Adam Levin did not start out in IT. Following his compulsory military service in South Africa, he spent three years in catering as a chef, followed by the almost obligatory travel through Europe – the first stage in a rapid move onto the world stage of IT management, and the issues that that level of control brings.
It is, in fact, what he describes as a “journey of change”.
It was in Europe he first entered the world of IT — from the bottom, on a help desk for an engineering firm working with oil rigs in the North Sea.
“I moved through service and support,” he says. “I did tech courses and got certifications, first in DOS systems and then moving into Windows. I returned to South Africa, still in support roles.”
But it wasn’t long before he found his niche in project management.
“I was passionate about customer service, and I was looking at the IT side of business.” And it is his positive approach to those two areas of primary concern that many IT people struggle with – the business and the customers – which has allowed him to move rapidly in his profession.
His next move was to Australia, joining a manufacturing firm with a small IT department. Quickly, he moved on again, this time joining IT consulting firm Regal as a project manager in 2003. It was from here that he met up with his current employer, and continued his “journey of change” to a global management role.
Late in 2005 he joined Stryker, one of the world’s largest medical technology companies, as head of its IT department for Australia and New Zealand. Stryker supplies a range of medical and surgical products such as reconstructive, orthopaedics, neurotechnology and spinal equipment. Headquartered in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in the US, it has more than 21,000 employees, sells into more than 100 countries, has manufacturing and R&D locations worldwide, and US$8.3 billion in annual sales. It set up operations in Australia in 1985, and has grown locally to more than 350 employees serving ANZ.
In 2006, the company had implemented a JD Edwards ERP system throughout the ANZ region – five Australian state offices and one in Auckland. Each of these were running independent servers and DAS storage. Problems arose with updating and delivery of applications to users, particularly those in the field, and the need for centralised storage of all core data.
“The two core problems we faced with the new ERP system were firstly, how do we perform updates to the application without taking down the system and taking users off-line? And secondly, how could we deliver the application to remote users on a variety of devices that were just starting to appear on the market? We also needed to centralise all storage from all offices to a central location via a SAN,” says Levin. “At the time, there were few choices available to solve the delivery issue.”
The company issued an RFT for a Citrix implementation, and the firm that won the tender was his previous employer, Regal.
“We were clear about it being an open tender; we kept a pragmatic approach throughout, and, to ensure there were no issues, my manager was involved at all times. Regal is pretty much a MS and Citrix house, so the fit was good.”
The consultants recommended Citrix XenApp as the on-demand application delivery solution. This centralised the JD Edwards application on a virtualised set of HP servers in Stryker’s head office in Sydney and allowed tailored access to more than 150 Stryker users spread around ANZ with a wide variety of devices including desktops, notebooks and, recently, iPads and smartphones. In all, six Citrix servers are used in the head office, which allows for the remote offices to connect to the Citrix environment via WAN connectivity.
It was this responsibility that led to Levin’s role as infrastructure manager, with responsibilities for WAN administration, telecoms, JDE and the service desk. Importantly, it also meant interfacing with the corporate regional office in Hong Kong and then the US head office.
“Stryker was in the process of recognising itself as a global organisation, rather than an agglomeration of localised operations,” Levin explains. “There was a need to change how we do business, especially in the back office. We did an IT survey with Hackett to see how to improve IT delivery, and consequently IT was the first division to implement global change.
There were several key points to the change to a global mentality. Along with an acceptance that a regional structure was no longer appropriate, it was also clear that a manager could be located in a different country to some particular operations.
“I put my hand up”, Levin says. Consequently, he was promoted to associate director, global IT infrastructure, becoming responsible for MS, virtualisation, Citrix, cloud, a standardised/common platform, products, applications and operating systems.
The concept brought benefits to the company, he says, through improvements to processes, “but there was a significant amount of work; don’t underestimate it”.
He currently has a team of 33 in 16 different countries, speaking 10 different languages.
“Time zone differences can be difficult, and travel is a contentious cost.” Which is why he says that telephone, video and email are key communications media of choice. “Telephone is the most common, but with that you can’t always tell how your message is going over without seeing someone.”
And thereby hangs a particular issue for the global IT manager.
“Managing remotely is a challenge. There are important cultural issues. Emails are bad enough with people in the same country, with the same background and culture. Dealing with other cultures means there is a great potential for misinterpretation.
“It’s important to have an awareness of cultural differences. For instance, you have to make sure people understand that they should not be afraid to ask questions. Most conversation is in English, which might be an issue for some. And not everyone is going to be capable of being able to manage the business without someone looking over their shoulder; not everyone is a self-starter.
“It’s therefore vital to have people contact. A lot of IT people hide behind their computers, building apps and mechanisms. I’d prefer to be in the same room to talk issues, face to face, ‘tell me your problems’.” But that’s not always possible for someone with a global responsibility. “I then let them know they should get on the phone to me to discuss any issues. They’re not alone, and I have to make sure they don’t feel that way.”
Maintaining that level of contact means working from 6.30am to 11pm some days, not to mention the occasional 3am phone call. This is challenging sometimes, but it’s outweighed by the opportunities the company offers.
The business interface
The position he has taken on is business IT leader. “I’m the interface between the business and IT.”
As Stryker’s globalisation strategy continues, so too Levin’s role is still developing.
“We’re not all the way there yet; it is difficult to be that business person and not to be technical.” The characterisation of IT management as IT handyman is not uncommon.
“Certainly there is still a “break/fix” attitude to IT rather than the value you can contribute. This is the challenge ... to show value. You often find yourself in a reactive position rather than proactive – it works out at about a 70/30 split. I’m trying to shift that percentage by making changes gradually. We try to free up people, and create an environment where they can be innovative and strategic. We like to give them a break, give them some time to think of new ideas, but it can be difficult to give them such an opportunity all the time.”
It’s also hard to have a seat at the top table, he says. “To establish that more strategic position and input, we need to set better metrics to have relevance to the board and C-level managers, and that doesn’t just mean uptime. It includes staff turnover, value provision, meeting agreed ROIs.”
And what makes it all worthwhile – the long hours, the cultural and communication issues, and the need to prove the value and strategic contribution of IT?
“It’s passion, in what we do as an organisation and the role we play in society. As a supplier of essential medical and surgical devices and technology, the company provides a great benefit to community, so it gives you a sense of fulfilment to be part of that.”