Death (of IT) by a Thousand Cuts

One of the key reasons I write this blog is the hope that people will learn from my experiences, and quite frankly from my mistakes. I also hope that if there is someone out there who could benefit from my unique perspective of being both a programmer and physician, that they will contact me for, at least, advice. I am always looking for new projects and I still have a very inquisitive mind. So making new friends and new business associates and working on new projects is something that very much speaks to me. If this blog helps with that, I believe it is a win-win situation.

But enough about me. A couple of years ago I was speaking with a friend who was becoming frustrated with his place of work. It turned out that for budgetary reasons, the IT department had been reduced. This is unfortunately a very common practice because most CFOs (chief financial officers)see the IT department as a cost center, rather than as a potential source of revenue. Part of the job of the CIO (chief information officer and often the head of the IT department), perhaps the most important part, is to make the CFO and CEO understand that the health and success of the business depend on a properly functioning IT department. More so, if the CIO is included in critical budgetary decisions, alternative  solutions may be uncovered which reduce the damage not just to the IT department but to the entire business.

In any case, one of the internal people responsible for managing the servers was let go. The argument was that much of the server management was outsourced and that the programmers and other users could simply and directly communicate with the outside company to have their requests fulfilled. My friend then told me of a new project that he had started and that had already reached a first stage of completion, ready for initial rollout. The entire system was on his personal machine, running on his local copy of Visual Studio and SQL Server and the like (these are all development tools for data driven systems). What my friend now needed was a virtual machine set up on one of the servers of the company, to which he could copy his newly developed system and thus make it available for the rest of the staff.

Just a quick technical point – a virtual machine (VM) is like a real computer but totally simulated in software. Such a virtual machine allows for tremendous flexibility, for much easier backup, for much greater reliability and more. Many large companies now use this virtual approach rather than actually set up a new physical server/computer for each new project. The virtual machine is cheaper and simply a far better choice from both a business and IT point of view.

So my friend submitted his request to the off-site company that maintained the servers, and waited for their response. During the time he was waiting, he began to work on stage two of the system, but this was difficult, as results from stage one were intended to drive the development of the second version of the system.

A day went by.  A week went by. My friend sent angrier and angrier emails to the off-site company, and then called a representative within the outside company who eventually promised my friend that the VM request was “top of the list”. Now I should point out that creating a new virtual machine, can take seconds in a properly set up environment. Before the budget cuts that led to a thinning of my friend’s IT department,  only one day would pass between his request and the appearance of the new virtual machine.

My friend went to the CIO of the company who was already informed of the issue, Now it was the CIO who started calling.

Another week went by.

A total of three weeks went by before my friend was able to get a virtual machine set up to test a system that the company very much wanted. The day before the CIO decided that enough time had passed and that the CEO should start calling, suddenly the virtual machine appeared.

My friend stayed late to update the virtual machine with his code and test the system. He sent a link for the new system to the CIO and two other colleagues. Some of the colleagues actually tried the system later in the evening and were witness to the fact that the system was up and running.

Why do I say “witness”? Because the following morning, the virtual machine, along with my friend’s test system, was gone. A couple of hours were spent trying to see if it could potentially be a silly problem with the address of the new system’s website, but it was to no avail. At this point, the CIO was immediately involved and he called the outside company. There were explanations and apologies but it still took another week until the virtual machine was up, stable, running and reliable.

A couple of months passed and my friend was given a new project but encountered another major delay in getting access to basic resources from this outside company. My friend quit and within a couple of months, found work in another company.

Mistakes happen. Things get lost. Computers crash. But it is absolutely critical that CEOs and CFOs and sometimes even CIOs understand that without a smoothly running IT department, an entire business can come to a halt. Everyone in the company, from the marketing people to the PR people to the legal staff can argue that they must not be affected by budget cuts. Perhaps they have a point. I can only speak about the IT side. And what I can tell you is that when a company  starts to seriously cut in to the meat of its own IT department, trouble often soon follows.

Now I want to make it clear that a new boss i.e. CIO, can come to an IT department and discover that it has been horribly managed and that there is clear over staffing of the department. At some point, the CIO may very well decide to fire a number of people who truly serve no purpose except to drain resources. It is the job of the CIO together with the CEO and CFO to clearly understand the difference between an IT department that is working well and is nevertheless about to be cut, versus an IT department that is malfunctioning and must be repaired.

I have seen major projects be handled from start to finish by one to two master programmers and/or developers. If you are lucky enough to have such people on board, the worst possible thing you could do is to cut them due to budget cuts. On the contrary, what you could do is increase their role in the decision-making for the company and ask them what projects they see as being valuable in financial terms. It is amazing at times how much you can learn about your own company simply by talking to the people who work in it.

Am I biased towards the significance of the IT department in a company? Absolutely. But it does not mean that the bias is unjustified. A good IT person can be very hard to find. A well-run IT department is a very precious asset. If a company is desperate, then sometimes it has no choice but to cut from its own critical staff. But at the very least, the decision-makers should consider just how risky such cuts can be.

Thanks for listening

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.
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