After Hours

10 of the biggest IT sand traps

Many of the issues plaguing IT departments can be mitigated or sidestepped altogether. Here are some ways to deal with several common pitfalls.

IT faces challenges on a daily basis. But most experienced IT'ers have learned to avoid the worst sand traps so they can prevent time and energy drains. What are today's biggest IT sand traps — and what best practices can you use to circumvent them?

1: Uncooperative users

Uncooperative users are still out there, as they have been through the years. Most don't cooperate out of fear of a new application — or because of a comfort level with a present application that they don't want to give up. It is important for IT to remember that when it changes an application, it also changes a person's daily workflow. This can be disconcerting, even for younger users. The key is to engage users in application dialogues at the very beginning. Involve them in early app design and prototyping so they already know and buy into how the app is going to work before it is ever plugged into production.

2: Unhelpful users

Unhelpful users are trickier to work with because they frequently come in the guise of "helpful" individuals who cross a threshold when they become too helpful. They offer reams of tweak suggestions for apps and never want to accept an app as being complete for a given release. Enhancement creep of this nature introduces risk into IT project deadlines. The best way to deal with it is to establish firm cutoffs for app development and enhancement cycles that everyone agrees to.

3: Lack of tool integration

Everyone talks about cloud, mobile computing, and the blurring of lines between computing platforms. But vendors of infrastructure software don't necessarily make managing across a diverse environment easier. Each vendor wants you to use its own toolset for management, and it isn't always clear which tools are subordinate to other software infrastructure management tools.  Consequently, it becomes difficult to fit everything into an "uber" infrastructure solution where you really can see everything through a single pane of glass. The best thing for IT to do is to require prospective tool vendors to show what application programming interfaces (APIs) they have that work with other management software. The APIs can be tested with other software in a proof of concept (POC) before buying. Finally, avoid the use of homegrown tools that don't readily interface with anything on the market.

4: Platform loyalty

IT's strength is its technical know-how. This know-how is accumulated over the years and becomes a career calling card for most IT professionals. Unsurprisingly, the sledding can get rough when someone who has worked on say, UNIX, for 20 or 30 years, is told to move to a Linux environment.

One way to ease the transition (if it is necessary) is to introduce these individuals to the new platform and provide the training and support they need for the crossover. If they're adamantly opposed to the change, there might be an opportunity for them to move into a maintenance role for systems that will continue to run on the old platform. If you can't provide that role, as a last resort you might have to encourage them to seek employment elsewhere — in a shop that continues to use the platform they want to work on. In all cases, it is best to address these platform loyalty cases immediately and upfront, before resentment (and even lack of cooperation in projects) begins to set in.

5: Poor project management

Despite new project management techniques and tools, project management remains a weak area in IT. There are several reasons for it: a failure to cross-communicate across the project; the failure of project managers to "walk around" and really check out first-hand the status of work (besides just seeing the updates on a project tracking chart); and a breakdown of communications between the IT and the end user sides of the project team.

The best way to ensure great results in projects is to make projects smaller (and therefore more manageable), to encourage (and enforce) open communications, and to use collaborative project management tools that are now available in the market. It is equally important to perform post mortems of all project work — to learn what went right and what could have been done better on each project — and to take that knowledge into future projects.

6: Lack of documentation

Documentation isn't stressed in IT, which makes it a weak link in most IT work. No wonder most IT departments report that upward of 50 percent of their time is consumed in app maintenance. Less time would be spent in maintenance if documentation of what the original app was doing (along with history of maintenance already performed) had been done. Two ways to combat this are the adoption of new app development software that automatically documents work and a build-in of project time for app documentation and QA of the doc.

7: Poor data quality

The best technology in the world isn't going to change duplicate customer records with misspelled addresses or incomplete phone numbers. For data already on record, data deduplication can be used to ferret out duplicate records before they are stored or archived to disk. For new data, better field edits in applications can improve the quality of data that is being entered into data repositories.

8: Jargon

IT (like other technical disciplines) can become so comfortable using acronyms and jargon that it doesn't realize that it is using these terms with business users who might not understand them. This can generate communications breakdowns or even intimidation in relationships. IT can avoid this by stressing (and if necessary, training) IT staffers who work with end users to avoid these specialized terms and to stick with plain English.

9: Unrealistic deadlines

The pace of business is relentless and quick. As usual, IT gets pushed into accepting project deadlines that are too aggressive for the work that needs to be done. When this happens, IT delivers incomplete projects that are missing key pieces that subsequent enhancement cycles must handle. This is okay if the business is in total agreement with the approach. (In fact, it has worked very well in some areas, such as marketing.) However, if there is a governance/security issue, or if the app is required to be both complete and thoroughly tested, it is IT's responsibility to tell business management what the effort will take, how long it will take, and what the risks are if the effort is not undertaken.

10: Lack of people skills

IT continues to come up short in soft skill areas. CIOs should recognize this by budgeting for and providing people skills training to key IT contributors — and they should up the ante by soliciting feedback from end users on the quality of IT interpersonal communications.

Other sand traps?

What issues have been a problem for you during your IT career? Share your experiences and advice with other TechRepublic members.

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Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...

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