Thursday, August 29, 2013

Communication is Good, or Why Opaqueness is Not A Feature

Another day, another fiber cut. This time the telephone company's fiber met another backhoe and phone service was jacked up for 4 communities. Data stayed up (thankfully!). This outage was very exciting because phone service was completely down. Outbound and inbound calling did not work at all for our PRI and calling into the telco's exchanges from cell phones either gave a generic wireless provider message or told you that all circuits are busy.

Fun times when you work in the financial sector and members need to call you about their accounts!

I tried calling the telephone company but, naturally, their phones were also down. Fortunately I live a digitally enhanced life and stash all data I run across in one system or another. Found our sales rep's cell phone number and gave him a call for a status update. A short while later I got a fantastic email from him not only describing the issue but it also had the internal ticket that gave all the details! He continued to give me updates throughout the day, always including the internal tickets with the details. This was pure gold! It had service area affected, details, what services were down, and ETA for fixes.

Just think: what if they had just emailed all their business customers' technical contacts the internal ticket? No one would have called, no one would have been angry (hey, fiber cuts happen and I accept that), everyone would have had what they needed.

Being opaque when dealing with customers and partners is all too often seen as beneficial to the organization. Making people come to you for information feels like it keeps you in control of the relationship. The problem is, even for vendors of commodity services, only your competition will benefit from you not engaging your customers. Today communication is cheap and data is plentiful. We expect every vendor to be able to keep us informed and that's not necessarily an unreasonable expectation. With minimal effort, even a limited amount of data can be given out and that might be all it takes to engage or satisfy the customer.

You have information systems and communication platforms, use them to add value to your service. Your customers will be happy.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Invisible IT

Job satisfaction is often a problem in IT. Service sector is hard no matter where you work. You might even quip in song: Seldom is heard, an encouraging word. Service, especially when focused internally in a business, is an expectation and really doesn't get the recognition other business units receive when good things happen.

People involved in service do receive, on the other hand, a great deal of frustration, complaint, and sometimes anger. We're the clean up crew when things go wrong. When someone calls IT it's rarely because something good happened. This is something people in careers that are dedicated to service resign themselves to knowing full well that stress will become a routine part of life. But IT isn't just involved in support of existing services; There's a constant effort to improve and upgrade existing services. Updated services get pushed out constantly trying to keep up with demand and business case needs.

Last week my job involved going live with a new fiber connection to all our locations. We'd been getting by with some bonded T1 connections and one location had a single T1. Communications were via MPLS over these small pipes. After months of wrangling we managed to get fiber installed and went from 3Mbps over MPLS to a fat 50/50Mbps connection at each location. This is no small incremental increase!

The new connection went live Wednesday night and I got myself all prepped for problems Thursday morning. Only one problem cropped up and things went smoothly. "Surely," I thought to myself, "Someone will be sending IT brownies, or cookies, or something Friday morning!" The network response was amazing, applications were faster than ever, and call quality was dramatically improved. Friday morning rolls around and....nothing. No cookies, no doughnuts, not even a job-well-done pat on the back.

Now, don't get me wrong, management understands the improvements and we're not talking about total radio silence here. It's just that, from a job satisfaction point of view, you always hope that improvements would get the same response as an organization-wide outage does. IT labors in anonymity until things go wrong. The good things we do are preventative and steer the good ship around the hazards ahead. The fact is, service will always be harder than being served. That's not a bad thing; It is something to aspire to. There's fulfillment to be found in the service and the job well done.

Friday, August 2, 2013

IT vs I&T

I think it's time to change our name from "Information Technology" to "Information AND Technology".

It's a simple matter of reflecting what we're becoming and what we'll be expected to do in the future. I was chatting with a colleague who is working on becoming a newly minted systems/network admin when we both recognized that sys admins and network admins are a dying breed. That's not for lack of admins: shake any organizational tree and a dozen or more spare sys/net admins will fall out. The fact of the matter is that outsourcing continues tp dramatically reduce the need for admins. Cloud-based services are quickly moving infrastructure and systems far away from the business and the few systems that remain in-house can easily be assigned to a managed services provider (Started by a sys admin who was fired before you. Wink, wink!).

The same goes for generalist technicians across the board. Their positions are expensive and outside vendors are pounding on the gates offering to do the job from dramatically less money. Technicians have long-ago become a commodity and their employment has been buoyed by business' inability to change course quickly.

Going back to the conversation with my colleague: What was the solution for those of us in the endangered systems/network admin game? Information!

IT has a special place in business. We're often one of the few business units that spans the entire organization. Everything we do affects every team in the business. Many times the only other department with this kind of reach is facilities/janitorial. IT is often inward-facing and serves only the organization and, as because of this, we have a unique perspective that allows us to see the bigger picture. IT knows what everyone is doing and how they're doing it. IT knows the goals, the directives, the strategies, and the methods being used to achieve all these things. IT also has all the data.

It's time for IT to break up the melding of Information and Technology. Technology is the stuff, the gadgets. The business doesn't need gadgets (except when they do), what it really needs is Information. An I&T department would put its focus on Information and less on Technology. Someone has to shepherd the gadgets and gewgaws. Information, the life-blood of business, is where the real effort belongs - Process, information delivery, integration, standardization, automation, etc.

The old joke among admins, "Go away or I will replace you with a very small shell script" is coming true but at our own expense. It's time to evolve our careers, leave IT, and create the I&T Department.