CXO

No one should be indispensable... but sometimes, it happens

Being "one deep" in a critical area is a bad situation for any organization. Learn how one CIO is taking steps to address this deficiency.

In many of the postings that I write, I related stories from other CIOs that I know, and this posting falls into that category.  The CIO in this case works at a small college with a small team that is doing some pretty hard core work.  All business have cycles; around this time of year, IT teams at colleges around the country are in a mad dash to finish summer projects and prepare for a new year of educating eager young minds.

In this case, the IT team in question has been completing a pretty hefty project schedule while preparing for the onslaught.  The team had network projects, phone projects, data projects, classroom projects and PC replacement projects to complete with a total staff of just eight people.  Of course, the CIO in question made heavy use of outside assistance for some of the heavy lifting, but there was still a lot of work involved.

The team in question is also pretty understaffed.  Of course, most IT departments feel the same way, but this team does have one dangerous single point of failure - the DBA.  I've met the DBA and he's a top-notch guy with a fantastic drive to get the job done, but he does tend to push himself.  The CIO of the organization has spent the past year moving some tasks to other members of the department, doing some cross training, and making sure that processes are documented in the event that the worst happens.  The fact remains, however, that the DBA remains the main person through whom many campus processes operate, although documentation of those processes has significant improved under the watch of the current CIO.  The CIO there has also been working to bring on additional staff to alleviate this issue, but has thus far been unsuccessful in making his case mainly because he and his staff are committed to getting the job done.  As a result, no one feels pain, so he's faced challenges in building a business case.  That said, during an extended absence of the DBA last year, the CIO stepped in and handled as best he could the responsibilities of the DBA, so while the situation is difficult, there are mechanisms in place to "keep the lights on" if necessary.  The college in question, like many right now, is facing budget challenges so every penny counts and new positions have to be very carefully considered institution-wide.

I asked the CIO to describe what's changed in IT since he took over a couple of years ago.  He indicated that he had inherited a relatively disrespected IT group, but that the lack of respect was much the fault of IT itself - mainly attitudes.  There was an unwillingness to take on projects that could be of benefit for the fear of increased workload.  While this is certainly a valid concern, he was dismayed to hear that IT was considered "the department that always says no."  From what he told me, the team did basically say no and did not offer alternatives to departments that needed work to be completed - i.e. hiring an outside consultant to complete a task.  In those conditions, it's difficult to gain support for needs.  It's definitely a chicken-and-egg type problem, really.  IT didn't want to take more on until more people were hired, but the institution was reluctant to hire more people into the department.  In my opinion, IT in this case has to take the first step since every department across the organization has demonstrable needs.

From all indications, the current CIO has gained a great deal of support and respect.   A ton of changes have taken place on his watch and these changes do require enhanced support from IT.  He has made major changes to IT staff job responsibilities in an effort to maximize and optimize the output from the department and has also turned over - both voluntarily and involuntarily - half of the IT staff to get people that better matched needs.  He admits, however, that he might have gone overboard in trying to improve customer service and improve IT's image and usefulness to the campus. Of course, he's questioning himself at the busiest and most stressful time of the year and right after his DBA started to suffer medical issues that may or may not be stress related.  His team is truly tired, which is not uncommon for college IT groups in the Fall.

Right now, this CIO is operating with a DBA - a sole DBA - that is having potentially serious medical issues keeping him away from the office.  Fortunately, the CIO isn't a total ogre and wants the DBA to recover for his own sake.  Work will wait and he and his staff will make use of the growing set of documentation to "keep the lights on."

That said, even though efforts have been made to move away from the situation, the DBA does remain a single point of failure in this IT organization.  At the very least, the loss of the DBA will result in a serious slowdown of operations and support while other staff move in to decipher the documentation and assume responsibility for the work.  In this case, it appears as if sincere efforts have been taken, and are underway, to address the single point of failure issue, but it hasn't been able to be totally corrected.  Current economic conditions and budgetary constraints make it difficult to address this need in a more sustainable way.

So, I ask you, TechRepublic reader - what would you do in this situation?

About Scott Lowe

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...

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