How The High-Tech Cow applies to your IT department

While walking our dogs, I often catch up on podcasts. On Planet Money episode number 352 – The High-Tech Cow, they lay out 4 rules for the success of a business in this constantly changing economy.  These rules are:

  1. Stay on top of technological change
  2. Focus (and specialize) on those things you do best
  3. Buffer yourself against the unexpected changes that are even now coming
  4. Find some product or service that you can give your customer no one else can.

Planet Money illustrates these rules in the context of a dairy farm, but I suggest you consider them as they apply to your IT department, too.

 Stay on top of technological change, or ensuring you have the most productive cows

This is a given – just in my career, I’ve gone from working on min-computers, then Novell Netware, then Windows NT, AIX, SunOS, to FreeBSD, then Linux.  PC based applications, to ASPs, to virtualization, to SaaS. However, learning new things is probably why many people got in to IT in the first place, as they enjoyed the change and learning new things.  The challenge here is in selecting which new things to stay on top of.  DevOps? Network Virtualization? Hybrid cloud methodologies? I’d suggest the answer depends on your responses to the following points: what you determine as your department’s focus, how it needs to buffer itself, and what its strategic value is.

Focus (and specialize) on those things you do best

The dairy farm in question realized there was too much to know about cow nutrition, or breeding, for them to be experts in that as well as their core competency of raising cows and producing milk. So they outsourced those functions to consultants and experts.

Similarly, there are experts in specialized aspects of IT that can help you achieve better results in those areas, with less costs than if you did it yourself, while allowing you to focus on your departments key areas.  If you read this blog, you (hopefully) realize that LogicMonitor is expert in monitoring and running monitoring infrastructure – clearly one area that you can outsource.  But how about using a Managed Service Provider that specializes in the day-to-day help desk issues? Or a company like Cedexis to optimize your CDN usage and costs?  We recently switched to using wpengine to host our various wordpress sites that run our marketing site, our documentation site, this blog – we certainly have plenty of wordpress, linux, PHP and CDN experience internally, and could easily (and have been) doing it ourselves – but that’s not the area we want our staff to focus on.

Buffer yourself against the unexpected changes that are even now coming

Dairy farms can buy futures for the commodities they trade in, to hedge against rising feed prices, or falling dairy prices, to mitigate some of the risk of market fluctuations which could otherwise have a devastating impact on their business.  Now, I’m not suggesting that you should sell put options on VMWare, but there are ways to mitigate risk against the unknown in IT, too.

If you regularly and repeatedly need to buy new servers – do you have purchasing agreements in place with more than one vendor, in case Microsoft decides to buy all the available units your preferred vendor has available? Or maybe you’ve experimented with running infrastructure in Amazon EC2, so you can use that for short term growth?

Despite what you may hope, the IT department is not usually kept informed of all other plans in the company – so it is very likely that there will be some project coming that you are currently unaware of, that will put a lot of strain on some departmental resource, and IT will be accused of “slowing down” the key project.  Think of ways to be able to rapidly deliver increased capacity in storage, servers, network or IT operations, on short notice – without spending money on resources before they are needed. Most likely this will involve cloud provisioning of resources until you can get the infrastructure in house to support the needs. While cloud infrastructure or services may (or may not) be significantly more expensive in the short term – it will almost certainly be quicker to deploy.

Find some product or service that you can give your customer no one else can.

If a farm in Brooklyn can make the proximity to New York and the commensurate high cost of land an advantage, by catering to foodies and locavores – what’s the IT equivalent?

Your IT department has one critical differentiator from all other service providers out there – it knows your business, its dependencies, its software and its criticality. (Or at least it should.)  For critical business operations, there should be no quicker time to resolution than what your IT department can deliver.  You should have unique insight – not just into the impacts, but also into the infrastructure, the people involved from the business and technology sides, the business specific metrics, and what they mean. (If your monitoring system is not graphing and alerting on business specific metrics for your critical applications – why not?) For less critical operations – either your department should deliver cost effective response, support and availability – or perhaps supporting those applications would be something the department should not be focussing on.

While not a flawless map for success in IT, thinking about these principles and how they apply to your IT department will let you react with more agility when changes come, and ultimately increase both the value you bring to your enterprise, and also the value they perceive you as bringing. Both worthy goals.