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October 2002

Train Wreck

By Scott Hirsh

For about five years, IT professionals were rock stars. I hope you enjoyed your 15 minutes! We’re back to square one, my friends, perhaps even worse off than before. Judging from those of you I had the good fortune to reconnect with at this year’s HP World, you probably pursued a job in “data processing” because you actually enjoyed the work, not because it was trendy (imagine!).

There was plenty of grunt work – anyone ever get a tie caught in a burster? – and we were understandably misunderstood by “civilian” friends and family. Like a lot of you, I paid my dues as an operator. In fact, given MPE’s friendliness, I ran a typical shop where I was Operator, System Manager, programmer and whatever else needed to be done. I wasn’t particularly well-compensated, but I enjoyed my job (if not the users).

This may be the selective memory of geezer-hood at work here, but the current economic malaise has brought back some of the worst of the worst practices in IT. And if you weren’t around for the first time, as they say on television, “it’s new to you.”

Frankly, I’m not particularly exercised about all the faux techies who have been washed out of the industry by the recession. They weren’t one of us, just strictly bandwagon types who saw a fast buck or a chance to make the scene at the flavor-of-the-month dot-com watering hole. Overpaid, overpraised, overdressed and over-n-out. (Others being washed out of the industry is a recession. When I’m thrown overboard, it’s a depression.)

To end this rant, the industry is being pared back to the working set of technology professionals – and I use that term loosely — who were in it for all the right reasons from the start and will endure through whatever comes next.

While this kind of renewal cycle is natural and healthy, if painful, the tendency to forget the mistakes of the past requires us to remain vigilant, lest we resume practices that deserved to be left behind, buried or nuked. A few of the more egregious ones are listed for your consideration.

Are You Feeling Lucky?

No question, there are a lot of good people currently seeking permanent and contract work right now. But that was true over 20 years ago when I was getting started in MIS. And while money isn’t everything, it’s not nothing either. Furthermore, systems still don’t run themselves, at least not if they’re ever changed. So good people still and always will make a difference. The old attitude of “you’re lucky to have a job” doesn’t jibe with the knowledge we now have that retaining good staff is critical to a well-run, highly available environment. And yet, this power imbalance seems to be bringing back some of the worst management practices of the IT continuum.

Put simply, nobody is doing anyone any favors here. In exchange for a mutually respectful, productive environment, good people do good work and everyone benefits. On the other hand, even in the worst of times good people with current skills have options. Can’t we all just get along?

Training as Perk

I just spent two years in technical pre-sales for one of the world’s largest storage companies. Believe it or not, in all that time, and with millions of dollars on the line, I did not attend one standard technical training course. Sure, there were plenty of Webcasts, sales trainings (at considerable cost), role-playing sessions, white papers, etc. But not one course out of the catalogue! In fact, I inquired about pursuing the company’s own certification, but was told – and these were the exact words from my manager – “that’s for the outside, dude.”

Yes, we’re back to the slide rule era where ongoing training is not a fundamental requirement of your job, but a reward that is expendable in tough times. Sure, we overindulged in some questionable, expensive training classes during the manic period, but we all know technology is zooming ahead at its usual accelerating pace even if anyone isn’t buying it. Keeping current is life or death, and – get this – every survey since punch cards overwhelmingly shows that access to training is among the most important factors for retaining top people. There is no mystery here.

I admit that during the initial web euphoria I actually believed that web sites would eliminate the need for sales people (wishful thinking, I suppose). Similarly, there are those who think all training can be accommodated through inexpensive means like Web-based training. And certainly some types of learning can be addressed via technology. But much of what we need to do requires hands-on, off-site, live instructor training, With labs. And interaction with other students. The kind that costs real money. You know that, I know that, and eventually management will re-learn it. If you don’t include training in your budget, you will pay – eventually.

Service and Support

Admittedly, my views on this have been influenced by my work on the selling side. But again, you get what you pay for. Companies will shell out millions of dollars on new equipment whose adoption presents a variety of migration and integration challenges. Then they complain about the relatively small cost for the services and support that will ensure up-time. Again, you get what you pay for.

And what if you just don’t have the money? That is, you’re focused on acquisition cost and not the true cost of ownership? In addition to the obvious financing approach, perhaps you’re choosing a solution that is inappropriate for your current business environment. There’s nothing wrong with changing strategy to, say, a commodity hardware (i.e., Intel) platform with roll-your-own Linux and applications. Plenty of shops are going that way, at least in part. But the point is, when you buy a Mercedes, don’t complain about the cost to service it.

The same is true for support. Support is insurance. If you never get sick or have a car accident, then by all means skip those costly premiums and take your chances. But you’re probably better off with some insurance and perhaps a high deductible. If you need support, buy it. But don’t pretend you don’t need it. There are fine choices in most cases for third-party support, and most people don’t need the highest level, critical (Platinum) system support. All it takes is one incident, as we have seen in the past year, to make or break your company.

Death by a Thousand Cuts

When all decisions become short-term due to economic uncertainty, shops tend to grow organically. Purchases need to be made under the radar, where a manager can authorize up to a certain purchase amount. This results in the creation of an environment where there are lots of toasters. This proliferation of smaller servers and storage devices eventually becomes a management and security nightmare. Then the shop will get religion – perhaps after the current management structure turns over – and a consolidation effort will be embraced, with its attendant migration and availability issues. Haven’t we been here before?

I know I have, and I suspect so have you if you’ve been around a while. From previous rants, we know the root cause: lack of strategy and planning. Staff turnover doesn’t help either. For HP 3000 system managers, the transition to other platforms for core applications is likely to mean a fragmentation of your environment, where one HP 3000’s applications get distributed to multiple servers and operating systems. At least there’s a chance they’ll be physically located in the same room.

Penny Wise

The theme here is timeless: there are sensible ways to trim costs and there are foolish, shortsighted ways. No, it’s not necessary to cater lunch every day or stock a room full of arcade games. Those who had carte blanche with Other People’s Money considered these and other luxuries necessities. Who among us expected this type of largesse, or considered it critical to job satisfaction? How many HP 3000 shops even saw this kind of behavior? Unfortunately, given the breadth of corporate misconduct, our belt tightening is more likely traceable to questionable acts we didn’t even get to benefit from. Now that’s déjà vu.

There is plenty of room for reasonable people to agree on where the fat lies in our organizations. But hard times are no excuse for regressing into old habits we know are ultimately destructive. The world did evolve in a lot of good ways during the era of irrational exuberance. Let’s try to remember why we eagerly dropped a lot of worst practices when we had the chance. We can still afford to leave the bad old days behind.

Scott Hirsh, former chairman of the SYSMAN Special Interest Group, has been managing data centers for over 22 years. Scott can be reached at (510) 435-4529 or scott@acellc.com.

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