Diary of an IT director: Tom Ranalli (Thursday)

In this installment of his daily IT diary, IT Director Tom Ranalli meets with an IT business consultant to discuss ROI. Later, he wrestles with a redesign of his company's Web site.

This week, IT Manager Republic will feature the daily diary of Tom Ranalli, director of IT for Lyon & Lyon, an intellectual property law firm in Los Angeles.

6:05 A.M.
No problems appeared overnight, if the morning e-mail can be relied upon. I browse some articles in the newest edition of one of my business magazines. There was one of particular interest: how the proliferation of wireless data devices is adding to the spread of viruses. I put that to the side for later in-depth reading, since I don’t quite know where the author is going with this.

Read what you missed!
Get caught up on this week’s diary: Monday: Working and commuting
Tuesday: System upgrade woes
Wednesday: Working with consultants

I decide to watch Senator Jim Jeffords’ live announcement of his changing political parties. Politics is one of those subjects that fascinates me, and I have come to appreciate the value of being politically savvy as an IT manager. IT managers, especially new ones, foreswear becoming political. I feel if you do that, you may be putting yourself at a serious disadvantage. You cannot be above politics or remain purposely ignorant of the political environment in your organization and still maximize your effectiveness.

8:45 A.M.
I arrived late today, thanks to Congressman Jeffords’ long-winded speech. On the commute, I found out that our East Coast circuit remains problematic, but it isn’t causing any real issues. In fact, our admin checked the logs and determined that the network device reporting the problems has been doing so for a long time. At this point, I don’t know why these logs haven’t been checked on a regular basis, as I’ve directed.

I also discovered that another project of which IT has recently assumed control has run into a few snags. The records department has been trying to implement a computerized records management system for a year and a half now. IT was only peripherally involved in the project, but I volunteered to project manage that one as well since the attorneys are getting impatient for its completion. The snags aren’t insurmountable—we’re looking at Tuesday for another review.

9:25 A.M.
The admin assigned to work with the financial system consultant briefed me on their progress so far. We agree that an 11:00 A.M. meeting is in order to get an overview of what the consultant has found and what his recommendations are.

10:10 A.M.
I get an e-mail from the business case consultant to confirm our meeting for this afternoon. I respond that I’ve been struggling with the metrics side of the equation, suggesting a lot of the benefit of upgrading is more qualitative than quantitative. She agrees this is a compelling point and something we will discuss today.

It is easily argued that faster systems yield faster results, and in many environments, this translates to material savings. However, a law firm’s key product is the written word—computers are certainly superior to typewriters for speed, but the ultimate bottleneck is the typing speed of the writer. Again, how do we put numbers to this?

11:00 A.M.
We get good news from the financial system consultant. He tells us our operating system is in good shape, with some minor changes needed. We also find out our database software is operating properly. It seems the cause of the bottlenecks we’ve been experiencing are twofold. First, the fact that we are getting our DNS outside of the firm slows down the start-up process, so we created a local hosts file on the UNIX server to speed up DNS resolution. Second, the processes table is overfilled with orphaned process handles; this is a design flaw of the financial software. The reason we’re only now seeing this problem is because the person who was responsible for routinely clearing out the table left the finance department at the beginning of the year on adverse terms—so it appears he conveniently forgot to document the maintenance tasks he performed or even tell his coworkers.

With a generally clean bill of health for our system, I begin to make arrangements with the vendor of the software for the rescheduled upgrade. I also plan to get an answer to the burning question: Why did it take an outside consultant, instead of the vendors, to tell us why our system was performing so poorly?

1:10 P.M.
I spend quite a bit of time back on the business case document in preparation for my meeting with the consultant. I complete a working outline and include some useful content, but the big unknowns are the ROI figures. I’m sure I can piece together something if I need to, but I prefer to see if anyone else has developed these metrics.

2:30 P.M.
I decide I’ve done as much as I can in preparation for my meeting with the consultant, so I turn my attention to doing updates for our Internet site. The marketing department has been busy creating biographies for all of our attorneys and collecting their photos for the Web site, so I start working on that.

Like a lot of small companies, our original Web site was designed and hosted in-house. (This was a couple of years ago, prior to my arrival). Subsequent to that, management decided to have an outside firm redesign the site completely. The first thing they did was to move the Web hosting to the new designer’s server. Then they spent several months “in committee” trying to work out an acceptable design. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but that is one thing that should not be done by committee. When I finally came into the scene and took over the redesign from the departing marketing coordinator, the existing prototypes were absolutely horrendous. The new “logo” alone looked like exactly what it was, a picture designed by a number of strongly opinionated people.

I immediately fired the Web designers, brought the hosting back onsite, and hired a talented group of Internet experts who immediately got “it”—the look and feel I had pictured in my mind. The designers had the Web site completed on time and within the budget and then without any fanfare, we released it to the general public. I’ve been maintaining it ever since then. It’s not the best site out there by any means, but I’ve seen worse—a lot worse.

3:20 P.M.
Just as I’m preparing for my 3:30 meeting, an associate walks in my office bearing a grocery bag containing a large number of cassette tapes (as in the audio kind, except they are data tapes). He asks me if we had the equipment or could rent the equipment to read the data on them. Of course, I ask a few basic questions, such as the type of computer used to generate the tapes. He doesn’t know anything. They could be from a TI or Radio Shack computer or perhaps some homegrown Heathkit circa 1978; who knows? I express my lack of confidence in accomplishing what he has requested of us, especially when he tells me we have a budget of a whole $500 to do this.

3:30 P.M.
The consultant arrives on time and we discuss all the documentation I provided her thus far on my technology forecast/plan. We review my priorities, which she has easily discerned from her review, as well as the internal factors that influenced my earlier documents. One of the things we exchange ideas about, of course, is the ROI numbers and real metrics for predicting those numbers. She lets me know that she may have some supporting material from other sources that would be helpful, so we conclude the meeting with the consultant pursuing that angle. I agree to provide her with our hardware and software inventory databases.

4:50 P.M.
I wrap it up with the consultant and clear out of my office early, this time for an open house at my stepson’s school. Tomorrow, I’ll be getting some final information from the admin that worked with the financial system consultant; on the same project, I’ll pursue discussions with the upgrade manager at the vendor’s location to make sure we are all on the same page.

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