The IT profession where are they when you need them most?

The background and the big debate.

There has been a lot of discussion lately from entirely different quarters and from across the globe that carry the same fundamental messages and I am struck by the opportunity to achieve something of value if only we can bring some of these ideas and people together.

I took part in a global discussion recently  involving almost thirty project managers around the world  about the nature of project management and why IT projects go wrong.  The insights and collective ideas were fascinating and thought provoking.  Parallel to this there has been similar conversation about the issues with the IT profession and it’s relationship with business.
The BCS has re-launched in the UK amidst various noises that recognise these same problems.  World leaders are all appointing  IT Tsars and learning the buzzwords.  The US has the first highly IT enabled president and innovative ideas are beginning to gain some audience again.
Project failures, the reduced numbers of young people entering IT and the critical role of IT in the future of the world are hot topics just now and rightly so.
Against this backdrop, we have dedicated and enthusiastic IT professionals out of work in record numbers, many suffering extra hardships due  to the insecure, cyclical nature of their normal employment and to add insult to injury the IT projects that are continuing are often in jeopardy due to being managed by untrained people.

There are two sides to this.

The IT profession, must shoulder it’s share of the blame for these problems.  IT people at the top of their profession too often and in too large numbers come across as  anoraks.
Failure to take an interest in their customers and the needs of those customers has left them out of touch, in the basement, playing with their toys happily and hoping someone will figure out why they need one and come asking.  The anorak will then reluctantly part with his baby, offering no help in it’s adaption and seem to take pleasure when the new owner runs into trouble.
This lack of foresight and fortitude has not only alienated intelligent young people looking for a rewarding career and especially women, but it has left the door open for the “one eyed man in the land of the blind” (OMB).
The one eyed man is the customer turned geek, the game keeper turned poacher, the guy, or occasionally girl, who was sucked in out of necessity and now lords it over all. Equipped with a few buzzwords and firm grip on the board, he or she drives fiasco after fiasco , wastes million after billion and IT as a profession shoulders all of the blame for his ineptitude.

Business leaders too are culpable and deserve most of what they get.  A CEO who didn’t understand finance and didn’t have a CFO, or other equally trusted (and trained) adviser would be rightly ostracised and.
Nobody even questions this for a moment, yet CTOs and IT directors are the exception rather than the rule and outside of the IT industry itself, a CEO who understands technology is rare indeed.

The CEO who chooses a legal adviser because that adviser doesn’t have a legal vocabulary and therefore can be understood, would rightly end up answering criminal charges, but this is precisely the approach he/she takes to technology advisers. The results speak for themselves

Which catastrophes should have been avoided?

There are in particular three types of IT disaster that arise specifically from the inability of IT professionals and Board directors to engage meaningfully and share knowledge.
1. The gap filled by the  “OMB” who understands neither IT nor business, and is not accountable, having  IT as a convenient fall guy, results in business  failing to start the right projects and failing to deliver too many of those they do start, or the costs being far too high.
2. Clever networking and marketing by the big vendors offers the beleaguered executive a sense of security that she/he is receiving unassailable advice from this big brand.  Not very likely and not very affordable. This is a key driver of inappropriate IT  investments.
3. The IT profession is alienated and discredited further, de-motivated and demoted to the basement with a prestige level marginally above that enjoyed by the caretaker, they skulk and take occasional pleasure in the mistakes of their peers. After all it is human nature.

So we are all to blame, how can we make it better?

As individuals

As individual IT professionals we absolutely must concentrate our minds on solving problems and making improvements that customers want and will pay for.  Tinkering with technology is a great pastime for those with a passion and it leads to innovation and creativity, but in business, at work, we need well focused solutions, well understood and  well delivered.
Above all we must be conscious of our image and credibility, professionalism, helpfulness, a real interest in our business  as part of the team and a willingness to translate the jargon and to spread enlightenment.

