CXO

Tech leader seeks out automation opportunities to justify IT costs

When faced with justifying the relatively high costs of his IT department, this TechRepublic member found that automating tasks provided the biggest return for his company's tech dollars.


Tim Collins believes that if IT leaders keep the company’s bottom line in mind with every project, it is easier to keep their own departments adequately funded. Justifying the IT budget is an ongoing challenge for Collins because his department stands out as being a relatively large cost center, despite the fact that it has only 25 staff members. IT expenses are higher because its staff salaries are higher, and because the IT department spends more on newer technology than many other companies in the industry, according to Collins.

“We justify our high cost by eliminating job functions,” Collins wrote in a message to the CIO Republic community mailbox. His tactic is to explain to the heads of other departments that programmers can develop solutions to automate many of the mundane tasks their staff performs. “We even go as far as sending our programmers to the different departments to audit them in regard to function-automation possibilities.”

Collins said that the greatest savings is in salary and benefits, but the company also saves money by reducing the need for office space and administrative overhead, such as employee support services and office supplies. Now that department heads have seen the savings possible from automation, they often come to IT with ideas for future projects.

The savings have continued to mount.

“A couple of years ago, we started a running tic count for each position wehave automated, and we’re currently nearing 30,” Collins wrote.

Vital statistics
Name: Tim Collins
Title:
Assistant vice president of Information Systems
Company:
An Ohio-based automobile insurer with more than 400 employees
Years in IT:
Three
Age:
25
Most interesting job:
Automating the duties of a 25-person department
First IT job:
Quality-control representative
Certifications/Education:
Studied accounting at DeVry Institute of Technology
Home page on personal browser:
 www.spaceref.com (“I’m a wanna-be astronomy junkie.”)
Favorite TechRepublic feature:
 Several e-newsletters, especially the Disaster Recovery TechMail and the IT Manager Republic NetNote
Hobbies:
Bowling and golf
Favorite Geek Site:
 www.techrepublic.com


TechRepublic: How did you get started in IT?
Collins: I started in IT about three years ago as a quality-control representative. While doing that, I learned Delphi and got promoted to a full-time programmer. I programmed for about two years, when I was promoted to assistant vice president of IT.

TechRepublic: How many people do you manage?
Collins: There are 25 people in the department now.

TechRepublic: What’s your most memorable IT project?
Collins: The most memorable project was to automate the duties of a 25-person department. That was about 15 percent of the company’s total workforce at the time. We began the project with the ultimate goal of eliminating these positions within six months with a program accuracy level of 95 percent. (We write our programs in Delphi with a DB2 back end.) The functions that we automated were mainly data entry and the creation of memos to our customers.
We implemented the program in stages to allow the department heads to gradually reduce the staff when these program changes proved successful. I couldn't imagine what it was like to be one of this department's employees, but it became really exciting as the program neared its final stages and people could see all that our programming staff could do. Of course now, the program has been taken for granted and hundreds of other features have been added to it, but it surely is a feather in our cap.

TechRepublic: Were you able to quantify how much that project saved your company?
Collins: Well, with the average salary and benefits cost of those 25 employees being around $35,000 per person, it saved the company $875,000 in 2000 and $1.05 million (consistent with employee growth projections) in 2001.

TechRepublic: Did the IT department’s role in eliminating jobs cause any problems?
Collins: I would say that the automation of jobs made us unpopular among the people whose jobs were automated. However, the other departments’ officers loved the idea that we were saving money.

TechRepublic: How have you made the transition to executive-level IT?
Collins: I’ve only been at the executive level three months and am still at the awkward level. This feeling of awkwardness is derived from the fact that everyone below me is better and more knowledgeable at their jobs than I would be. I’m handling this situation by accepting and acknowledging the quality of my staff members’ knowledge and skills. I try to encourage and empower the individuals to be proactive at their jobs and find things that we are currently not using, but which may be helpful to us.
I have also started a small incentive program. We’d had no program of any kind before. This program rewards the individuals who have been proactive and gone outside the scope of their positions to handle certain projects or problems. I have also done other minor things for the employees of my department to boost morale and promote a healthy, happy work environment.

TechRepublic: You rose through the ranks of IT very quickly. Why do you think your company chose you to take on the role of IT leadership relatively early in your career?
Collins: I guess the reason that I moved up so quickly is that I dealt well with the other departments and the owners of the company. Apparently, something about me impressed them. I would say that it was my work ethic and my commitment to keeping my promises.

TechRepublic: Are you still very involved with technology, or is it more business/people skills in your position?
Collins: I wouldn't say very involved. I don't actively seek new technologies or try to learn all the areas of the technology we currently have, but I have to stay abreast of what our technology can and cannot do.

TechRepublic: What's your advice for others in IT who would like to move into upper management?
Collins: Keep your promises. I manage programmers and network administrators, as well as the staff members who work on telecommunications, quality control, data transmissions, and the help desk. On top of that are various meetings and having to deal with vendors—it’s easily enough work to fill 15 hours a day. However, I believe that the impressions we make with the departments that we service make all of the difference.
With all of the different fires that need to be put out every day, I still manage to keep the promises I make. I believe this is the biggest factor to success in the IT field.

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