What does IT do, anyway?

Vice-Chancellor to Information Technology (IT) Director: “What does your department do, anyway?”
IT Director to Vice-Chancellor: “Well, we do a lot of things. For example we keep 320 servers running 24×7 in our data center!”
Vice-Chancellor to IT Director: “That sounds expensive. Could you do the same work with 250 servers?”

Computers are supposed to make people’s lives easier. However, computers are very complex and require specialized knowledge and skills. Depending on the institution you may have servers, networks, networked disk, databases, laptops, hardware repair, or data warehouses, just to name a few technical systems, and these systems are usually highly interrelated.

To this end, organizations create IT departments–organizational structures that contain the people that know the most about “IT stuff.” The idea is that these technical people need to talk with one another and learn from one another because their systems are so interrelated. (Another reason to group these people is to manage them centrally–for example, to control IT spending at a high level.) These departments might be called Information Technology, Information Services, Information Systems, Central IT, Academic Computing Support, or a dozen other things–and Universities tend to have several IT departments (or “groups” or “staff” depending on how many people are involved) serving (sometimes overlapping) segments of campus.

There are a couple of big catches to this whole idea of building an IT department, though:

Catch #1: Technical people get further and further from the value they are creating as they are grouped together. IT has a harder time justifying what they’re doing and outsiders have a harder time understanding what IT does (as in the above fictitious conversation between the Vice-Chancellor and the IT Director)

Catch #2: With cloud computing and the spread of technical knowledge, anyone on campus can run their own IT (for better or for worse)

What’s not immediately apparent to people is there’s actually another thing that IT organizations provide: IT management.

In a moment I’ll get back to the question: explaining what IT does. Let’s first talk about what “IT management” is.

What’s IT management?

IT management is a set of capabilities–things you can become good at over time–to improve how IT operates. There are many possible IT capabilities, such as project management or enterprise architecture. IT management can catch #1, above (technical people getting further from the value they are creating) by helping to show campus and IT staff the value being created from IT, and to validate that the service continues to provide value worth the IT effort. When I say IT management, I don’t necessarily mean people managers–I mean the skills and abilities that an IT organization develops to manage its work effectively and efficiently.

If you were waiting for it: the challenge with catch #2 (anyone on campus can run their own IT) is that you still need IT management skills, even if you can spin up a SaaS environment “in the cloud.” Here’s a hypothetical example:

Dave works in the Counseling office. His department finds a cloud-based psychological profiling service. Dave signs the department up for the service, clicks through the terms of service, and his corporate card gets charged once a month. Simple so far!

Dave did not realize…

  • the service has no privacy statement and would expose the University (not just the Counseling office) to FERPA-related fines
  • the agreed uptime for the service is 99.5% (almost 2 days a year of downtime), and that figure excludes any “pre-announced planned downtime”
  • there is no way to expunge data from the cloud service once the data has been added
  • Dave will manually have to manage the user names and passwords for everyone using the tool
  • the service doesn’t handle MS Office copy-and-paste properly
  • another department on campus also pays for the same service

As IT’s gotten more complicated, IT has had to learn most of these lessons the hard way, and now IT can be pretty good at watching out for risks such as the above. And the neat thing is, there are standardized frameworks and consulting companies 🙂 who can help IT organizations and higher education get better at IT management.

Why is it so hard to say what IT does?

In my mind there are two big challenges with describing what IT does:

  • You have to know your audience, and what they care about, and
  • It’s unusual for one person to have a complete picture of an IT system.

With respect to knowing your audience, even between technical people there are different ways to describe technical systems. If a systems person and a network person were talking, and the network person asked how a system worked, the network person would probably really want to know what network protocols were being used, the network bandwidth requirements, any unusual network drivers–the network-related stuff. On the other hand, if a systems person and a database administrator (DBA) were talking about the same system, the DBA would probably really want to know about database tuning, disk block sizes, available memory–the database stuff. If technical people have to do this much filtering just to talk to one another, what hope do non-technical people have for understanding how IT works?

