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Magnificence in the Mundane

Making friends is easy; keeping them is harder

By on June 14, 2008. Filed Under: business, delivery

It’s a complex old business maintaining relationships these days. Like many people I end up managing friends like some perverse to-do list. If I haven’t seen someone for a while I might remember to send them an email, they might reply, more time passes and we might repeat the process before saying “Crikey - it’s been ages since we had a beer.. let’s go out”. So we do. A good time is had by all and we swear we won’t leave it so long next time. And yet life dictates that we do. But one of the hallmarks of real friendship has to be that comforting ability to pick up conversations exactly where you left off last time. No matter the months that have passed and the life changes experienced, you’re still the just same people on the inside. I’m not sure if this comfortable feeling prevails because we are friends, or if we consciously select people to be our friends that we feel comfortable with, but modern life would be pretty isolating without it.

What’s depressing, if you work in IT, is that the conversation you immediately pick up is how crap the organisation you work for is at doing IT.

My interests outside of software and technology are many and yet I rarely get to talk about anything other than IT with IT friends because we are sucked away from interesting conversation by this undertow of melancholy created by frustrations at work. And the format is always the same: someone starts with a dailywtf-style example of inanity they’ve recently experienced (“you’re not gonna believe what one of our developers did this week..”) which quickly deteriorates into a generic “I honestly don’t know why I bother going in. We’re a disaster factory managed by Muppets. Nowhere else could be this bad.”

Cue wistful conversations about resigning and moving to a new job at Perfectico Inc where IT is a slick and intelligent machine delivering great software, on time, delighting its customers. Or perhaps forming a start-up and creating Perfectico Inc from scratch. In fact, I suspect a surprisingly large numbers of start-ups have been formed not by the germ of a great idea, but by half-drunk depressives just wanting a decent place to work.

But of course Perfectico Inc doesn’t exist. Anyone who’s been around a bit will tell you that all organisations have their challenges. These challenges have a tendency to overwhelm because the demand for business change is relentless. Only after you leave do you see the good bits. And therein lays the secret. If there are good bits everywhere and these good bits are different in different organisations then a collection of only good bits equals less depression, equals fewer beer-fuelled whinges about poor IT, equals better relationships with your periodic drinking buddies.

So no pressure then. Just our entire collective happiness at stake.

I recently commented on an interesting post by Jean-Jacques Dubray on InfoQ about IT/Business alignment. Once of the posts he linked to was called ”8 Things We Hate About IT” by Susan Cramm. She is at pains to point out that hate is not too strong a word. And let’s face it, these days business feelings towards their IT departments, ranging from tired irritation through frustrated annoyance to full-on bloody-toothed loathing, are more common than they are rare.

Regular readers will know that I fundamentally disagree with the existence of concepts like IT/Business alignment. Not simply because it’s a crazy notion, but pursuing it leads IT around in a pointless merry dance attempting to define it and then solve it. If a department in a business has words like “hate” used to describe it then naturally it’s going to feel isolated and probably like doing some soul searching. That’s what creates the idea that in some way IT has become non-aligned.

Business processes are really quite complex and good, extensible, software is hard to write. IT is at the confluence of these great rivers and will occasionally make mistakes. Yet everyone makes mistakes. The difference is that IT departments make numerous, often small, mistakes on each project which end up as big mistakes visible to the business. The visibility unfortunately isn’t limited to just a bit of substandard software, it’s a direct limitation to the company’s capability to deal with market forces. And that’s where those words like hate come from (to be fair to Susan Cramm she did say she didn’t mean the people in IT and also followed up her post with another called ”8 Reasons Why You Should Love IT”)

There’s no pretending IT isn’t the cause of this ire either. I have the greatest sympathy for marketing, constantly harassed by the CEO to understand the top 20% of high-spending customers so that loyalty programmes can be fashioned to keep them and similarly with the bottom 20% to create incentive programmes to make them spend more, only to be hamstrung by an IT system that can’t adapt to their needs and doesn’t give them accurate or timely data.

