Metrics, metrics and more metrics

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IT always feels a bit behind the corporate 8-ball when it comes to justifying costs.  There’s two main factors for this – the first is that for almost all firms, IT represents the biggest pure overhead money suck (behind labor), with usually zero net income to show for it.  Second, IT workers tend to make more money that other support group functionaries, from entry level to skilled labor.

So for 99% of firms, when the c-levels look at the balance sheets, the IT spend is just seen as a painful cost of doing business, with it appearing a bit like the Pentagon’s Black Ops budget – money going in without a good understanding of *what it all means*.

None of that is going to change anytime soon.  But with Architects and Engineers – who live and die by exact hour calculations, meticulous details, and precise metrics regarding WIP and profitability – it’s an uncomfortable state.  And the default reaction is to try and get IT metrics through a ticketing system.

There’s a bit of built-in conflict here; never, ever do the execs want to force users to open a ticket to get help – but at the same time, they want to see exactly how busy IT is – how responsive it is, how many tickets we did this year compared to last, and more importantly, do we really need that tech in Buffalo?

While this makes perfect sense on the surface, for Architects and Engineers, this is a trap.  And here’s why.

1)  It is not the statistic you should be caring about.  It is very possible that your team does 1000 tickets a year, and the staff hates IT.  You can do 900 tickets a year, and the staff loves IT.  What is it you really want?  Do you want IT to be perceived as responsive, supportive, with excellent customer service?  If so, the number of tickets opened/closed will tell you absolutely nothing in that regard.  What will?  Customer surveys, annually/biannual/quarterly.  Identify what the users think you’re doing right/doing wrong, and adjust accordingly.

2) Your IT staff will focus less on customer service, and more on ticket creation/closing.  Once IT realizes that the metric leadership cares about is tickets, *that* becomes their focus.  User wants a mouse? Ticket.  Forgot the wifi password? Ticket.  Is it ridiculous to imagine that if a tech knows they’re “short” that month on tickets, that they create some?  We all know how police work with their ticket quotas.  Is that really what you want IT focused on?

3) It’s a slippery slope.  The next logical progression to this becomes the “you need to open a ticket” comment.  The phrase users hate hearing.  Once ticketing becomes the be-all, end-all, however, the mandatory ticket comment isn’t far behind, either by de facto or de jure.

And that’s not for design firms.  Architects and Engineers are high-touch professions.  You’re used to getting the same level of service you provide to your clients in turn.  That means that the IT guy is sitting out on the floor with everyone else and not in a call center in India, which would be a hell of a lot cheaper.  When you’re on a deadline and can’t save a file, you don’t want to talk to “Rick in Bangalore”, you want to talk to a guy you know, and you sure don’t want to have to open a ticket to talk to him.

Tickets have their place.  In very large firms, when you have a team or staff who never leave their cubicle, whose only task is to churn through ticket after ticket remotely supporting users, it can help.  But that just doesn’t exist in firms under several thousand staff.  And it certainly isn’t conducive to providing the highest levels of customer service.

It’s easy to understand the desire to try and tie down some aspects of the ethereal IT spending pit.  But it needs to happen in reverse.  What do you truly want from your IT organization?  And is that goal measured by how leadership and staff feel about IT, or about whether Sally opens 8 vs. 10 tickets in a day?

Technology Debt in IT Operations

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There’s a new buzzword making the rounds in appdev circles called “Technical Debt” – basically, the concept that as a project grows/changes, that there is effort required to manage all the implications of the change, and the longer you ignore that work, the more costly it is to correct down the road.

I’m not above plagiarizing (my Facebook page is basically a subReddit) – and I think there’s a corollary to be found when it comes to traditional IT Operations.

Flying Buttress is a consultancy.  People don’t reach out to us when they think things are going great internally, that they have everything covered.  We get contacted for three basic reasons:

1) Things are a mess, and they need help.

2) They have a ton of work to do, and not enough internal resources.

3) They want an outside ear and outside eyes to give a different perspective or to provide advice.

