April 15, 2008 10:16 PM
Posted by: JohnWilder
I ran across the following article at eWeek today, regarding MidMarket CIOs, and it struck me as especially relative to my own situation. I wrote about Growing the IT Department last week, and I guess this is just another aspect of that discussion. However, the eWeek article struck a chord today, because I can genuinely relate to my job becoming more strategic in nature, while at the same time I’m becoming less and less involved in some of the technical details.
While I talked at length last week about what this means to my staff, and the growing need for specialized skills, this part of the equation is more about me. I’m not sure exactly how MidMarket is defined, and especially in the advertising business, but I’m pretty sure that I’m squarely in it. I’ve been trying to pinpoint the exact point in time where my own job started to change, but it’s not easy, especially given some of the ups and downs of the industry in general, and my company in particular.
One part of it has definitely been adding employees to the IT staff, but they haven’t always been here in our local office. While I’ve had people working for me for almost 10 years, the only time that I’ve really been able to focus on the strategic issues has been when I’ve had somebody else in the home office who takes some of the desktop support role off my plate. When I’ve had nobody in that role, it was never an issue of completely neglecting the strategic aspect of things, but rather a case of not being able to focus on those issues during the normal work day. Any time spent working on strategic issues was usually on evenings or weekends.
The other ingredient in moving toward a more strategic role has simply been time and experience. It’s only been in the past 2-3 years that management has fully grasped the difference between the strategic role of IT and that of day-to-day desktop support. For me that was the defining moment where I finally felt more like an IT Director, and less like a support person. Some of this was also about people gaining trust and respect for my administrators, because at first they keep coming back to you because you’re perceived as the “expert on everything”.
I find the numbers in the eWeek article interesting, but they also don’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. We usually don’t quite fit into any of the “niches”, but at the same time there’s some comfort in seeing the facts, and realizing that there are others in the same boat. However, sometimes it’s difficult to relate to folks who are in the same boat, because many times they are still in that desktop support role, or at the very least remain very close to the technical details. You can sense the surprise at times when they find out you’re not completely up to speed on the technical aspect of some issue. It wasn’t so long ago that I was wondering that same thing myself.
Personally, I’m glad I ended up in this business and in this company.
April 11, 2008 3:16 PM
Posted by: JohnWilder
, IT department
Over the last several days, I’ve gotten pretty worked up over some vendor pricing models. I understand that vendors are attempting to recoup the investment they have in developing their products, but unfortunately the pricing model vendors may choose to adopt can hit you particularly hard. It’s opened my eyes to this particular issue, and I’m going to pay a whole lot more attention to it going forward.
How would we like it if Cisco or HP suddenly decided to adopt a new pricing model for their network switches? What if this new pricing model required that we had to pay more based on the volume of data moving through the switch? This model would be prohibitively expensive for those of us who routinely move big Photoshop files around. It also doesn’t make a lot of sense, because it’s the same switch whether you’re moving around Word documents or Photoshop files. Thankfully, things don’t work that way in the switch world. You purchase the switch you need, and pricing varies depending on the switch’s speed and the number of ports. The pricing model makes sense.
This brings me to a couple of vendors who apply a different model in order to recoup their development costs. For the past several months I’ve been in discussions with Bakbone about their backup products. Bakbone uses a pricing model where you’re asked to pay based on the volume of data you’re backing up. We’ve also purchased network acceleration devices from Expand Networks in the past 12 months. In Expand’s case, the pricing model is based on the amount of bandwidth being accelerated. In both cases, the smaller company which has large storage and bandwidth needs is penalized. The pricing model works a whole lot better if you’re saving and moving Word documents than it does for Photoshop documents.
In the case of backup software, if I’ve already spent the money for the drive space to store my backups, why on earth should I have to pay a software vendor based on how much data I’m backing up? Does the software have to work any harder in order to back up more stuff? In the case of network acceleration, if I’ve already purchased a piece of hardware which is sufficient for my bandwidth needs, why do I have to pay more to accelerate 20MBps than I do to accelerate 10MBps? The hardware hasn’t changed. I’m already paying my ISP for the bandwidth. Isn’t the whole idea of a network acceleration device that I get more bandwidth for the buck? It feels to me like I’m paying for that extra bandwidth either way.