As a profession

It is a young profession and in reality there is no GP of the IT profession there are many specialists, education and career development needs to provide this missing overview and interface to the world as the core skill.
We need to improve our collaborative skills to embrace business and recognise their leading role as the financiers and drivers, listen to their needs and grab their attention to enthuse them about the possibilities.

We need to open and lead a dialogue with business that earns and keeps the respect we crave and deserve and places our profession in the position of trusted advisers in and out of the boardroom and educators at every level.

We need new disciplines to fill the role of selecting, buying and implementing technology professionally as opposed to relying on lifecycles and frameworks designed to support  software development way back when and management frameworks designed  for a Public sector  environment alien to the commercial environment, both of which are hopelessly inadequate and inappropriate for the current needs of business and public sectors.

Business

The ultimate responsibility is yours and you know where the buck stops.  Alienating the IT profession has not delivered the goods. Encouraging ambitious young managers to stray into territory they don’t understand attracted by sizeable budgets is the worst kind of mistake, because you won’t even know what it is costing you since you have nothing to compare it to. Taking advice from suppliers about what you should invest in is really not clever and will not leave much of the value on your side of the fence.
Take your responsibility seriously and learn enough about IT to be able to take advice and take a key role in decisions.  Ask your IT people, organise briefings with them for the whole company.  Have them report regularly on new potential opportunities and technologies and learn to innovate together.
Develop trusted advisers in your boardroom and take IT seriously as an enabler and as a critical force for maintaining competitive edge and an opportunity for gaining advantage.  Don’t gamble with something so fundamental to your success.
Ask yourself this, what is the likelihood of Finance, HR, or even Ops discovering  a twenty percent competitive advantage for the business next year?  There’s only one place you can realistically expect that this might happen and you need to be awake and listening and at the front of that queue.

Concerned politicians

Provide more support and opportunities for innovation in business.  If innovation is done in a business setting it will tick all the other boxes and drive successful products. We need universities too and we need them staffed with people who have spent at least part of their professional lives delivering in a commercial environment.

Create the environment where IT people can learn more about business and business people about IT and showcase this within the public sector.
Nowhere is IT treated more poorly as a profession than in the public sector, leading to only a tiny number of well paid IT professionals being employed there in influential positions, but an army of transient day workers,  described as consultants, but rarely consulted  with neither status, nor very much influence.
Nowhere has more money been spent on so little, or more blame been passed on to the IT profession.
There lies  an enormous opportunity to bring IT in from the cold and put it at the forefront of Government.

Start doing business with innovative growing small and medium local technology businesses that can deliver value to the tax payer  without cutting corners, or taking our revenues abroad  and reduce the reliance on global monsters that outsource 90% of their operations, draining both wealth, opportunities and  skills away from the local workforce.

World leaders

In dealing with the overwhelming problems that face us as a  global family from Global warming, to receding supplies of carbon fuels and the collapse of the financial system and more poignantly our confidence in it, there are few rays of light on the horizon other than those that might be offered, or facilitated by technology and most specifically IT either as a solution or an enabler of that solution.

Put a small piece of the war chest aside to challenge technologists and  accelerate the race towards solutions that can reduce or eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels, help us to cope with global warming and prevent another global financial meltdown.
Place our faith and our investment in intelligent use of technology, for there lies the only likely source of our salvation.

Getting the mountain to Mohammed

The business dilemma

Few IT professionals have any grasp of the difficulty facing a business person who needs to stay abreast of tough competitors and try to win competitive advantage via IT without understanding how IT works sufficiently to make the right decisions. It’s a crapshoot where he/she can’t afford to lose.
Having learned the art of decision making the hard way and knowing the difficulty of staying ahead strategically in his business, it’s not surprising that he doesn’t want to hand these decisions over to someone who is seen to be obsessed with technological coolness,  incapable of making a decision without a debugger and bereft of business savvy .
Typically, the sales director at “abc software” wins more credibility and trust with the customer than his own IT experts because he at least demonstrates some business savvy and empathy. The corporate hospitality doesn’t hurt either.

The IT dilemma

Few people in business have any appreciation of exactly how complex and demanding a job it is to ask them what they want, give it to them and get a “thank you, that was great.”

