IT in the Ad Biz

Apr 8 2008   4:19PM GMT

Growing the IT Department (or Managing Expansion)

JohnWilder John Wilder Profile: 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.

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