think I’m OK when I see the possible cause. Why? Because I also know even if that probable cause isn’t the problem, it’s a hiccup I’ve seen before and I know how to fix its one. When you search those errors you can find a TechNet article describing a possible cause: “An inactive network connection is first on the binding list” http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/dd789571(EXCHG.80).aspx. The fix is quite simple. Correct the NIC order and restart the MSExchange ADTopology Service. I had my scare about Active Directory and DNS horrors the first time I ever saw this one. So no gut wrenching panic here 🙂

But why do servers ever get in to this state when the NIC ordering is just fine? We did some firmware and upgrade recently after hours but that didn’t affect the NIC binding order. Now I’m pretty weird at times but I still know what I’m doing. Those NIC where OK when I configured those servers. Checking that has become a second nature on multi homed and clustered servers. I also remember happening this to me once before somewhere in February 2010 with another setup of Exchange 2010 on Windows 2008 R2. And in that case the NIC order in the binding list was also OK. I checked back then as well just to make sure. But since I build those Exchange 2010 setups myself I just know they are close to godliness both in design and implementation :-). Back then the issue went away by restarting the server, restarting the MSExchange ADTopology Service will do however, and the problem never came back. For some reason the AD Site information query fails. Now Windows retries and is OK after a while. Exchange, tries to get the AD Site information once, fails and keeps thinking there is an issue. With as a result clients have no connectivity and those errors that initially make you think you could have DNS issues, AD problems etc. But fortunately it’s a lot less serious.

So when the NIC binding order is OK why does this happen? I can’t tell you for sure but I do know that I’m not the only one (not that weird after all) since Microsoft published KB Article “MSExchange ADAccess Event ID’s 2601, 2604, 2501” http://support.microsoft.com/kb/2025528 . This article is a so called FAST PUBLISH from Microsoft Support and states that the issue only occurs on Windows 2008 R2 and that it affect Exchange 2007 and Exchange 2010. The cause? Well this is where they provide only what I already knew:

“During a restart of the server, the operating system queries Active Directory to get its AD Site information.  On a Windows 2008 R2 server, this will sometimes fail.  As the Exchange services are starting, it also will do a query for its AD Site and that too will fail. Windows will continue to try and determine its AD Site name and will eventually succeed.  However, Exchange does not re-try the query and the above errors are logged in the application log every 15 minutes.”

And yes the workaround/fix is also nothing new:

“After the server has been up for a minute or two, run NLTest /DSGetSite to verify that that the proper Active Directory Site is being returned by Windows.  Once that has been verified, restart the MSExchange ADTopology Service.”

Do note that this will also restart a slew of dependant Exchange services so it takes a little while.

  • Microsoft Exchange Transport Log Search
  • Microsoft Exchange Transport Log
  • Microsoft Exchange Service Host
  • Microsoft Exchange Search Indexer
  • Microsoft Exchange Replication Service
  • Microsoft Exchange Mail Submission
  • Microsoft Exchange Mailbox Assistants
  • Microsoft Exchange File Distribution
  • Microsoft Exchange EdgeSync
  • Microsoft Exchange Anti-spam Update

So after some manual intervention we had the users back in business. And all is well for them, as they rise and sleep under the watchful eye of a bunch of good IT Pro’s who’ll protect them form further harm and problems 😉 Now I need to get an auto fix for this I think until Microsoft fixes this one for good. SCOM where are you? No, no, no … It’s my day off for getting that administration done!

IT Strategies from Window NT 3.51 to the Cloud Era – Part 2

How do we get strategic IT?

That’s a hard question to answer. I can only give you my take on the subject. It’s far from complete but it addresses the way I look at it and how I try to do my part in achieving this. This is part 2 of a series on IT Strategies. Just some musings. You can find Part 1 here: https://blog.workinghardinit.work/2010/08/02/it-strategies-from-window-nt-3-51-to-the-cloud-era-part-1/

Merely leveling the playing field or value adding instrument?

Knowing what you have learned already, take a good look at the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) and the Return on Investment (ROI) of the technology you own. You might wonder if any of those expensive IT systems are ever going to live up to all their potential. Can you easily pin point some real and substantial business benefits from your technology investments? We sincerely hope you can. Or do you have the “feeling” that most of that capital computing power is just sitting there idle and is hopelessly underused?

Use IT or lose IT!