For a company such as ours, where our data and bandwidth needs tend to be excessive, and out of proportion to other companies of our size, these pricing models are prohibitively expensive. A pricing model based on users or connections makes much more sense for us. It’s been a good lesson for me. In the case of Expand we’ve been very happy with the product itself. Their network acceleration appliances work well, and we’ve managed to work out the pricing issues so far. However, this could be an ongoing battle as our company grows, and I don’t particularly relish the thought of revisiting these pricing issues every time we add an office or renew our support contracts.
It’s been a valuable lesson learned for me, and it’s one I’ll pay a lot more attention to in the future. Because our storage and bandwidth needs are out of proportion to our size, basing a pricing model on these elements just doesn’t work for us.
April 8, 2008 4:19 PM
Posted by: JohnWilder
There. I always wanted to use “Growing the IT Department” for a title. A few years back, I presented at an Ad Agency CIO Conference, and my topic at the time was “Managing Contraction”. I’m here to tell you that growing the department is a lot more enjoyable (but not necessarily any easier).
The gist of my previous talk was that we found new and unique ways to “do more with less”. Not exactly a revelation there, but it was the reality of what happened to us. At the time, we had lost about 50% of our IT staff, while the company itself probably only got 25% smaller, and of course the number of servers and other system devices we supported didn’t shrink at all. That’s probably a story familiar to many of you, and it certainly wasn’t without pain.
But let’s ignore the pain for now, and talk about a growing IT Department. One of the real challenges in a company which is becoming larger is making sure that your IT staff is not only sized correctly, but also making sure that you have the correct specialties on hand. That is what makes this tough, especially when the company and the IT Department grow as the result of acquisitions. I guess an IT Department can be like a box of chocolates too (apologies to Forrest Gump), because you truly don’t know what you’re going to get when you “acquire” a new employee. In my case I’ve been pretty lucky, because although my staff is split between those I’ve hired (3) and those I’ve acquired (2), all are outstanding IT guys in their own right.
What makes it difficult for us, especially in this business, is the broad range of IT specialties which we have to cover. When you start out, as I did 15 years ago as the only IT support person on staff, you necessarily have to be that jack-of-all-trades, and that’s typically what we get when we acquire a new company. However, it really has become a lot more complicated in the past 15 years, as we’ve had things like digital AV equipment and telecomm added to our plate. We’ve also seen products such as SharePoint and SQL server arrive, which can add significantly to productivity, but which require significant and specialized support themselves. From time to time, you have to sit back and ask yourself how you would staff the company today if you were doing it from scratch. I’m doing a bit of that now, but I’m working closely with my staff to begin to slot people into more specialized IT roles. For the most part it seems to be working, but it’s not necessarily easy.
I also tell my staff that we may never get completely away from the jack-of-all trade roll, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing either. I think it helps an IT Director or CIO to “get their hands dirty” once in a while, and I don’t think any of should ever make a complete break with everything. On the other hand, the specialties give us a great way to give people more opportunities for growth.
The other interesting thing I’ve noticed is that I’m still doing many of the things I discussed in that earlier Managing Contraction talk. We’ve never stopped looking for ways to become more efficient and to do more with less. Sometimes, you also have to work to convince your staff that the latest “efficiency” doesn’t necessarily mean the end of their job, but once again that’s where the new specialties come into play. Just because you’re implementing a new system which means we might spend less time visiting desktops, doesn’t mean we can’t find productive work for everybody.
A lot of that stems with going through the pain of layoffs, and it tends to keep us from growing too fast. Even now, my department tends to be on the lean side, and I think that’s a good thing. It makes us less of a target during economic downturns. Hopefully we can win that argument when the time comes.
April 5, 2008 3:47 PM
Posted by: JohnWilder
This is another of those interesting issues I mentioned in my first post, and one that I argued makes our industry unique from an IT perspective. Today, I’d like to discuss some of the issues which surround the support of a large Creative contingent.
While I’d like to keep the discussion centered mostly on the people and work, I do think it is worth mentioning that part of the discussion also relates once again to the PC vs. Mac thing. Since the Creative users are all on the Macintosh platforms, they sometimes perceive that IT support is more geared towards the PC side of the house. Because the size of our company dictates that our IT personnel be “jack-of-all-trades”, we’ve never really had the luxury of hiring pure Mac support specialists. We also haven’t ignored the Mac in our hiring of support personnel. Of the 5 people working for me today, 2 of them came from publishing backgrounds where they actually performed Mac support. We also made a point of sending one of our most recent hires off to the remote office he now supports with a Mac PowerBook under his arm. Even though he wasn’t a Mac guy, the users in that office took it as a very good sign that he was willing and able to support the Mac platform. It took them a while to realize that he was spending a lot of his time on a Vista virtual machine running on Parallels, and in the meantime he actually did learn to support the Macs. Gaining the trust of the Creative users is paramount in supporting them, and actually having Macs on our support people’s desk goes a long ways in building that support. One of the big problems in supporting Macs is finding qualified people. Windows support people are a dime a dozen, and it can be difficult finding good Mac support people who are also willing and able to support the PC.