Personally, my favorite situations are the encounters of the first kind.  If you work in IT, you know the satisfaction that comes when you’re able to see the results of your efforts in a tangible way.  The mess-cleaning situations are like any other cleanup operation; there isn’t a lot of complexity – plan well, spend well, and put in a lot of elbow grease.

But over 20 years, when I’ve seen bad IT situations, it is usually because firms have accumulated too much technology debt.  One of the main concepts of proper IT management is that it requires a constant annual spend.  Major fluctuations, either upward or downward, can have severe long-term effects (i.e., dropping a huge amount of money to replace all the computers which means they all end-of-life at the same time rather than in a controlled, staggered manner).

In Architecture firms, my *very* loose rule of thumb is that the IT spend for a firm in standard, non-aggressive IT mode is about 6% of NSR (Net Service Revenue).  As revenue goes up, projects come in, bodies get hired, spend goes up; and conversely, bodies lost means IT spend down.  But if you start grossly cutting that into the 2-3-4% range, you start accumulating technology debt.

It is not an uncommon situation.  Things get bad over time, so leadership goes out and says “hey, we’re in trouble, let’s spend a bunch of money and fix all this”.  Consultants brought in, new hardware purchased, and yes, things get better.  And soon – sooner than you might think – that need for a consistent annual maintenance spend is forgotten.  There’s a “coasting” effect of that injection of equipment that doesn’t always speak to the multitude of components that comprise IT operations.

If you’re Leadership, and reading this – I’m not making this argument to get you to spend money.  I’m making this to save you money.  Because in IT, that technology debt doesn’t just have a hard-dollar connotation.  You will lose far more money over time in outages, lost data, speed issues, and general productivity than you will that 5-6% of NSR.  I’ve seen it.

Here’s the dumb car analogy.  I’m the mechanic.  I’m telling you you need to spend about $100 a year taking care of the various parts on your car.  This amount varies based on how nice of a car you have.  You tell me, well, I just spent $300 two years ago getting the brakes done.  That’s great, but you still need your fan belt changed, wiper fluid, and your left taillight is out.  You can pay me $100 a year now to make sure those are taken care of, or we can wait until you’re broken down on the freeway.

I am willing to have philosophical discussions about the relevance and importance of technology to Architecture, but I’m also able to just view it in cold black and white numbers.  And technology debt – especially debt that can come due at the worst possible time – is just not good for business.

Ethics and IT

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In the court of public opinion, IT never really seems to get a fair break.  When “true IT” makes the news, it is usually about some government project going billions over budget, viruses attacking old people, and Google Maps sending people driving along the train tracks.

When something good *does* happen – like an iPad curing cancer – it’s a “oh great, another reason we now have to support ipads….”  Bottom line, it never seems to work out well for the sysadmin crowd.

And now we have Edward Snowden.  I’m going to try very, very hard to leave politics out of this, but factually, I think we can all agree that Snowden released information that he was either directed (or contractually obligated) to keep confidential.

Ethics hits IT in a few different ways.  Mostly it is about being honest and upfront when you know you can get away with things by snowing people with gobbledygook.  It can be something as minor as deciding who gets the new computer, the hot new interior designer girl who will use it for facebook or the very annoying Architect who will really push it.

Some of the toughest calls require HR to get involved, for oversight and guidance.  I’ve never ever had a problem giving managers access to subordinates emails, but apparently some people in Canada do.   Am I uncomfortable when I install web monitoring software for a firm without letting the users know, or putting up screen capture software to see what an employee is doing all day?  Yes, and I’ve argued against it when I felt we shouldn’t be doing it, but at the end of the day, it is the company’s property, on the company’s network, and you’re on the company clock.

So that brings us to Mr. Snowden.  At some point in time or another in a sysadmin’s career, they may come across a piece of information that they feel is either morally or legally in question.  If there is any doubt that the IT guy *could* be the most informed person in your firm if they tried, remove it.  All emails? Sure.  Confidential legal documents? Yup.  HR files?  Easy.  Without anyone knowing? Of course.