Even in this day and age, it never ceases to amaze us how many routine and repetitive tasks are still done manually. IT can do two major things for your business. One is to improve physical operations by making them more efficient and the other is to reduce logical operations by automating as much of it as possible. If IT is not doing that, something is wrong. Why on earth are people reduced to mere (and rather slow and unreliable) biological processing units within the IT systems they work with? This not only wastes productivity but also leads to many avoidable errors that are not only time consuming to clean up but are often untraceable. The point is that you don’t want it to be like this and you need to fix it. This is not a question about wanting your technology to deliver value to your operations but needing it to do so. Not using your IT’s potential is literally squandering vast amounts of money. No business can afford to do that so you’ll either have to deal with that issue or risk losing funding for IT. Which means you’ll be even worse off. Any chance of ever recuperating the money you invested in technology has gone and funds to compete and get ahead of your competitors can only be dreamt of. This is not a good situation to be in and even harder to get out of.

Let’s face the fact that IT very often sucks at delivering value. That’s not technologies fault directly but it’s how we use it, or rather, abuse it. Business doesn’t know a thing about what IT can or can’t do and what’s the real cost of that. IT often is run by IT managers and CIO’s that are busier entrenching themselves in vast layers of expensive and often overly complex hardware and software. The IT industry itself is a willing accomplice. They really like to sell all that stuff and services as they love the color of money. They are partners in crime and hide that painful fact behind change management, methodology religion and an air of “we are keeping the sky from falling down”. But how do they explain it takes 14 days to restore a file server to service, that it costs 3 to 6 times more for enterprise IT to do than the market will bear? I’ll give you a hint, partially because the need to hire consultants to do their jobs. Why does it take over 4 years to consolidate to a new mail system in big government agencies? What happened Look, in corporate life a lot of what’s been doing done is bull shit and exists only to create career opportunities, to inflate ones importance and (they hope) ones wages. They built extremely expensive, large, complex systems that are hell to touch, let alone, change, improve or replace. People all follow their own time limited agenda’s and build up an extensive technology debt that will wreck a business sooner or later. But no one, not in business or in technology wants to acknowledge that. When you do bring it up and try to evangelize better ways you’re a bit of an annoying person rocking the boat. Hey, what we don’t need 10 consultants, a 20 person project team and 2 years to add a sub domain to Active Directory? What do you say? Our home build MIS that took 2 years and a couple of million € could have been bought for 3000,00- € with 80% of the features. That must be some real important report content that only our system can produce I bet! You think I’m joking? I hope you think that because you’re all doing it right and are not in an industry that will collapse by doing what I described above. Fast forward 10 to 15 years. What will “the cloud” have done to your little empire? Ok perhaps you’ll be retired by then, what if you’re 45 and a fake IT professional, developer or heaven forbid a fake consultant? Yeah you’ll call it age discrimination at the unemployment office, I’m sure, but what good will that do you really? But even then the true fakers will thrive. Never, ever forget that if the organization is large enough perception outperforms reality and, guess what fakers experts are at? Right! The most “reliable” consultants seem to work for organized crime these days (Consigliere). Make a mistake in that field of endeavor or don’t deliver and you find yourself standing on a piece of industrial plastic in the bosses office looking down the biggest and blackest hole you’ll ever see. And that shiny sliver of light at the end is most likely a Winchester Silvertip® Jacketed Hollow Point. They don’t buy crap services, only results.

Now What?

Now given all this, how the hell do we make IT a strategic asset? Well let’s first go and make sure we get a functional IT environment and then go for tactical, operational and strategic value. Just focusing on the strategy is not enough and even dangerous. The operational aspect is very important as well and you really do need both. To achieve strategic IT you really need to have an IT that’s functional. In the end you also need context, knowledge, skills, hard work and a “getting things done” attitude. Please do not think you can by this as a product or a service. You can only achieve an IT strategy by hard work and dedication. Trying to use recipes or methodologies without context is doomed to fail. It just doesn’t work. Unfortunately so many organizations really do that. Why? Because to many bad consultancy firms are milking those tools for the cash cows they have become. Look consultancy firms live by cheap personnel (to them, not to you) that get their jobs done by following guide lines, boilerplate documents and such. They couldn’t survive without them, the methodologies and processes are their life line. So when those don’t work they’ll sell you more of the same because that’s all they can handle and know. They don’t really care about your business. Essentially they are what are giving methodologies a bad name. They are used to let mediocre firms with mediocre or even incompetent personnel survive. Stay away from them. They have a hammer and they’ll use that tool everywhere for every job so basically they are frauds. This often continues way to long on because so much money is involved no one even dares to tell the truth anymore. Have you ever wondered why most over certified “BIG” corporations are hated and despised by their customers? They are over organized, to many weird processes. On paper all is well to perfect but in reality it doesn’t work anymore. This is probably the reason why we’re losing so many jobs in the West. We’re too expensive for the limited productivity we have and are burdened by the cost of dysfunctional methodologies. Are the other areas better? Nope they are cheaper, hungry for a better life and willing to make a real and prolonged effort.