Another side of this issue which I’ve become more sensitive lately is the perception that IT hates the Mac. I’ll be the first to admit that we have some very entertaining discussions/debates amongst our IT staff regarding the PC vs. Mac battle, but unfortunately some of these debates have spilled over into our discussions with the Creative employees. When I started hearing from Creative that “IT hates the Mac”, I decided it was time to talk to my personnel, and to ask them to be careful what they said. That’s not necessarily an easy thing to ask – it’s a little too much thought control for my liking, but I felt that we needed to be careful about the perception we were creating. The funny thing about this is what the Creative staff isn’t hearing. Those internal IT discussions are just as frequently gripe sessions about Microsoft as they are about Apple, but our Mac users never hear us having those discussions. One of the nice things about having a larger staff of IT people, is that we get an opportunity to discuss these things amongst ourselves. This is one of the things mentioned most frequently when we’ve acquired new offices with existing IT personnel. Typically, these IT people were the only one in their office, and they never had anyone else who truly understood some of the issues we face. Finally being able to discuss some of these things with their peers is a big deal to them.
Obviously there’s more to supporting Creative than just the Mac vs. PC issue. The potential clash between the typical IT personality and the typical Creative personality is probably the single biggest issue, but I’ll leave that one for another day.
April 1, 2008 3:35 PM
Posted by: JohnWilder
I’ve already received one e-mail from a reader pointing me to a blog post refuting the claims of security issues with the Mac . I suppose I should take some consolation in the fact that I’m not getting slammed harder for my first Mac vs. PC post, but I also think the above post helps point out the bigger issue. The argument has become so heated, that sometimes even the good points tend to get lost in the extreme spirit of the debate.
First of all, let me begin by saying that I’m not a security expert. Please refer to my first post for a better understanding of the realities of what I do. At this level of IT, we have to be something of a jack-of-all-trades, and I probably know just enough about security to be dangerous, but the same can probably be said about a lot of specialized IT subject matters. We know enough to get by. In my case, that knowledge has been good enough to get me through 15 years in this job without suffering from any major system outages or downtime to virus outbreaks. I think we’ve done a pretty good job so far, but I’m also not naïve enough to think that any of my systems are invulnerable, and I would never make that claim.
I had misgivings about going “negative” in last week’s post about Mac vs. PC, and in hindsight perhaps the article about the Macbook Air hack deserves greater scrutiny. I’m going to try to avoid this trap in the future. I think there are plenty of positive reasons to choose both platforms. The Mac is undoubtedly a very secure platform, and it’s become even more so in recent versions of OS-X. The fact of the matter is I don’t lose a lot of sleep worrying about my Macs getting hacked. However, is there really anything wrong with pointing out flaws where they do exist, and perhaps letting Apple know that for those of out here in the trenches – security does matter?
Should the negatives come into play in this discussion? Certainly they should. Any time we make a big decision in IT we try to weigh the pros and cons of several options, so the negative factors are something we must consider. The problem with being negative in this discussion is that you’re immediately perceived by the other side to be a “basher”. I can assure you that is not the case with me.
My bigger point in terms of the Mac vs. PC debate is that the argument itself has become too bitter. Case in point being the article at the top of this post – the writer is obviously a big fan of the Mac platform, and I certainly have no issue with anyone having that opinion. However, when you start writing about the “prejudices of an idiot public” and “Microsoft’s criminal actions against its customers”, you run the risk of losing me. I’m simply not willing to go that far in supporting either platform, and personally I think it’s going too far. I also think it’s too bad, because the article itself makes some genuinely good arguments, but when the author goes over that edge into what I’d call extremism, sometimes those good arguments tend to get lost on me.
There are some things I would like to see both Microsoft and Apple do differently. For now, out of fear of inciting either group I’ll avoid those topics. I will save them for a rainy day, because I do think those topics are worthy of discussion.
I’ll say it again. I have plenty of good reasons for purchasing Macs. I have plenty of good reasons for purchasing PCs. Perhaps outlining those reasons would make good topics for my next couple of posts.