I’ve found that most leadership takes an “out of sight, out of mind” approach on this.  Probably, somewhere, they realize it, but prefer not to think about it.  I’m not sure that is a great approach.  I find it odd that honesty and ethics are openly valued in say, Accounting, but less so in IT.  As Varys (Game of Thrones reference, sorry) said: “Secrets are worth more than silver or sapphires”.

So did Snowden do the right thing or not?  That answer is probably determined by your personal beliefs and frankly irrelevant to this conversation.  What Snowden *has* done is pull back the curtain a bit on how really tied in Network Administrators are; how much info they have easy access to; and perhaps raise some awareness that IT people are not just problem solvers with blinders on, and hiring practices need to account for that.

The trap of 2.0

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Note to parents, before we start: if you don’t like exposing your children to grotesque displays of hipocrosy, avert their unspoiled eyes now.  Cause the train is pulling into the station.

I’m trying to remember when the concept of 2.0 really hit.  And by that, I mean the idea that version 2.0 of anything instantly renders the 1.0 version into complete and utter crap.  Pre-internet, the closest “versioning” we had came in the form of Detroit’s fall new models.  But the thought that the 1963 Corvette is in any way better than the 1962 Corvette will get you into a bar fight.  The fact that new models came along every year didn’t invalidate older years.

It’s not really the same in this Internet Age.  When a new version (or model of iPhone) is released, there is immediately a negative perception of the prior iteration.  Really?  You’re on a 4S?  Why?  All of a sudden, if you’re not on the latest and greatest, you’re technically the equivalent of a Bangladeshi mud hut village.

And it’s not that the new version may be wholly new and amazing (again, see the iPhone) – it’s just that the negative connotation of “old version” or “old model” is now so pervasive.  Ironically, the first time I can recall this really happening – with Windows 3.1 (my God, Windows 3.0 is so horrible, who would use it) – is now an example of the exception to the rule, with Windows 8 – where the new version is just so horribly bad that a sense of nostalgic appreciation for the older version emerges.  But it is not the norm.

And it’s a trap.  Most major software vendors in our arena (cough AutoDesk cough Adobe) have moved to an annual or 18-month software release cycle.  And why?  Go take a look at the curve that shows new feature introduction over time.  There’s a reason why the Microsoft Office releases are now mostly notable for their UI changes.  Quite often, the makers will build in forced obsolence in terms of backward compatibility, and so it doesn’t really matter than InDesign CS3 does everything you need it to, because CS6 doesn’t support it.

Maybe it is the Old in me, but it is hard for me to reconcile this growing cultural belief that new is good, old is bad, and a new version renders the old one irrelevant.  But I think I’m fighting against the tide.

For instance: I was on the phone yesterday with a vendor that was selling backup-to-cloud appliances.  The price for their solution was roughly double what traditional tape would cost, and I had some concerns.  I wanted to understand the full TCO for the product, convey concerns about time-to-restore from the cloud, etc.

What I got was a half-hour of “you’re a complete idiot for considering tape.  Why would you put old technology at one of your client sites.  The future is cloud backup.  Are you stupid?”

Seriously.  I’m not sure the word “idiot” was used, but the tone and verbiage clearly indicated that they were wasting their time having to explain something so obvious to someone.

So… am I?  When my cost for tape over 5 years is $50k, and my cost for cloud is $100k, am I an idiot?  There are pros and cons to tape.  There are pros and cons to cloud backup.  In the phone call, however, I was told several times that tape “is the past” and therefore completely junk.

And that’s the trap.  No technology solution/decision is made in a vacuum.  What’s the environment like?  Budget? Need? Expectations? Bandwidth? Etc. Etc.  When you get into the trap of saying “This is new, it must be what you need”, you’ve lost the plot, as my English friends like to say.

So be careful. I’m not saying you can’t drool over the S4 when you have an S3 (cough), but don’t allow this trend of instant obsolescence overly impact your technology decisions.  I for one would be very happy to drive around in that 62 Vette.

So how many IT staff do we need?

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This might be the number one question asked by my clients.  And it makes sense.  In most cases, IT frequently has the largest spend of all the support groups, and IT staff costs always are a significant portion of that.   Tack on the fact that IT salaries often seem disproportionate to other support group salaries, and it stands to reason that Leadership scrutinizes the IT staffing spend pretty closely.