Invest In Solutions & People

Basically what we’re saying is to stop buying technology and instead start investing in solutions. Solutions are built with technology. But there is more to it. Used correctly, technology can be a lot more than just a means to an end. The solutions built with technology must become an instrument that provides operational, tactical and strategic advantages to your organization. This means that IT will then realize its true potential.

So here is where your ICT staff (external or internal) can and must really differ from other commercial ICT providers or personnel. That piece of hardware and the operating system running on it is more to us than just a means to sell even more services, hardware and software. To us, it is the very basis of working solutions to real business issues. That’s the attitude we have towards addressing your problems. This requires knowledge, experience and dedication to finding the best approach for your organization.

This means that often you don’t have to buy yet more or new technology and software to solve problems. The best hidden secret in IT seems to be the value and opportunities that are available within most systems. It’s time for you to find them and be pleasantly surprised by what you what you already have but are not using. Use the money saved here to differentiate you in the market and be competitive. To achieve this you need knowledgeable people who care about the business.

Select your vendors and consultants with care. They should have one goal and that is to help you solve existing problems cost effectively and as a result deliver value to your company. They should not have the goal to sell only products or time to fix – perhaps even only perceived – problems. Think about it, you do not want to buy consulting hours, a dual CPU server or a body to fill an empty cubical. You want to buy a solution to an existing need. Of course we do work with vendors and other consultants in order to help you, but they have to agree and comply with our approach. If not, that’s a collaboration terminating event. It’s this attitude that helps us provide outstanding services. Yes we keep up to date on technology advances in our field of expertise, yes some of us are certified but we do not sell you acronyms and titles instead of skills. We are certified because we are experts, not vice versa. Most of all we are interested in learning about your business needs and matching them to satisfying solutions. Good consultants and IT Professionals will always seek the best way to help you. They will do this even when this means hiring others to do the job. If not, they are body shops who have only one goal, renting out people at daily rates. Walk away from these. They will never produce the results needed. Likewise, people just writing strategy documents, enterprise architecture designs and practice methodology religion that doesn’t improve or even relate to the realities in the field is nothing more than wasting money. They who do that are frauds. Why do I call this a “religion”? Because they only promise things later when you’re a good boy and when it never delivers you must have sinned against the methodologies? Oh please … enough already! Typical bullshit form people with no real field experience and knowledge, let alone the context to achieve something with methodologies.

A Vision on Realizing Solutions

Today anyone in the world with the right skills, attitude and motivation can provide services that result into high quality information technology solutions for any small, medium & large sized businesses around the globe. Fast internet connections in combination with secure remote administration tools have made this possible, especially when you realize that many technology implementations are being replaced by “good enough” services on the internet. Well, what good clients, employees and managers have in common is that they take their automation and computing needs seriously. However, they don’t always have the resources or know-how available to make the most of their investments in technology. By providing the necessary advice, assistance and implementation, technologists can add value to a company instead of delivering just another cost factor that merely levels the playing field. Solutions may range from single server systems over organization wide infrastructure roll outs to hybrid cloud implementations but the principle remains the same. We offer the knowledge and experience needed to make technology work for the business. A properly implemented IT solution can provide tactical, operational and strategic advantages in the market place. It makes you more competitive. To achieve these goals we rely on a number of key elements in any successful professional relationship.

Trust

All long term business relationships are based on mutual trust. Trust is not given away for free, it needs to be earned. You will need to establish a trust relationship between business and ICT in order for them to be your counselor and guide for current and future technology needs.