IT might say that marketing only got the system that they asked for and that the original spec didn’t include measures of timeliness or accuracy or adapting to change. And here’s the nub of it. Should non-IT experts be expected to ask for every thing they might need, or should IT position themselves to lead on the art of the possible? I would submit that in all other aspects of life where relative laymen interact with experts, the experts consider it a part of their service to critique what they are asked to do. It’s part of what you might call professionalism.

What IT is missing, to lend it this professionalism, is leadership. Leaders create the culture that enables IT people to meet their customers on a level playing field.

I said earlier that it’s often only after you leave organisations you see what the good aspects of their IT are. What characterises these good practices, in addition to good leadership, is a plain-dealing common sense. Great software (that continues to meet changing business demands) is hard to write, but when you boil the problems down to the basics it’s amazing how straightforward solving them becomes. Where we go wrong is we too often look for a technical or process-centric solution, when talking, prioritising and basic planning are all that’s required. Going high-tech is where our comfort zone is, because that’s what we are good at, whereas performing common-sense tasks like communication and organisation feels like a cop out and doesn’t justify our expert status.

IT organisations that are great at project management, for example, don’t talk about project management or have endless conversations about perfecting project management, they make it invisible. And when it breaks, as it will, they make small changes to fix it and move on. Nobody on the business side expects perfection - they make enough mistakes themselves not to be that naive - but they do want to know that someone in IT is addressing problems as they arise. Ignoring small issues for too long only gets you into change programme territory.

And finally, as a glaring example of conceptual separation in practice, have you noticed how nearly every IT organisation structures itself for its own benefits rather than its customers?

Within the business you’ll find customer service, finance, sales & marketing etc and yet IT will have a team of business analysts, a team of developers, testers and so on. When a marketing-led project needs to be kicked off, who do they work with? Well they don’t “work” with anyone. They ask for a project. Wait while it’s created. Wait while IT says there’s no resource. Wait while analysts and developers and testers migrate off their current work. Wait while the team gets itself ready to get working. Wait while the team ask all the same questions everybody else asked. And then, maybe, they’ll start work.

I’m not a fan of small IT teams inside business units (although I can see why business units are) because they go native and forget about the bigger company-wide picture. A company doesn’t succeed just because marketing can launch a promotion in three minutes, it succeeds because marketing can launch a promotion quicker that the competition and have finance on board with good controls to back it up, and customer service on board to keep the customers happy and informed, and so on.

IT needs to be coordinated in a manner that meets the needs of the whole business and each specialism needs to work in a consistent way (development standards etc) and let’s not forget many activities exist beyond or across projects operational acceptance testing and support for example.

So IT is better off as IT.

But why not structure it so that inside it looks like the business? Why not have a marketing IT team inside IT? That way each department has a team of known people, who know them, to talk to about ideas. They’ll always be working on marketing projects so new projects can be added to a kind of agile backlog. The business unit can then determine the priorities themselves. Each team can have its own development environments and unit test resources. There’s nothing to stop technical staff migrating between teams to give them a bit of variety and spread the knowledge around. There’s also has an architectural advantage because the best technology landscape strategically is one that looks like the business - there’s a real eat-your-own-dog-food element in play when a developer knows that they’ll have to live with today’s design decisions through the next wave of business demands - tactical short-cuts cease to look so appealing. And because IT has one boss, cooperation, standards, consistency and optimal resourcing isn’t any more of a challenge than usual.

And there’s another advantage to this kind of arrangement - maintaining relationships (he said, deftly linking his intro with his summary). If IT can create a sense of being in constant communication with the business then conversations are easily picked up and continued. There’s none of that stop-start clumsiness to break up a good friendship. And even though things will go wrong from time to time the relationship will more than likely weather the ups and downs because as Donkey said in Shrek “friends forgive each other”.