% fortune -ae paul murphy

IT: where success fails, and failure succeeds

In reviewing discussions responding to last weeks "what users want" theme I was struck by the extent to which most of us get so wrapped up in fighting alligators that we completely forget about draining the swamp.

Fortunately there's always somebody willing to remind us - in this case frequent contributor Dave Leigh pointed us to a something he wrote in 2002 discussing what, from a user perspective, constitutes an ideal system. Here's an excerpt:

The important thing is that you concentrate on OPTIMIZING THE WORKFLOW, and MINIMIZING SURPRISE, ("Surprise" is anything that gets in your face. Surprises are things like unrequested dialog boxes. Surprises interrupt your workflow, distract you, jar your nerves, and each one adds frustration. Surprises are bad.) Concentrate on smooth workflow and no surprises and everything else comes along for the ride.

In this sense a well-designed system should be like the world's best secretary or butler or waitress. Unfortunately there are brainless dicks that take this to mean that you should have an VIRTUAL secretary, or butler, or cartoon character right there on the screen interrupting you at every point and scratching his ass when idle. They COMPLETELY miss the point! The very best waitress is prompt, efficient and instantly available, yes; but most of all she's unobtrusive. She's the one that keeps your glass filled without interrupting your conversation to do it.

I said users want computing to be both invisible and magically effective - he says computing support should be like a world class waitress: prompt, efficient, and unobtrusive. In both cases we were talking about system services as delivered to the user's desktop or workbench, but the same principle applies to systems services delivered to the business - in other words, to organisational design and systems architecture issues.

Ask what businesses want in terms of their ideal corporate information management infrastructure and you get something like this: "the very best information infrastructure is fast, efficient and completely unobtrusive. It facilitates communications, makes data and computation instantly available when needed, and never requires senior management to redirect its attention from the business to IT".

As Dave says in another post the squeaky wheel gets the grease, and because this is a prescription for a wheel that does not squeak, it's also a prescription for an IT environment whose budget doesn't grow, whose span of control doesn't grow, and whose staffing doesn't grow. In other words, one of Murphy's conundra for IT management is that the better you are at doing the job, the less recognition you'll get for it, and, conversely, the closer you can get to the point of being fired for incompetence without actually tripping over it, the faster your budget will grow and the more opportunities you'll have for career growth - i.e. in IT, failure succeeds and success fails.

Consider these two candidates for CIO at a manufacturing company doing about $800 million in annual business:

Results from Current Employer Candidate A Candidate B
Annual IT budget $14,700,000 $3,200,000
Employees managed 122 24
Users 1,800 2,136
Key Software MS-Office 11, IE 7.0, custom developed client for SAP, Crystal Reports. 3278 emulation (for existing finance apps.) StarOffice, Firefox, Oracle, Oracle ERP/SCM, Statware, Actuate
Largest project managed while there SAP - $31 Million over 4 years- started on Windows 2000 and now in rollout on Windows 2003/XP Advanced Server with clustered SQL-Server. Oracle ERP/SCM- $5.8 million over two years- on Solaris with Oracle, IQ, and Actuate.
Publications/Presentations "Achieving Success through accelerated Implementation" - a paper given at the 2003 SAP ERP/SCM professional's conference. None
Out-sourcing Experience Managing EDS processing contract for current zOS based financial and Mfg. applications. None
Technology Completed enterprise wide rollout for Windows 2003/XP SP2 Professional with advanced directory services Four way redundant Sun 6900s with 2030 Sun Rays, 80 Macs; about 56 PCs;
Help desk calls for year About 420,000 9,384

Only one of these guys is doing the IT job, but success fails, and failure succeeds: the other guy is going to get more offers at higher salaries.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.