Integrity

Technology is a tool, a means to an end. Good IT offers to help your company use the tools it has or requires to their fullest potential. The business needs are important and IT should care about finding the right solution that the organization. An IT strategy must show commitment to work according to your needs and budget to find the right level of services and technology for your company. This needs to be done at a pace you can sustain. The goal is to add value to your business, not to extract money from it and waste time performing unnecessary tasks. On the opposite side, IT advisors must be honest and be able to walk away from organizations and managers who are not capable of being professional and have no real desire to improve. Only time and money can be wasted in such a situation. The money can be replaced. Our time cannot so it should never go to waste.

Reliability

All technology can and will fail at some point in time. Such events can result in lost data, lost time and lost revenue. Providing a business with a well-designed infrastructure however, will help you avoid such risks. This, in combination with excellent troubleshooting skills, facilitates recovering from such “disasters”. Keeping IT systems running smoothly requires a proactive approach consisting of maintenance and periodic auditing of the systems. The result of this is the reliability needed in order to prevent unscheduled down time. In the cloud era the ones responsible for all that change but the essence remains the same. Be advised however that everything can and will fail. Unbreakable does not exist. The differentiator is how we prevent it and how we deal with it when it occurs.

Attitude

You have a lot of choices when it comes to choosing someone to help you with your computing needs. Experience is one of the distinguishing factors, as is commitment, know-how and the ability to develop a vision about a company’s IT needs. This attitude provides guidance to organizations, so they can enjoy the benefits of well-designed computing systems without draining vast amounts of capital from their financial reserves.

Technology

Understanding technology is paramount to providing a great service. You cannot design and build something you do not understand. The correct mix of hands on experience, knowledge of complementing technologies and design skills, combined with continuous training is what enables IT Pro’s to optimize your technology investment.

Isn’t this going to very or prohibitively expensive?

This remark always provides for an opportunity to convince the person of the real value ICT can add. I have always made a genuine effort to position the IT solutions I design as qualitatively superior in both our approach and in the results we deliver. But that doesn’t mean they are overly expensive. Within our area of expertise, we will always seek to find the best and most cost effective solution that is viable to that particular business need. We will customize that solution to “tailor fit” the environment, but only if and when required. If IT is prohibitively expensive somebody is not doing their job right.

This, in my opinion, is a great way to provide an outstanding service and results; the value of which is reflected in the investment costs. How can you expect strategic IT and its implementation to be cheap? Good value for money, yes, but cheap, no. Now, some companies will never pay the rates and price needed to achieve this. Sometimes, in many ways, they are totally correct in not doing so. The most likely and best reason is that they do not need our services, i.e. it is just not worth it. For them IT is nothing more than a necessary and valuable commodity. The unfortunate reason is that our services can’t help them. Some simplified examples might help to clarify this. A lawyer who uses his laptop for writing reports and printing them out is not going to pay us 150 Euros per hour for setting up his free e-mail in Outlook, and he’s absolutely correct in not doing so. However, an organization that needs an effective, secure and rock solid virtualization solution will appreciate the benefits of good design and is willing to make that investment to achieve results. Until the day arrives the cloud does that better and more cost effective.

Costs for ICT and rates for personnel are not dictated by the complexity or the lack of complexity in an organization’s environment. Rates are established based on knowledge and the value IT brings to your business. An environment’s complexity only dictates how much time we will spend designing, implementing and/or supporting it, not how much time or solutions are worth. In the end you are engaging skills and knowledge, not time. Smart managers and IT architects simply refuse to compete with “low cost, low skill” operators who can only follow generic guidelines (if even that) and are stumped when “it doesn’t work”. But since you are reading this there is most likely a reason why you are looking beyond those players. You are interested in high quality strategic, tactical and operational ICT! So there you have it. It is the combination of skills, aptitudes, work ethics and intellectual capital that enables IT professionals to offer quality services that amount to added value and competitive advantage for your business. In the end, isn’t that what you want for your organization?

Think of any solution like a triangle. The three sides of the triangle have the following characteristics that can all be a quality by itself or combined together, depending on the circumstances.

  • Cheap
  • Fast
  • Good

However be advised that the three sides combined together almost never materialize in real life. So you’ll have to pick two of them and, more or less, sacrifice the third. Which combination is needed depends on the issue at hand. Do not fool yourself into thinking that Information Technology is something that anyone can do by just reading a book, following some courses or owning a PC. It takes a tremendous amount of time, dedication and a sustained effort to become and stay competent and ahead in the world of IT, far beyond a 9 to 5 job. So realistically, if you expect this kind of expertise to be available at low ball rates or for free, perhaps it is time to take another look at the triangle and reevaluate your position on this. This is true in a mainframe, client server, web, Service Oriented Architecture and cloud world. The environment, technologies, tools and solutions change and we have to change with it.