So what’s the answer?  If you had asked me that 20 years ago, I would have blurted out the generic “1 IT guy for every 50 computers” line, but the years inbetween have taught me there’s no real easy answer to the question.   This is one of those answer-a-question-with-a-question situations, and these are the questions I ask:

1) How many offices do you have, and what is your user distribution?  This has a huge impact; imagine a firm with 400 users in one office, and another firm with 80 users in 5 offices.  Would your staffing model be identical? Probably not.  The company organization – which office is Corporate, overseas offices, time zone overlap, etc – all play a part in figuring out how to best support your users.

2) What roles are we filling?  Usually, when the question of staff is asked, it is just assumed that we’re talking about PC support.  There are two other levels – Networking and Strategic – that should be addressed in a manner that fits the firm’s needs and profile.  Do you have 100 servers over 8 international offices?  Are you using mid-level technologies such as virtualization or SAN replication?  Is there a colo to manage?  Is IT expected to do first-level CAD/BIM support?  Are many of our services (email, phones, FTP) cloud-based?  Is our level of spend such that we need some strategic management?  How much are we outsourcing? Do we need application development?

3)  What “touch” level does your firm expect?  This is critical.  Let’s take the example of a call center – maybe 200 computers, completely locked down, no internet access, only running the single call center application.  Can I support them well with one PC tech?  Probably.  Can I support 200 Architects with one PC tech?  I can, but the users aren’t going to be happy about it.  Need help?  Open a ticket.  Response time?  1 hour, if you’re lucky.  Resolution time? 2 days?

From my experience, Architects and Engineering environments are what I would consider very high-touch environments.  This can be attributed primarily to the deadline-imperative nature of the business, and the rest just to the culture of these firms.  Executives and mobile users (that Venn diagram is almost a normal circle) are very, very high touch.  This is the single biggest factor in terms of staffing the PC support level.

4) How much money do you spend on equipment?  Most firms don’t realize that investing in hardware has a direct impact on IT staff resources.  Of course, the primary benefit is production staff productivity, but good, newer (3 years or less) computers go a long way in creating a stable environment.  Good switches, good servers – investing here not only means you increase your firm’s effectiveness, but it means your IT staff can spend less time fighting fires and more time directly helping users.

5) Are you training your staff?  In most cost-constrained environments (which all A/E firms go through at one point in time or the other) – training is one of the first items to be cut.  And forget about going to Vegas for that conference.  But with training, the staff gain the ability to wear more than one hat.  That PC support guy? He can now do basic network admin.  That BIM manager?  He can now do PC support.  There’s a lot of ways to spread the workload across different employees – provided they get the proper (and ongoing) training.

6) How homogeneous is your environment?  Simplicity, and homogeneity, reduce staff level requirements   If every computer on the floor is a Dell Precision T3500 running Windows 7 and Office 2010, perfect.  Are we all on iPhones, or do we have Android/iPhone/Blackberry/Windows? If I have 3 different manufacturers, 3 different OSes, 3 different versions of Office, every laptop user gets to pick their own make/model of laptop, their own make/model of cell phone – well – IT can do it – but it can’t be done (well) as if everything was the same, or at least close to it.

7) Where are you on the Donahue Pyramid?  If your firm is struggling with basic IT needs – i.e., stability and security – you might not have need for a Strategic IT role in the near future.  You may want to concentrate on front-line support until your needs change.  Alternatively, if you’re at the top of the pyramid – you may not need as many resources in PC support as you did when things were messy and unstable.

These seven questions need to be answered before a *good* response to the “how many IT staff do we need” can be answered.  Everything goes into the Decision Pie o’ Goodness, and out comes a fairly good estimation of what it would take to keep things running smoothly.  There just isn’t a one-size-fits-all rule of thumb for the question.

