Dirty Laundry

Dirty Laundry

Let me speak the unspeakable. For three years I lived a lie.

Now that my job has changed I have the chance to make amends. I used to be an editor who harangued others for their IT failings, all the while knowing that close to home, something was very wrong in Dodge City. These days I'm a CIO charged with using IT to expand the horizons of the company. But here's the rub.

Basically, sometime in the last few years we let our IT infrastructure get away from us. As we grew up we forgot to manage the growth of our information systems to accommodate changing requirements.

Until very recently we supported 12 different versions of six separate operating systems, five variations of two types of browser, four separate e-mail clients and a big smelly bucket of protocol soup across a network that spent more time down than up. Our desktop systems were a weird amalgam of electronic Lego across Macintosh, Intel, AMD and Cyrix hardware and our desktop application standards were viewed by the staff as benchmarks for opportunity, not an enforceable policy.

All this for a company of just 65 people. Madness.

Several months ago we quietly commissioned Ian Yates from Rivercorp, a consultant we knew and trusted, to get into the trenches at IDG and tell us everything we were doing wrong. The result made for some pretty grim reading.

"The existing network crashes frequently for obscure reasons, causing lost productivity in the short-term and a belief amongst the staff that it will never be reliable in the long-term . . . servers are experiencing local bottlenecks as they attempt to move data on and off the network . . . The version of NetWare running on these servers is not currently configured to support dual CPUs so the second CPU is effectively operating as a 40W heater .

. ." And on it went.

How did we ever come to this? Pretty easily really, and the more I've thought about it in recent weeks, the more inevitable this outcome seems.

As Yates said in his report to us: "IDG has a mixture of information technology that has grown up over a number of years with the best intentions but not always with the best results. There does not appear to be any strategic plan in place, and in its absence editors and managers have made ad hoc decisions to solve particular problems as they arose."We made other mistakes too.

We outsourced too much control of our IT support to an external service provider whose influence over our systems grew far beyond the original mandate.

Then we failed to manage that relationship closely enough. We should have queried more of the decisions and we should have rejected some of the solutions out of hand. Worse though, we waited so long to reassert our control that by the time we did our IT set-up had gone bush.

We all share the blame really.

Finance made too many decisions based on short-term bottom-line requirements without due regard for technical considerations. Business line managers treated capital requests as ambit claims and departments bought software without ever thoroughly testing the solutions in our local environment.

At a company meeting to outline my new position, I explained that our plan was to reassert internal control, standardise the environment and then tackle the myriad problems we face.

Afterwards plenty of people said that was a swell idea. But that didn't stop half a dozen of them marching into my office the next day to insist that they were different and obviously required special treatment.

Some people never learn.

Andrew Birmingham is the CIO of IDG Communications. Why not share your pain with him at

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