Final Thoughts

It is important for both management and employees alike to realize that choosing a dynamic and scalable IT infrastructure solution in combination with a flexible and integrated development platform is very important. It provides one of the pillars for the successful implementation and support of the business strategy. Today this is no longer an opinion or a choice; it is a fact of doing business.

This means that these choices are as much a part of creating competitive advantage as any other strategic decision. The need to provide long term backward compatibility, support for current and new technologies, facilitate agile development and allow easy deployment and maintenance throughout its life cycle are paramount. All of this has to be done in an effective, efficient and affordable manner. These considerations are valid whether we are looking for a single line of business application or an entire infrastructure solution. Do realize solutions are fluid. There is no permanent solution, just the best solution at that moment for a certain period of time for that particular situation. That situation might be unique or it might be more common than muck. Much care must be taken not to build up an unsustainable technology debt and to keep working on reducing any non-managed debt present.

To end, never make the mistake of thinking that having a strategy is enough. You need the right people, the skills, the attitude and the guts where and when they are needed to execute your strategy. In essence it is never easy and it takes a lot of hard work. Plans and ideas that are not executed are worthless. Beware that acknowledging this must result in more than lip service to this vision. You must act upon it, translate it into plans, and provide leadership and guidance to achieve an IT strategy that will produce results. Money and tools are no substitute for solid skills and motivation. But those are subjects for another discussion. So for now, stop faking, study hard, work hard and build real good solid IT!

This is part 2 of a series on IT Strategies. Just some musings. You can find Part 1 here: https://blog.workinghardinit.work/2010/08/02/it-strategies-from-window-nt-3-51-to-the-cloud-era-part-1/

IT Strategies from Window NT 3.51 to the Cloud Era – Part 1

Because hope don’t float!
This is part 1 of a series on IT Strategies. Just some musings. You can find Part 2 here: https://blog.workinghardinit.work/2010/08/14/it-strategies-from-window-nt-3-51-to-the-cloud-era-part-2/
Not many people I meet in businesses seem to be able to define “ICT strategy” without playing some sort “Bullshit Bingo” I’ll give you my opinion. During my years in IT I’ve read and thought a lot about the value of what we design and build. What you’ll find here stems from well over a decade of reading, thinking, working, discussing and helping to develop IT Strategies with colleagues, businesses and consultants whilst exploring ways to deliver value through ICT. One thing I should perhaps add that I have never been in a sales role, so this is not from an account manager’s perspective. But I do recognize and accept that everyone whatever his or her function has a “sales” role in order to be allowed to execute ones proposals. I owe a debt of gratitude to so many people over the years who have helped shape my vision on IT. There are so many voices and opinions, some I agree and some I disagree with, that have influenced my ideas, that in the end all of what you read here is a collection of all those opinions combined with my interpretation of them. Part 1 is about where IT strategies fit in and why they are. Part 2 will address my opinion on how to achieve them.

Introduction

The reason you hear more and more about strategic IT and commodity IT in recent years is due to the attention cloud computing is getting in the media. One of the main forces driving the cloud computing business is economic pressure and the need to provide affordable, scalable IT in a commodity market. Combine this with the “discovery” of business and IT alignment by main stream management and the “strategic” plans will flow abundantly. They’ll almost certainly throw in an “IT needs to learn it’s here for the business needs”. What does that really mean? That management is not capable of using IT for its business needs and allows money to be wasted. Whose responsibility is that? What if they let the same happen between financials and sales? In my humble opinion main stream business managers urgently need to make the effort to learn about the realistic use and benefits of IT. A divide between business and IT is a manmade artifact and not something natural, it is a result of management failure. Bar the stereo type nerds, I see more efforts of IT managers & architects to think business minded than by main stream management in thinking about using IT as a true competitive differentiator. Once the words economy and competition are in play you start talking strategies, just like the military. That’s not a coincidence. Take away the niceties and business is a non-lethal form of warfare. I guess that’s why “The Art of war” was or is such a popular book in top business circles. Just do an internet search for “The art of war business strategy”. The correct definition of what strategy means is out there in plain sight for all of to read and learn.