Most professionals would argue that the patient should not be defining the solution, but describing the problem and I would go along with this, but we don’t generally have the luxury of making that decision.
Business managers on the whole are adverse to personal risk and their number one priority is someone to blame if it goes wrong. This can usually be traced to their boss, but that’s no consolation to the IT supplier.

Business people try to equate complex business systems to a car or machine that can be delivered and plugged in and they expect t to buy a tool without knowing what it does and all will be well.
Systems are endless boundless things with unlimited possibilities and similar complexities to the humans who design and use them. Ultimately they are little reflections of humans.
The majority of IT delivery people, be they IT directors, department heads or representatives of suppliers have adapted the approach of defining a product they are going to deliver in technical terms that are hard to refute, insisting on a signature before proceeding and in the case of suppliers, getting their pay loaded up front.  Then they deliver it and walk away guaranteed a cheque and a profit.
 If it doesn’t quite deliver then there’s a new document, a new purchase order and the exercise is repeated until success is finally achieved.
Public sector suppliers and increasingly in private quarters too are notorious for the re-negotiation strategy.
This is simply taking the aforementioned  failure a little further to the point of using  it as a strategy to win the business with a cheap bid and then re-negotiate midstream once the client is heavily committed and in no position to negotiate from strength.
In reality, it could be argued that Agile is nothing more than a recognition of this state of affairs and an attempt to bring some element  of structure and communication to the procedure as opposed to letting it run freely into a sort of adversarial mating dance. The problem is that agile applies only to development of software and is useless to the process of buying commercial systems off the shelf (COTS).

Challenges for the business

What is the problem I want solved and is there a reliable solution to it? What are the risks and can I accept them?
Will the solution give me competitive advantage, keep me up, or keep me up with the chasing pack, what choices do I have?
Who’s going to carry the can if it all goes wrong?
Is there really a do nothing option?
Who can I trust with these decisions?
How can I get the business knowledge and the IT knowledge to somehow meet in the middle and give me some realistic answers?

Challenges for the IT supplier

How can I keep the bills paid?
How can I prevent businesses dumping their risk onto my shoulders, I am just the technology vendor, I don’t run their business?
How can I compete with the rest of my industry?
How can I say Caveat emptor without having customers run a mile?
How can I win competitive tenders for projects that almost never complete anywhere close to agreed budgets?
How can I give best advice and still stay in business?

Challenges for the Project Manager or Business Analyst dropped in the middle of all this.

How can I keep the bills paid?
Does the client actually know what they want and what am I tasked with delivering, E.G. Technology, or success?  If it is success, what will that look like? Who will measure it? Am in control of that, or shouldering someone else’s risk?
Will they trust me with their project, or will they cosy up to the supplier over corporate entertainment events and discard my advice?
Will senior sponsors take the time to understand the problem, explore the proposed solutions, make decisions and stand by them?
Will they still remember what they asked for when the final product arrives and if they’ve changed their minds, will it be clear whether they asked for the wrong thing and got it? asked for the right thing and didn’t get it? Asked for the right thing, got it, but it didn’t solve the problem?
Will challenging the client be seen as professionalism or showing them up?

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IT guy and the balloonist

Five stages of an IT project

About the author

If you are in the business of brisging between business and IT delivery, maybe you’d like to join our bridger group and display the bridger badge.

Is there still a case for IT strategic planning?

 The earth is flat in any case

Unless you’ve been asleep, in denial or on medication, you will have noticed, at some level at least, that in the last few months the key assumptions underlying our post industrial survival have been proven flat wrong.

To put that in content, the earth is not round but flat and the universe is merely mirror images of the earth reflected on a layer of slightly opaque gasses. The landing on the moon happened in a closed off section of MGM and hamburgers are good for you.

It no longer matters how much we borrow because we probably won’t be around to pay it back, only nobody will lend it of course because they are keeping it to line their pyramids with.

What’s the point in getting up?