Flying Buttress is an outsourced IT provider.  We’re biased.  I feel very strongly that A/E firms can successfully outsource the Network and Strategic layers of IT.  That said – for Architectural and Engineering firms, PC support needs to be onsite wherever possible.  The “touch” level expected by A/E firms is just too great for pure remote support.  Obviously, for branch offices with 15 users, remote support is mandatory, but for the 40/50/60+ offices, there needs to be an onsite presence.  Now that can be a FB employee, or an internal FTE, based on your preference – but unlike Networks that can be managed well remotely, or Strategic that involves mostly planning and analysis at a distance – PC support requires that human touch.  There is a customer service expectation within A/E that demands a guy sitting down the hall – *especially* when it comes to leadership support.

Those are the questions.  If you can answer them, I’d be happy to tell you how many staff I feel your firm requires – based on my experience, what the industry norms are, and most importantly, your answers.

A sea change is coming for your software licensing…

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I like naval analogies, like “sea change”.  There’s an air of romanticism that goes along with the analogy, even if we say that the project went down like the Titanic – there’s still a mental image of Jack and Rose clinging to a plank.  Plus, I get to use words like “seafaring”, “keelhauling”, and “yaw”.

I know I should have gone with a title like “You’re all going to jail forever”, or “Nano-robotics will eliminate electricity” but, alas, that ship has sailed.

A sea change just means a significant change or difference to the norm; something transformational.  And with Adobe’s announcement yesterday, we are certainly on the cusp of that.  Adobe announced that Creative Suite 6 (Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, etc) – will be the last version that is sold normally – i.e., you buy it, you own it.  Going forward (from June), all future versions will be subscription based only.  You still download the software, you still install it as normal, but every month, it goes to the Mother Ship in San Jose and asks “are they all paid up” and if not, it shuts down.

So once you’re in, you’re locked in.  $600 a year for the suite, or $240 a year for individual apps.  Which is *double* the $199 you used to pay for two years of upgrade protection.  And there’s really no stocking the box on a shelf somewhere and forgetting about it until you need it; you pay every month whether you use it or not.

If Adobe is even *marginally* successful at this – then watch out.  Microsoft is inching there via their Office 365 offering, and I can guarantee you that they’re thinking about how to do Exchange, Server and SQL on the same model.  AutoDesk is a near-certainty to go their, given their love of their existing subscription model; AutoDesk resellers have been hinting for over a year that AD would go to an all-subscription model shortly.

So what does it really mean?  It means in the good old days, you had wiggle room.  If you were networked for 70 copies of AutoCAD, but had two loaner laptops and put standalone versions on them, it wasn’t a big deal.  Or if you had 5 Windows Server licenses and brought up a sixth for testing purposes, it didn’t really matter.  Organizations (on the whole) were fairly happy with being 90-95% compliant with licensing.

No more.  Now you’re be 100% compliant, like it or not.  That internet – the great internet that has given you Google and Facebook and Nyan Cat – now it means that there’s really no excuse not to be tethered to Adobe.  The ubiquity of connectivity works against the consumer, as well as for.

If you think about all the things that we fudge on here and there – now imagine them in a 100% connected world.  Don’t have car insurance? Your car won’t start.  Say that you gave $500 to charity on your taxes? Not without an e-receipt.  It’s all just a reminder that this binary mode of yes/no off/on good/bad that the internet brings into our lives can have some far-reaching implications, well beyond software licensing.

And for y’all literary types:

Full fathom five thy father lies:
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange

Strange for us, rich for Adobe.

The Incredible Disappearing CAD/BIM Manager

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I’ve danced around this topic a bit before, but let me strike at the heart this time.  One of the benefits of only having customers who are Architectural firms means we get to see some of the trends that happen in the industry, sometimes even a bit earlier than those working directly in it.

One such trend is the minimalization (is that a word?) of the role of CAD Manager, or BIM Manager, or Design Technology Manager, whichever your firm calls it.  In the early days of CAD (when papyrus was used), the CAD Manager bordered on semi-deity.   Computers were scary enough – CAD on computers (yes, redundancy, I know) was even scarier.  Licensing. LISP. Confusing commands, whole other languages!  Users (and leadership) had no problem signing off on the idea that a CAD Manager could be 100% non-billable, and that was still perfectly OK.

