Project Management

In someone else's shoes: One CIO's learning experience

Filling in for missing team members opened this CIO's eyes to some of the issues that go on under his radar.

My team has been short-staffed for a while now due to the departure of our database administrator and our web person leaving for a few weeks for maternity leave. Since these two positions backed each other up, having both people gone has been a real strain. Fortunately, our new database administrator started recently, so we're getting him up to speed. During the time in which this position-and its backup-went unfilled were very eye opening events for me.

I've spent a few weeks now working multiple jobs-handling the critical issues that used to go to our database administrator, handling critical web site issues, and trying to stay on top of the "CIO work" that, in theory, needs to get done, too. Quite frankly, because of the time of the year-classes started at the end of August-the CIO work went to the bottom of the list in favor of a slew of very time-sensitive demands placed on the IT department as the result of major non-IT summer events that required huge assistance from the entire IT staff while also taxing our resources. This was all on top of losing multiple people from the department and training some other new people that joined the team over the summer. So, all in all, the last couple of months have been... insane.

Although things have been a bit out of control lately, I've learned a whole lot in recent weeks that will help me become a better CIO and to better frame our long-term priorities. First, I relearned what it's like to man-not manage-a help desk. Sure, I did do some managing of the help desk as far as assigning tickets, but more often than not, I spent large swaths of time on handling trouble tickers that would have previously been sent to people in currently vacant positions. As a result, I have a much better view of the kinds of requests that are coming into these people. As I work with my team on developing a longer-term plan for technology, this kind of information really helps me to better target our efforts. For example, we're working on a business process improvement project designed to help people across the Westminster College campus do their jobs more efficiently in order to reduce, or at least stabilize, burgeoning workloads. As a result of my deeper foray into daily operations, I have a much better view of our current situation. In short, some parts of it are a mess. Although I knew before my database person left that we had some data challenges to face, I've now discovered first-hand the sheer scope of the problem. More importantly, I have a better understanding of the root causes. While not an insurmountable problem, my new understanding of the scope helps me to better define a framework for future process changes so that we can avoid these kinds of problems later on. Beyond developing cool new stuff, we also need to fix the current quagmire, too.

On the web front, I've been handling a lot of the content work for our web site, although I did happily ship some off to a former employee that expressed an interest in some contract work. On this side of the house, I have been able to get a better look at exactly what kinds of tasks my web developer was doing. In addition to making enhancements to our web site in an effort to market ourselves better to prospective students, she has been handling all sorts of content update tasks for many, many people on campus. Again, I knew she was doing content updates for some people-for example, IT handles web content for our own group as well as for the Academic group-but a number of updates came into our support request system that really confused me. Why, for example, was IT posting jobs for HR on the web site? After some discussion with others on campus, I've learned a couple of things: 1) We need to do more training on managing content is SharePoint 2007; 2) Some web management tasks are simply too complex and need to be refined. One of our tasks in the short-term will be to provide more complete training for people on campus so that they can handle their own web updates. In fact, this morning, I spent 15 minutes showing our HR Director how to post jobs on our site using a nifty form that our web developer had created before her temporary departure. Now, people don't need to wait on us to get jobs posted on the web. HR can do it immediately so there is little or no lag. An easy form took the complexity out of the equation. We need to extend this training and simplicity to many, many more people on campus. When we chose SharePoint 2007 for our new content management system, one of the deciding factors was the ability for anyone to make content changes for their own areas. As a result of my experience in the past few weeks, I'm more prepared than ever to make that goal a priority and free up the web developer to develop!

Data management and the web are critical components in almost every IT organization. I've been fortunate to have very good staff in these positions in my shop; people who did whatever it took to get the job done. While I had a general sense of the challenges faced by the people in these jobs, my appreciation for their efforts and for their challenges has risen to a whole new level. My level of understanding about the challenges we face as a campus with regard to these issues has also risen greatly. As I work on a campus-wide business process improvement effort, this understanding will play a valuable role in tempering expectations and making sure that the solutions we develop are truly sustainable.

About

Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive w...

6 comments
rackerman
rackerman

Scott, Right on! Good to wear someone elses shoes every now and then. They might not fit all the time but it sure is a good way to take a temperaure of your support opperation. The best training money I ever spent was for the AmerIT Learning Center's Apollo 13 Simulation workshop - that will open some eyes as to who and how well people can adapt and fit into different support positions. It also covers strategy and contingency planning ala ITIL. These guys are in Folsom, CA

MidwestITLady
MidwestITLady

Although I applaud your willingness to work in the trenches and understand the value that you gained from it, I also feel that you should be able to count on your staff to communicate challenges and areas for improvement. As managers, we can't spend time in everyone's job on a rotating basis. I encourage my staff to be insightful and identify areas for improvement not only in their own jobs, but also in the jobs of the users they support. It could involve process improvement or training, not just a technical solution. I think that is a value that IT workers in general bring to a company, and not just the CIO/VP/Director.

stevengirardpalmer
stevengirardpalmer

Scott, you received that "opportunity", which was the biggest future opportunity for your staff and you. Find a way to repeat that exposure and you'll be the top CIO there or elsewhere for many years. Hint: turn the opportunity around sometime by exposing your key staff to your days. That will lead to heightened understanding everywhere. Steve CIO, OptHome www.opthome.com

lastchip
lastchip

you really aught to do the same at least once a year and so should everyone else in the "top jobs". It's the *only* way for sure, you can understand the intricacies that are essential to truly run the business efficiently. Good on you.

BrannenT
BrannenT

Wow a CIO who gets his hands dirty. Kudos.

sdan
sdan

One of the practices I found quite helpful, as you have pointed out, was to spend time in the trenches. I made it a point to work shoulder to shoulder with the hands on personnel, in some capacity, each week. E.g. this week, in addition to my Director, VP or CIO duties, I would work a NOC shift, or work an afternoon as a DBA or Network Engineer, etc. Once per month I would cycle through each department and modality. As your article pointed out quite well, this enabled me to really know what was going on, what processes needed to be improved, what code was hinky, was infrastructure needed to be optimized, etc. It also enabled me to deeply understand and know the strengths, weaknesses and capabilities of my workforce. Your article has excellent observations and recommendations.

Editor's Picks