MAR K EVANS
When Mark moved his infrastructure to the cloud, he thought IT staff cuts would be inevitable. But then he had a “Eureka!” moment
When Mark moved his infrastructure to the cloud, he thought IT staff cuts would be inevitable. But then he had a “Eureka!” moment.
Iwas quick to board the “cloud bus” back when it was all new and exciting. Early on, I tasked my team with moving from an increasingly painful on-premise infrastructure into a private cloud service offered by our WAN provider. All the arguments made sense. Using its data centre, and its “N+1 for everything”, I’d save money versus constantly resourcing capacity – which was, at best, a finger-in-theair endeavour.
I’d worked as global infrastructure director for a shipping company prior to joining my current employer (bigger head count, much bigger budget, more salesmen to deal with) and I’d always found capacity planning to be a mess. Investing hope, faith and money with someone who’s tasked with selling you terabytes of storage is never going to end well – and the tools, at the time, were no more than brilliantly packaged toys. I consider early millennium capacity planning to be a dire mix of fear and astrology. “The moon is in the house of Aquarius and he wants to save all of his digital photographs on the NAS box of Pisces – I’d give it fifty gig.”
Cloud offered what I’d wanted for years: a means of paying for what you use. What cloud also offered was an opportunity to re-appraise head count. Speaking as someone who installed NetWare 3.11 from 3.5in floppy diskettes back in the day, I’ve always had a care and concern for my “siblings in arms” in infrastructure, but I was finding it increasingly difficult to justify their roles in our new environment.
Support desk staff could spin up a server and hand it over to development folk. The network worked for everything and, apart from office-based switches and firewalls, there seemed very little for my kin in infrastructure to do – the epitome of redundancy.
The real death-knell for purist infrastructure people at RLB came with our early adoption of Office 365 and Azure/AWS. We didn’t have to manage messaging. Backups could go to a managed service provider (MSP). We took it even further:
Email Office 365 Storage Azure CAD AWS Printing MSP Wi-Fi MSP Networking MSP Telephony MSP
We were moving at a rate that was figuratively moving my infrastructure people closer to the exit door. In hindsight, I’d had a brainwave that had led me on a completely inappropriate path for a while.
One of the definitions I’ve heard for accountants is “people who know the cost of everything – and the value of nothing”. Fair or unfair, that’s for you to decide. I, however, knew the cost of the people in my team and thought I had a perfect nexus of cost-saving and service improvement. I’d remove “infrastructure at a surplus” and replace it with “infrastructure as a service”, with Azure’s significantly cheaper storage and transparent Office 365 licensing for email provision.
Feeling somewhat satisfied with myself, I started to plan the most responsible way to divest the business of people whose roles had been consumed by Microsoft. It was at this point that I began to reflect on what these people had contributed to the business in the past.
It was then that I had my “Eureka!” moment. Even though I wasn’t running naked down the high street like Archimedes, I felt uncomfortable. I realised how close I’d been to making a stupid mistake, one that could have been extremely costly to the business in terms of value.
My guys had years of business-specific knowledge, which I’d have lost to potentially enrich our more leaden-footed (in terms of IT) competitors in construction. I’d have provided our competitors with the considerable advantage of having a well-drilled team of professionals who could bring their new employer up to – and potentially surpass – the competitive advantages we’d reaped from embracing the leading edge.
Okay, so retaining people and paying them a salary removes many benefits of letting them go, in terms of cash savings within the new infrastructure. Retaining people so that they don’t go on and furnish the competition with a
“Investing hope, faith and money with someone who’s tasked with selling you terabytes of data isn’t going to end well”
“IT is heading towards a utility model. The days of businesses having to generate their own power have largely gone”
potentially better-kept level playing field is a leap into the unknown.
Is fear of the “What if?” a good driver for decisionmaking? I don’t think so. If I’d been scared of the “What if?” then we may not have gone to cloud so soon and delivered true value back into the business.
The real value of this part of the team was that they understood our business, understood the wider operating environment, knew all of the key stakeholders, and knew why certain decisions had been made. Furthermore, they understood the rationale behind those decisions. Why not use that knowledge and those aptitudes to improve the IT service into the business?
I spoke with the people concerned and we decided that IT security could do with further investigation. We’d heard whispers of new legislation for data privacy from the EU and we fumbled, like many did, with understanding whether these regulations would ever be invoked if the UK decided to vote to leave the EU. On further investigation, we realised that businesses such as ours operate globally, and if the USA was showing concern about the legislation then it might be worthwhile hedging our bets and making sure that if the UK voted for Brexit, we’d be ready for whatever shape this “GDPR” would take. At the time of writing, this task is still ongoing.
My infrastructure manager undertook many training courses in order to pass the exams to endorse his years of hands-on experience, and has become a more rounded security professional than many of the self-appointed security gurus we see on LinkedIn. He has tremendously applicable, business-specific knowledge of the operations and motivations of our staff. He is slowly – some might say, insidiously – weaving IT security into the fabric of the business. There are no shortcuts: the security message and environment is being structured in such a way that it isn’t seen as an imposition.
Others have taken on a more “front of house” role. Our former IT administrator is carving out something of a career in project management and business analysis within our data-capture environment.
By using these skills and this internal knowledge, we’re building in a better potential career path solution for people in IT. I shudder when I hear people who are striving to get into IT mention that they “want to work with networks and servers”, because that type of work is going the way of candle-making. I’ve long held the belief that business IT is heading towards a utility model. The days of businesses needing to generate their own power have largely gone – and in businesses where there’s a power requirement, there aren’t that many jobs.
However, I should point out that we aren’t building a career path for IT people out of a sense of duty or altruism. IT is being seen as a service differentiator within the business, but without the requirement to write code or invest in inscrutable new business models. We use the tools that are readily available, but we introduce them in a way to maximise the impact and to improve our customer service.
How many times have you seen a killer app that looks fantastic but falls short of clearing the gap between perception and reality, because non-IT people haven’t grasped its potential? (Whether that’s a result of a steep learning curve or something their packed working day doesn’t support.) Or, worse still, a “hobbyist” IT person from within the business who brandishes a new toy that has more security holes than an unpatched Window XP laptop?
We use our technology knowledge, and our understanding of what our colleagues need, to try to bridge that gap, or to explain – in the most appropriate way – that perhaps implementing Lotus SmartSuite isn’t the best way to move business forward in the 21st century, despite the subjective opinion that Lotus 1-2-3 was “always better than Excel”.
At the start of the journey into cloud I believed we could save costs purely by switching to a subscription model for data and services. I, along with many others, was proved right here. While this is no amazing revelation these days, it was a suggestion that gave my peers in the industry pause for thought when we undertook the migration several years ago.
Where I developed my management practice was to see how IT could be used as a business protection function, as well as a business development service. We used the knowledge, the “RLB capital”, within the team to cut time-to-market for the business, and to complement our colleagues in construction by easing their path to the use of leading-edge tools – and as a result, to serve our clients better and aid customer retention through exemplary service.
The most amusing reflection for me, on how I nearly got something so wrong, is that we’ve built a belief in the business that internal IT consultancy has quantifiable value. As a result, as we pursue an industry-leading Business Intelligence offering to our clients, we’re adding head count.
Cloud – and my adjustment of the team, despite earlier intentions – has changed the perception of the team from being an overhead into being a key business driver. Eureka!
Mark is head of IT at Rider Levett Bucknall (UK), the largest global quantity surveying practice.
RIGHT Switching to cloud services meant redeploying “IT staff”, not losing them and their knowledge to rivals
ABOVE RLB provides services around the world, including cost consultancy for this striking Louvre Abu Dhabi building