You could easily be pardoned for asking the question and I can see some beginning to think like that.
That, in truth is what recession really is.
An end to economic growth is no big deal, we probably couldn’t survive without taking the odd breather. The bad bit is when sensible people suddenly decide that it’s not worth bothering, then we all suffer and what was a diet quickly becomes bulimia.
Read on and I will convince you that there bigger opportunities than ever, they just need a different approach

So how do you build a business case for IT investment and sell it to the board?

Realism
If you want to be taken seriously, you can’t base any investment on predictions of returning to normal in a few months or pretending the problem doesn’t exist.
You must recognise it and spell it out in terms of a clearly risk managed approach.
It’s unlikely that you are in a business where you can afford to make risky investments with long payback periods, so you need ROI fast, or even faster and you must prove that your eye is on the ball.

Prudence
Getting the financials right is critical, but that’s not the whole story by a long way, here’s a selected list of other issues in no particular order that are extra important.

· Make sure your initiative addresses the bulls eye in terms of business initiatives, not peripheral or even sort of important, but right up there.

· Make sure this is best deployment of scarce capital.  Remember it is no longer in unlimited supply.

· Time to market is very important and can easily be disguised behind impressive returns. Include timing in this calculation. Limping in a month behind your main rival is a great way to blow your big chance.

· Competitive advantage can be a critical factor that is easily missed. If all your competitors are cutting 20% off cost of sales and your initiative wipes 5% off, you might find the idea is less successful than you had hoped.

· Don’t suggest a major new 22nd century architecture if your goal can be achieved reliably with duct tape and scaffolding. This is about surviving today, not ideas or principals or fancy technology.

A little audacity goes a long way
Take a look at tiny little Porche and compare them to giant GM. Porche are busy taking over VW, to create the third biggest car manufacturer in the world and asking nobody for help, but using the downturn to make it possible.
If you are good at what you do and you can improve costs and capabilities, then watch out for all the leftovers of those overweight beasts that are shedding customers and reputation and be ready to take advantage of the opportunities that a downturn creates. In a ten horse race there are nine opportunities and one risk for the bookmaker. Don’t focus in on the risk and blind yourself to the opportunities.

Outside the box

There’s a great awkward purple elephant sitting on the board table and let’s stop pretending he’s not there.
The GAPE I’m talking about is the contradiction between thinking out of the box and following the strategy, the corporate plan and the processes, those things so beloved of civil servants and Ops directors. Let’s just say it:
How the hell can you be a process man who works to the plan and also think outside the box?

Well of course you can’t, it’s that simple, so you have to come out from behind whatever you are hiding behind and take a chance or two. Be up front about it that acceptance of your new proposal means revision of the agreed strategy and the current plan. That’s why they are there, not as straight jackets.
Delivering benefits on the cheap can upset lots of people, especially some members of the IT department, preferred suppliers and business analysts who have carved out cosy corners for themselves, but if that is the price, then accept it and pay it. Here’s a few examples:

· Be prepared to ignore the Enterprise architecture and do it the cheapest way.

· Be prepared to bypass the developers in the corner and buy something a bit scruffy and poorly documented, but supported from outside the business.

· Be prepared to find a few freelancers in Russia and get it done cheaper.

· Learn about mashups that can deliver the same result as an enterprise bus for a tiny fraction of the cost and get your show on the road.

· Get to know someone who knows about opensource solutions that are a bit ugly in places and awkward to install but are FREE and once you get them working they eat no corn.

· If you don’t know about agile methods, speak to someone who does and consider it for appropriate situations.

· Look for SaaS products that can start delivering returns in days rather than months

· This is a no brainer, but rarely done. Make sure your people know how to get the most out of the systems you already have.

So there is a new strategy after all

Yes there is a strategy for the current climate and I believe it has a valid legacy to take forward into the good times also.
Don’t stop looking for opportunities, but look harder, look outside the box and examine them more closely before committing. That usually requires an external input, but it is well worth it.
Don’t plan for a decade, but for this year, who knows what next year will be like, but this strategy will still be serving you whatever it looks like. That means dumping or revising much of the strategy and plans you are currently strangling yourself with. Do it sooner rather than later and free up your thinking and your energy.
Look for silver linings until it becomes a habit
Remember not to get complacent in the next bull market
 About the author

Seriously though..