Fast forward 10-15 years, and that “unassailable” guy or girl?  Not so much.  The mystique started to roll away.  Many of the functions that CAD Managers had created in LISP became integrated into the product.  Then Revit hit, and the window was cracked open slightly for BIM Managers.  The reality today, however, is that *most* firms use Revit simply as AutoCAD on steroids.  Plans, elevations, and some modelling.  “True” BIM, or BIM as part of IPD, is still some way away.  So whatever awe that BIM Managers were first held in disappeared shortly after leadership realized, hey, we’ve moved X percent to Revit, and we’re doing just fine.

So a devaluation of the position based on the perceived ease of using both AutoCAD and Revit has contributed, but there are other factors.  Someone I respect opined that the reason Leadership doesn’t value the role is that the decision-makers are all right-brained, design-oriented individuals; and that the actual CAD/BIM production process can be very left-brain. And because of that, they have a hard time valuing the role.

Another opinion is that the proliferation of technology in general has devalued technology support roles overall;  that a much higher comfort level with technology – at all levels, including leadership – leads to more questions of “why”, rather than blind acceptance.

Personally, I think all of those contribute, but right now, the economy plays a large role.  A number of AEC firms are slowly emerging from this economy with a much greater desire to be aware of, and to control, finances.  Unlike when we’re all fat and happy, there is a huge focus on the absolute bottom line – what are my dollars in, and what are my dollars out.   In scenarios like those, “soft costs” tend to play a very minor role in comparison to their big, hard cost brother.

And that, in a nutshell, is why the CAD/BIM/DT Manager is slowly fading away.  It isn’t malevolence, it’s just a case of “I have this person who costs me X dollars and they generate Y dollars”.  If Y-X is positive, you’re OK.  When it isn’t, look out.  Because that is a black and white, very easy to see calculation of how you are contributing to the firm’s bottom line.  And it isn’t reasonable to yell at Leadership for thinking this way; too many people in the negative, and no more company.

Many of you have participated in group/individual personality labeling, for more effective communication.  You’re an INTJ, they’re ENFP, or you’re a muffin and they’re an orange, however your particular program divided up people.  At the end of the day, however, most have the same goal: how do you effectively communicate to an ENFP/Muffin?   Current CAD/BIM/DT Managers should be looking at their *organizations* as a personality type that likes cold, hard facts dished up in an analytical, unbiased manner.

So what does that mean?  Metrics.  Stats.  Black and white numbers, without the BS.  You can say to Leadership “I play an essential role”, or “CAD standards are hugely important to productivity” and you’ll get a nod and a “uh-huh”.  You need to be saying “My role saved this firm $250,000 worth of billable man-hours last year”.

This is *not* easy.  Much of what you do *is* soft.  You help.  You create.  For all intents and purposes, every hour you spend non-billable is a complete money sink.  That’s the hard view.  As difficult as it may be, you should start trying to create actual metrics – statistics – for your role.  Especially those that pertain to supporting billable hours or overall productivity.  An easy one is Save-to-Central times.  Let’s say, because of your optimization efforts, each project STC averages 5 minutes faster, and each staffer saves 4 times a day.  And you have 100 Architects.  And they average bill at $150/hour.  Congrats, that’s a million dollars worth of labor saved over a year.  Or how much time is saved from reusing families you’ve created.  Or how much time is saved by team members who move from one project to another not having to learn a new file structure.  Those metrics are out there.  You need to start finding them, and start assigning numbers that aren’t crazy or unrealistic.  They need to pass the B.S. test.

Thusly armed, go forth on a marketing mission.  You can have the best stats in the world, but they won’t help you one bit if no one knows about them.  Don’t wait for the day when they come with bankers boxes.  Either team up, if your firm is small, or find someone in Leadership who believes in your role, and have them help you craft a simple presentation.  Make your case heard, at the very minimum, of once a year.  If you belong to a group, make sure the group leader is doing this at an executive level.

Because believe me, the case needs to be made.  I believe in your role – very strongly – but I’m bucking the trend.