March 28, 2008 7:01 PM
Posted by: JohnWilder
, Microsoft Windows
It’s about time that I got around to this one, and if any of you have been wondering which side of the argument I might come down on, you might be disappointed to find out that I sit firmly on the fence on this issue. I’m a firm believer that both platforms deliver on their particular strengths, and both are outstanding tools which are helping us all to become more productive. If I didn’t believe that, why on earth would I have spent the past 15 years purchasing and supporting both platforms?
However, don’t mistake my middle of the road stance for a lack of conviction, because I do have some very strong feelings about the issue itself – in fact, I have a huge problem with the argument itself. I’ve never seen a real definitive study of our industry, but I would suspect that somewhere around 75% of advertising firms operate the same way that we do, supporting both platforms. Of the remaining 25%, I would venture to guess that the majority are Mac-only shops, with a small handful of PC-only shops.
I’ve heard all the arguments. “The Mac is a toy.” “PC’s crash all the time.” Take your pick, because you can find plenty of people out there willing to scream that their favorite system is the best, and the other system is garbage.
The latest round of Mac ads certainly don’t help, and I cringe every time I see them. Yes, they’re clever. Yes, they sell computers. But are they accurate? In my opinion they’re not even close to the truth. Apple, as well as most of the Mac evangelists, are still making arguments against Windows 98. Sure, they talk about Vista in the ads, but if you want to discuss stability and security, it’s difficult to deny that Windows has improved considerably.
I’ve been running Windows servers for over 10 years, going all the way back to Windows NT. The platform has been remarkably stable. Have I seen blue screens – certainly I have, but they have been few and far between. I have Windows servers which have run for years without anything other than a reboot for updates. At the same time, I’ve also seen plenty of my Macs crash – perhaps even more frequently than our PCs. I’ve heard the argument that the reason our Macs crash is because they’re working harder than our PCs. It’s not easy pushing around all those graphics files. No, it’s not, but by the same token it’s not easy doing what an Exchange server does – and they don’t crash. Earlier versions of Windows have been full of security holes, but here’s an interesting article on Mac security which appeared today – http://www.crn.com/hardware/207000418.
Even in writing this, and attempting to defend one platform, I find myself falling into the trap of bashing the other. That’s not my intent, but it’s nearly impossible to avoid the trap. The Mac has proven to be a superior machine for working in a graphics intensive environment. I’ve seen the benchmarks, and these machines truly are tuned for doing what they do best. I would not even begin to entertain the thought of switching.
I buy Macs. I buy PCs. I take the attacks from both sides personally. If the Mac side is correct, then I must be foolish for purchasing PCs. If the PC side is correct, then I must be foolish for purchasing Macs. The fact of the matter is, both sides are wrong. Both platforms serve their purpose, and they serve it well. I woudn’t even compare this argument to Ford vs. Chevy. It’s more like arguing that sports cars are better than pickup trucks. They serve different purposes, and they both do their job well.
I’m sure I’ll return to this topic again and again, and I welcome your opinions no matter where you sit on the issue. I’m going to try to take the high road and avoid bashing one platform in defense of the other, but I also plan to speak openly about the shortfalls of both systems. We’ll see how it goes.
March 26, 2008 6:09 PM
Posted by: JohnWilder
, IT department
We’re currently in the process of configuring our very first EqualLogic storage unit. It’s a model from their PS Series, and it gives us a total of 6.5 terabytes of storage in a RAID 50 configuration. We’ve only had it live for about a week now, but we love what we’ve seen so far.
The ease of setup and configuration are light years ahead of what we had on our old fiber channel SAN. While our old SAN provided plenty of storage, configuration and management always seemed to involve a call to our vendor, and even then things never seemed to go smoothly. Based on a few days with the EqualLogic unit, I’m reasonably certain that the calls to the vendor for hand-holding are going to be few and far between.
Besides the ease of use, some of the things we love include the ability to utilize what EqualLogic calls thin provisioning. This enables us to create a 500 GB volume while only using 50 GB of actual drive space. The host OS sees a 500 GB volume, but we’re only using 50 GB on the SAN. As the space begins to fill up, the space used on the SAN also begins to approach the 500 GB allocation, but it gives you a way to actually allocate more space than you have initially. Obviously, this is a feature that you want to be careful with, because overuse could result in the SAN actually filling up on you if several of these thin provisioned volumes filled up at the same time. The unit provides plenty of warnings to alert you as these volumes approach a level of your choosing.