Given the uneasy relationships that have been communicated by countless business and IT representatives as we progressed through one of the most secure and bullish periods in modern history and given our current predicament of uncertainty and unease it is not unreasonable to imagine that relationships between the guardians and architects of IT and their business sponsors might reach new levels of difficulty.
Though I am often outspoken in condemnation of foolish attitudes from IT people, I am nevertheless not entirely without sympathy for my roots.
If ever there was a time when businesses need to get the most out of IT and IT people need to prove their commercial worth, then surely that is now.
The following is a funny little story that was popular a decade ago and could well make a comeback in the months ahead.
The IT guy and the balloonist
“A man in a hot air balloon is lost. He sees a man on the ground and reduces height to speak to him.
“Excuse me, can you tell me where I am?”
“You’re in a hot air balloon hovering thirty feet above this field,” comes the reply.
“You must work in Information Technology,” says the balloonist.
“I do,” says the man, “How did you know?”
“Well,” says the balloonist, “Everything you told me is technically correct, but it’s no use to anyone.”
“You must be in business,” says the man.
“I am,” says the balloonist, “How did you know?”
“Well,” says the man, “You don’t know where you are, you don’t know where you’re going, but you expect me to be able to help. You’re in the same position you were before we met, but now it’s my fault.”
We have all been in that field or hovering above it, or even both at different times and I expect we can all sympathise immediately with at least one of these characters. The sobering thought in all of this however, is that the man in the field won’t survive very long unless the balloonist finds his way home and the balloonist stands little chance of surviving without the help of the man in the field.

Moving forward
If there ever was anything to be learned form that story, surely it must be to start appreciating our true predicament as necessary bed mates who can only thrive through mutual success.
IT is guilty of: Being willing to act on precise instructions and refusing to take any responsibility for where the actions might take us. A sort of work to rule.
Business is guilty if: Refusing to consult early and to take firm decisions at the right time. Preferring to drive by the seat of their pants and blame it all on IT if the project doesn’t deliver.

A successful partnership requires an honest exchange of business insight and technology insight to define  feasible, low-risk strategies and well handled implementations that solve problems and create value.

Business leaders need to understand the reticence of IT leaders to take seat of the pants approaches to technology as a pragmatic  endeavour to avoid high rates of failure and to either accept the responsibility, or take the advice.

IT leaders need to realise that the absolute certainty that attracts them to technology in the first place, is a luxury not available to business leaders. The world turns on its axis in a single day and all that was certain is gone. This is the world in which business must must succeed and therefore it is the world for which technology must cater effectively.
Links.
Part one What would you like sir
Joining the dots with a business  case

The Bridger

“Bridger” A person who acts as go between or translator between the management of a business and it’s IT department or IT partners.

The background

Since the arrival of computers in the enterprise there has been an unfortunate and counterproductive power struggle between IT departments and other areas of the business.
IT professionals share a great deal with other professions such as law and medicine in that they have their own impenetrable language, they are critically important to their clients and they simply can not be substituted with amateurs.

The difference between IT and other professions is that systems and IT tools, especially systems are right at the heart of the every day operations of the business and a fundamental part of every aspect of the business operations.

Naturally it is a source of very serious concern for business that such a critical function as IT is managed by people who are more often than not detached from the business functions and often lack very much understanding or training in business issues.

The key problems faced by a Bridger

Problem one – The Business versus the IT department

In order to create and maintain a competitive advantage for the enterprise it is essential to combine deep understanding of the business, enlightened leadership and a thorough grasp of what IT can achieve.
The business leadership are custodians of business strategy and direction and hold the deep understanding of the business.
The IT department or partners hold the deep knowledge of how existing systems work, the impact of changes to them and what new technology is capable of.