So why is it that when talking about strategies, ICT related or otherwise, you rarely get a solid response that truly addresses the subject? People seem to mistake simple long term planning and goals for strategies. Plans are used to realize strategic goals; they do not define a strategy. A strategy is what you will do to out flank your competitors to gain an advantage. That advantage, in today’s world, means being different and good. It is almost certainly not about being the best. What is best depends too much on the unique situation of every organization, its specific needs and circumstances at that moment in time. It’s indeed all rather fluid and dynamic, so “best” is very time limited. Anyway you’d better have something that differentiates you from the competition in a positive way. Otherwise there is no compelling reason to become your customer.

Why is having a unique approach and being good at it so important? Being the same as anyone else makes you plain, a commodity that’s readily available. If on top of that your customer’s service sucks, you’ll start losing customers as no one is willing to pay for that. This drives down prices even more and robs you of all potential benefits of any unique selling points you might have. That is far from competitive. Unless your aim is to become king of low priced, bulk delivery for a product that doesn’t require services whatsoever that’s a bad strategy and even then you will have to be better than your competitors in that particular playing field. You have to stand out somehow.

Also, a strategy has to be correct and honest. False assumptions, self-deception, faking and lying as in “methodology religion” will make you lose all professional credibility with your personnel and investors. Once you’ve sunk to that level there is little or no hope of ever recovering from that position. You really cannot get away with faking a strategy.

So what is “my” strategy as an infrastructure guy in a business world to make sure that we are different and good? Well, you already read the appetizer, now read on to find out. And believe me, you need to find out! Way too many business & IT strategies are esoteric boardroom level documents that have little or no correlation with the reality in the trenches. They are made to have some checkboxes ticked on an audit report or are actually just plans with not strategic content what so ever. Sometimes you really wonder why they even bother making them. At least they could have avoided wasting the time and effort.

Defining how the ICT strategy relates to the business strategy

Before we can define what makes a good ICT strategy we need to talk business. It needs to be a part of the strategic business plan or you shouldn’t even bother having one. Oh, and by the way, if you don’t have a high quality business plan made by and supported in actions by knowledgeable, passionate, driven, motivated and hardworking management, walk away. No good ICT strategy will ever come from such a situation. Buying technology cannot fix organizational problems. Please repeat this last sentence at least three times out loud. You need to hear it and let the message sink in! In such a situation having an IT strategy is the least of your problems.

We already stated that a strategy is about distinguishing you from your competitors. This can mean many different things depending on the circumstances. Better products, the same product but with better services, cheaper but good enough for its purpose, etc. Be brutally realistic. If what you do does not set you apart from your competition in a positive way, you have no strategy or have been ill advised on what constitutes a strategy. The fact that “no one else does what we do” is not a strategy, it will not last! The fact that people are obligated to use your services by law is not a strategy. It might be a short term advantage, but it creates no good will with your customers, especially not if your services or products are mediocre or bad. And please be more than just be the odd one out, sure you’re different but that’s not the different you’re looking for.

You must also realize that strategies have a limited shelf life. Sooner or later your competitors will realize what your strategy is and if it works they will start copying it. More often than not they will add some improvements having the benefit of 20/20 vision through hind sight. This means that, over time, what was once a distinguishing solution that gave you a competitive advantage becomes a mere main stream commodity. Now please realize that being a commodity does not mean irrelevant or useless. Power, heating, fuel, telephones, e-mail, storage, file servers… are all commodities we cannot do without! But in the commodity sector you will compete by being different in pricing, quality of services and added value. Only when technology becomes a blast from the past by significant advances or changes in science it becomes economically useless. Think steam engines … but … retro does exist and come backs do occur. Windmills any one?

I know the cloud hype recuperates just about everything that is delivered can be over the internet and is service oriented but please realize that not all commodities are or will be services.

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Given the fact that strategies are far from long lasting entities, what does this mean for an IT strategy? Simply put: speed and agility are of the essence. We must be capable of moving fast and decisive. There is no time anymore for years of thinking, contemplating and testing. The long term vision must still exist and it is extremely important, but it is not the same as a strategy. To reap the benefits of long term thinking one needs to survive long enough to be around! 15 year long term strategies are doomed. These are day dreams. A bit like the Maginot Line the French build for over a decade but was utterly useless as its concept was out of date by the time World War II broke out. Long terms visions are realized through several sequential and adaptive strategies. As you can see in the figure with time strategic solution becomes a commodity and a part of the IT infrastructure that needs to be maintained. A good strategy takes this into account so that the strategic solution can evolve into an operational and tactical commodity instead of a very expensive drain of resources.

