Back in a Bit

How do you know if your IT department is any good?

I’m an IT Manager. I usually work with start-up companies, usually from their first year onwards. It’s not uncommon for people in my circumstances to find themselves starting out as head of a team of one or two, and then concentrating their efforts on successful expansion through investment in systems and people.

The IT Manager in a firm usually reports to and advises the board on all things technical, but how are the board to know whether or not what they hear from their own technical team is in any way right for them?

In general, those on the board will have only a vague overview of the technical challenges facing their business. How are they to understand the financial and technological impacts involved? Of course, that’s why they’ve hired their technical team, but how are they to know that the information provided to them by their team is as correct as possible? Much of their confidence in their team will rely on trust but, in business, trust isn’t blind. So how can a technical team earn the trust of their board?

Take a very simple scenario. The board decree that the company’s employees need access to some functionality. The technical team propose a number of solutions and, from these, a recommendation. What sense is the board able to make of this? How are they supposed to know what this sort of thing should cost, or how long it should take?

There is an attempted solution that I have seen on more than one occasion. In general, members of the board are well-connected, both with people in a similar position to themselves, and with people with whom they’ve worked before. It is usually the case that they can seek the advise of an external party. That person might be a previously employed and well-respected technical authority, or it may be the employer of such a person. But, with IT being the way it is, it’s not uncommon for two parties to approach the same challenge in entirely different ways.

A common and flippant answer is that the IT guys are good all the time everything’s working, but I feel it runs deeper than this. If you pump enough resources into something, it will eventually appear to function, but was is the right way to solve the problem? Sure, your technical people answered your request for functionality, but have they simply gone fishing with dynamite?

The British Computer Society has a programme it calls Professionalism in IT, wherein “building IT professionalism to the level at which it is seen to exist in other areas of professional activity is a stated ambition”. As a member of the BCS, I’m of the opinion that, with the best will in the world, this is, for the moment, just an ambition. For such a critical sector of industry (if, indeed, that’s what it is), you might expect there to be some kind of external regulation. But, with the sector’s continually rapid expansion, how is this to be done, and by whom?

I believe this is an issue that the IT industry as a whole is overdue to address. I’m fortunate enough to have track-record on my side but, in reality, the trust invested in me as an IT Manager by my directors should be based on their confidence that, regardless of the specifics of any solution, I am consistently acting in the best interests of the company.

[note: this comes straight off the top of my head. It’s been on my mind for a while and continues to be there. I may revisit the subject. The usual disclaimers apply: these are my own muddled thoughts and not necessarily those of anyone else, yada yada]