Almost without exception, the two areas create and maintain their own plans and strategies in isolation and believe at some level that they can exist successfully in silos. This standoff when it occurs to any degree, is destructive and robs industry of billions annually in lost opportunities and wastage, mostly surfaced as failed projects.

How the Bridger can help

In the short term, a Bridger can mediate between IT and the business translating between IT and Business language and negotiating win/win agreements.
In particular the business needs to understand impacts and costs of sudden demands for change on the IT infrastructure.
The IT department needs understand clearly the real life drivers that have potential to place unwanted demands in their inbox unexpectedly. Speaking both languages and understanding the underlying problems on both sides makes the Bridger ideally paced to forge this understanding.

In the medium to long term, a Bridger can help forge an understanding by helping to establish sustainable frameworks that see joint plans and strategies developed by the business and IT jointly to forge new partnerships in place of the silos or misunderstandings.

Problem 2 – Business analysts are trained in IT

The most important element of every software project is what it delivers to the business. How clever the technology is, whether it was delivered a little early or late or slightly under or over budget, are all relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but if the system fails to deliver value to the business, it will be a costly failure.

Whether or not the system delivers value is down to understanding the needs of the business, optimising processes for automation and implementing the accompanying cultural change to make it work. These are all business and people centric skills.

This critical job normally falls to a business analyst, but there lies the problem.

With a very few exceptions, business analysts are not trained in business analysis or indeed in any other business discipline. The majority are programmers who went down the analysis route and see their role as designing systems and working with IT delivery. In recent years some have been emerging form universities with degrees in business analysis, but even then they are quickly sucked into the existing culture and still lack the business knowledge to understand the issues and the gravitas to engage senior management.

It’s hardly surprising then that there are frustrations, communication difficulties and disappointments as the enterprise attempts to manage its it investments.

The alternative to this business analyst route is when the business, in exasperation appoints someone from the business to gather requirements. This is an even bigger mistake because the non it person has no idea how to extract or record requirements or how to communicate them to IT people and especially he/she has little chance of monitoring the accuracy or quality of the deliverable.

Another very common error seen more and more in recent times is to react to this problem by appointing a non IT trained Project Manager to deal with the business and systems sides of the project. While business stakeholders may enjoy better communication in the short run, their holiday is generally short lives as this strategy lets IT off the hook and leads to a catalogue of poor decisions and a high proportion of failed software projects.
Government in particular are guilty of this mistake as they place too much trust in partners and maintain little, or often no internal skills and knowhow to oversee these huge projects.

How the Bridger can help

The Bridger is by nature a business person with the ability to explore, understand and improve processes as well as the training to explain and present them to the IT department, or to work in tandem with the IT department making sure that they get the business viewpoint right.

This approach ensures that the business goals are represented by the new proposed system and the level of change is understood and accepted by users so that a system can be designed and implemented with confidence.

Problem 3 – Stakeholders, Users and Technologists, the tradeoffs.

Stakeholders (define here as the people providing the investment and expecting the rewards in productivity) are all powerful within the project team and all things considered, this is how it should be.
Users, even for an in-house system, are still key. Unless you understand their needs and serve them, the system will not deliver value.

Technologists are the people who know how to deliver on your needs and to make it reliable. Nobody notices them when everything is running smoothly, only when it goes wrong so you can’t do it without their help and goodwill.

When it comes to defining the final feature set of a system, stakeholders will have a detached and uninformed view of what happens on the shop floor and will want to dictate how the system should be. If they get all own their way it will almost certainly be a disaster.

Users will resist change and will not want any new system so their feedback important as though it is must be understood in context and then interpreted at the right level to deliver achievable changes.

IT will want to dictate the system based on what fits comfortably with that they already have and will have no empathy with users or stakeholders.

How the Bridger can help

The Bridger can help by forging and maintaining the right flows of communication between IT, Users and Business so that ultimately the Business gets what they want through ensuring that IT works with the User to maximise process and pitch cultural changes at a level that is achievable and lends itself to a successful implementation.

Ed Taaffe