One could say that all IT can be found somewhere between following states:

· Strategic: Technology that differentiates us in support of (new) business strategies. This is what makes us more competitive, that adds value, because it’s unique and innovative.

· Commodity: Stuff we need but no longer adds competitive advantage. It does provide tactical or operational benefits and you can’t do without them. Make note, strategic commodities exist, oil is a prime example, water another one. So commodity is not a synonym for low value, it just doesn’t add value in itself or no longer serves as a differentiator.

Everything else, whether it is cheap or expensive, subsidized or self-sustaining are frankly technology hobbies (not in the picture). Where are the value and the profit? Management should avoid this. The best thing that can happen here is that you actually learn something building & maintaining it or use it as a lab for creative innovation. But that’s not a hobby anymore … that’s a dream job for engineers.

Tell me what an ICT strategy is already!

An ICT strategy supports the business initiatives that provide a competitive advantage to an organization in such a way that it does not become a pain in the ass over time. Only incur technology debt where and when needed and manage it carefully. But how the hell does that materialize in reality you must be wondering by now? Well it is the combination of creatively building, deploying, operating and using solutions that deliver value by making you more competitive. Solutions scan be realized using standard software and hardware, with custom build applications or a combination of both. Whatever the case … the solution requires very knowledgeable people, serious skill sets, a mind driven by curiosity and the need for results.

People buy results, not services or efforts. This is one of the big mistakes in the thinking of many modern so called service driven companies. They fail to provide good services, let alone results. They are in effect just low cost / low value operators. If you provide services they need to be there to produce the results. Otherwise you are, for all practical purposes and intent, lying which will come back to bite you. Take note however that too much service is financial suicide. Don’t cater to individual and unique needs unless that is your core business.

Since solutions are custom build on development platforms and infrastructure it is critical to realize that the choice of platforms and infrastructures can mean the success or failure for an organization since it directly relates to its ability to compete. Yes, once again, the reason for having a strategy in the first place!

The most common issue we see when dealing with an IT strategy is that many organizations have no clear picture about what they do, how and why. They just seem to do “stuff” and expect of rather hope that hard work and effort will help them realize their goals. But without clear and well defined goals there is no way of achieving them. Efforts and hard work alone will not produce results. Customers do not pay for hard work, they do not reward efforts. That was something that worked in kinder garden but fails in a business environment. Remember, customers pay for results. You cannot buy a product that will deliver these out of the box.

So what must an ICT strategy achieve?

Since we have seen that strategic solutions eventually become commodities, any combination of infrastructure, platforms and solutions must work well during their entire life cycle. Decisions that focus only on strategy might lead to the implementation of the latest and greatest technology. This can lead to very divers, esoteric and heterogeneous environments with very high integration & support costs. It also incurs the cost of finding, retaining and maintaining good developers and engineers with knowledge about such systems.

On the other side of the equation one can not only worry about keeping short- and long-term support costs low. This will lead to missing out on the business benefits that new technologies can bring. In the end finding the right balance between these two is very important and failing to do this will be very costly in financial repercussions, lost opportunities and failed projects. This ends in the downfall of the organization since it becomes irrelevant in the market and has no more means to support itself.

Custom build solutions do not exist in isolation. They need to run on an infrastructure, connect to other systems, be able to be secured etc … This is called integration and if this is overlooked it can become a financial burden that negates the added value of an IT solution and make it a cost instead of an asset. For example “Best of breed” has often failed in the sense that is did not deliver enough value to justify the high cost of acquisition, maintenance and integration. The real killer here is the efforts and thus cost involved in integrating all these. Even if you do get it to work it is often in a way that negates good practices, reduces security and incurs a high, cumbersome administrative overhead which is error prone and expensive. It does make a good revenue stream however for “consultants”.
This is part 1 of a series on IT Strategies. Just some musings. You can find Part 2 here: https://blog.workinghardinit.work/2010/08/14/it-strategies-from-window-nt-3-51-to-the-cloud-era-part-2/