The snapshot feature is another feature which we are learning to love. When you provision a new volume, you can simply choose to save snapshots of the volume at whatever interval you choose. Want a daily snapshot for backup purposes? No problem. Want to snapshot a volume prior to an update? No problem. The snapshots are differential copies, so they take up very little space. Any one of these snapshots can be mounted as a physical volume used to quickly restore individual files or an entire volume if necessary. Here’s a real life example- currently we have a thin provisioned volume which is taking up 96 GB of actual disk space (the host OS sees it as a 500 GB volume), and we have taken 10 daily differential snapshots of this volume which are currently utilizing 1.36 GB of space.
Obviously, the unit also provides all kinds of built-in redundancy, with dual controllers, power supplies, fans, and 14 total disks. Short of lengthy power outages or losing the entire server room, not much is going to take this product down. We’re just scratching the surface of what the box will do, and we have plans to do a lot more with it. In the coming months we’ll migrate our VMWare and Exchange storage to this unit, and we also plan on utilizing the snapshots and replication features into our evolving disaster recovery strategy.
March 24, 2008 8:54 PM
Posted by: JohnWilder
I guess I’m beginning to get the hang of this blogging thing, and I appreciate the feedback I’ve received so far. There are times when it’s a bit of struggle to decide what to write about, and there are other days when the topics tend to write themselves. As I wrote in my first post, there are several things which make IT in the Advertising business unique, but I sometimes find it difficult to keep my posts strictly to those topics/issues. (As a reminder, those issues are our people and the nature of our work, the platforms, and the storage needs.)
Here are some of the other items which I think are worthy of blog topics in the coming weeks, in no particular order:
- Supporting the CEO
- Web 2.0 – what it means to our Industry in general, and IT in particular
- Living on the “Bleeding” Edge
- Microsoft OneNote
- Consumer-oriented Devices – PDAs/MP3 players/Wireless
- Why “Looks” Matter – issues with Intranet adoption and user acceptance
In the meantime, I’d love to hear from those of you out there who are paying attention, and ask you if there are other topics of interest, whether or not you are in this particular line of business. I’m also curious as to whether or not the issues we face in advertising truly are unique. For example, I know there are others out there who also struggle with storage.
With regard to my original premise of the three unique issues, I do plan on discussing storage in my next post. We’re in the process of installing and configuring our first EqualLogic PS Series storage unit, and so far we are very impressed. Stay tuned.
March 21, 2008 8:26 PM
Posted by: JohnWilder
How many of you are currently utilizing Instant Messaging as a legitimate business tool in your organizations? We’re currently planning an implementation of Microsoft’s Unified Communications system, and their IM product – Office Communicator forms the center piece of this offering, providing information about user’s presence. I’m finding that selling Instant Messaging into our organization is not going to be an easy sell, and trying to sell the Microsoft version of it makes it even tougher.
As it turns out, our latest acquisition is an office which was already utilizing Microsoft’s Windows Live Messenger in their day-to-day business. They are thrilled over the fact that we are considering the adoption of a tool they are already using, and they would protest long and hard if we attempted to remove it from their systems. When I asked them why they chose the Microsoft client instead of a more popular product such as AIM, they told me that they actually preferred the fact that the Microsoft client was less widely accepted – and it actually made it easier to sell as a legitimate business tool. This new group of users is actually turning out to be my biggest ally in terms of selling it to my own company. Beyond that argument, it’s fairly easy to make the case in terms of Communicator’s enterprise level capabilities, including integration with Microsoft’s other products and the ability to control and manage it via Group Policy, but those arguments tend to get lost on either users or management.
One of the things I’ve been asked is how is IM different from e-mail, and I actually think that particular question is a very telling one. My users have a great deal of difficulty understanding why they would ever use an Instant Messaging tool for the simple reason that we’re already using e-mail in that fashion. The point they are missing is that we have been misusing e-mail over the past several years, and that e-mail has already become an IM tool in our business. The expectations surrounding e-mail have become so unreasonable that many of our users can and do use it as a chat tool. E-mail conversations routinely happen in real-time, and people actually get upset when an e-mailed question isn’t answered immediately.
I suspect that one of the first steps I need to take in selling the idea of IM to my users is to break them of their bad e-mail habits. If we don’t do that, then they are correct in that they don’t need a separate IM product. The question is how exactly do you break these current e-mail habits? It’s obviously going to take a concerted effort in terms of re-educating our users, and I fully expect that to be a real battle.