With respect to having the complete picture, it’s very difficult for technical people to find out why they are running the systems they’re running. Somehow the technical person got a request to buy and install a server, or to load an application, or to give someone access to something, and that service became important enough for the technical person to get paged in the middle of the night if something went wrong. The technical components are just too far removed from the “business value” (aka the reason why this technology was a good idea in the first place) for the technician to understand how the software currently adds value. Or conversely, the department using the application has no idea of what’s “under the hood”–they may understand the value, but not the cost.

OK–enough already! What does IT do?

We need a happy medium between the extreme technical view and the business value. I recommend thinking about what IT does in this way:

  • Value-added time: time that directly adds value for the end user/consumer of IT. (If you were billing people–and I’m definitely not saying you should!–these would be your “billable hours”)
    • Maintaining existing IT services
    • IT projects
    • Other IT enhancements
  • Overhead:
    • Vacation
    • Staff meetings

I recommend this model because the descriptions for services, projects, and enhancements should make sense to non-technical people. Services and projects, especially, should have a direct link to value. If you are a very technical person, you only have to know enough to “roll up” what you’re doing to the IT service. (There are a host of ways to assist people in this “rolling up” what they’re doing to the IT service.) If you’re a non-technical person, you only have to know enough to name the high-level IT service(s) you need.

Depending on your IT management maturity, you may not know what goes in the boxes for your services, your projects, your enhancements, or your ovrerhead. Here are my crib notes for how to develop this model. ANY OF THE BELOW WILL HELP–you don’t have to wait to do all four before you start sharing what IT does with people:

  1. “Maintaining existing IT services:” Develop a short service catalog that lists the high-level IT services you offer. Try to keep this list small. For example, “client-side computing” (all service related to a single client-side device) could be one service. The list of services needs to be “tested out”–check with people outside IT to see whether the services as described are perceived as valuable.
  2. “IT projects:” Develop a simple, repeatable test for whether something is a project. (Deciding whether something is a project is a whole other topic.) Try to keep this list small, by only letting larger things be called projects. The IT projects list should be small enough for a high-level governance group to review (e.g. the Chancellor’s office).
  3. “Other IT enhancements:” Have some way to track these across all of IT, code them, and report on them by requesting department and affected departments. These are enhancements above-and-beyond what is required to maintain a service. (NB: If not managed well, these “other enhancements” can eat you alive.)
  4. Utilization rate: It can be very helpful to figure out, across all the FTEs in your IT department, how many FTEs are spent on value-added time. Unfortunately, I don’t know of a better way to do this than time-tracking. (Time-tracking is also a whole other topic.) It sounds really low, but 60+% utilization is a good target. Remember, the utilization rate includes managers!

Figuring these things out is part of developing your IT management capability. As you get any of these, you can start sharing them. Ensure people (especially IT managers/directors/executives) share the same message: when a Vice-Chancellor asks you what IT does, tell them the services, the projects, and/or the other IT enhancements–both the ones directly affecting them and the major other ones consuming IT resources. (Bonus points if they get this information proactively, for example from a governance group or a customer meeting.)

Now when people ask what IT does, and you say this…

We provide 12 services to campus, including high-performance computing, core administrative systems support, multimedia, … and we’re managing 8 big projects like the campus switch to cloud-based email and 52 requested enhancements.

they will hear

… 12 services… $$$, $$$, $$$, $$$, $$$

and by that I mean they will hear a list of expensive but worthwhile things. Which is a heck of a lot better than hearing “320 servers,” which sounds expensive but not-very-worthwhile.

Then, if they understand the value but don’t think IT should be doing those things, you’re in a really good position! If campus doesn’t want those services to run, IT should be able to stop them and redirect to more valuable things. The language of services and projects should link IT effort and cost to the value to campus, and provide a framework for honest campus dialogue (in governance groups and elsewhere) about how IT can best help the institution.

All that said, if you want to talk one-on-one about your organization and how this applies to you, even just for an hour, let me know!