Starting from scratch - the SMB CIO

The role of CIO is usually associated with large companies with lots of technology and several IT staff. But that's not always the case.

As well as writing about technology, I'm also a practitioner. I'm a contract CIO and work with several clients, assisting them with their technology management issues. Recently I was asked to come in to a manufacturing business and review the IT. I entered the meeting, having done some preparation, with a checklist of things I wanted to know around governance, budgeting, technology platforms, staffing, support and current issues.

I won't go into the details but I found a business that had never given its IT much thought. The "server" handled the main financial system, file and print sharing. It was sitting on an old coffee table under a stair well behind the reception desk. Thankfully, it was connected to a UPS. The network was held together by a 16-port switch that was full. A second, consumer-grade 8-port switch was added along with a single consumer wireless access point. Backups were manual.

Reliability was poor with the CEO and CIO noting that performance and system availability were both significant problems. Systems were supported by a technician that was called in on an "as needs" basis who came as soon as he could when there was a problem. However, there was no guarantee he'd be there fast if something failed to the point where orders or invoices couldn't be raised. 

All of this sounds might like a technology disaster in the making but I suggest that most CIOs can find parts of the infrastructure they're entrusted with that aren't up to scratch.

After talking with the CEO and CIO, I went home and gave the business some thought and came up with the following.

The business is growing fast and you have system reliability problems. The two don't go well together. The initial focus needs to be on getting things reliable first. Performance and growth will come next but getting the basics in place is the first priority.

A dedicated place for the server, comms gear, firewall and other core systems has to be set aside. There's no point buying any new gear until you have place to put it.

Once the foundation is addressed we can then look at what's next like mobile ordering for the sales guys, getting better performance from the accounting system and remote access can be done.

Finally, there needs to be a long term management and support plan. At the moment, there are only about 20 users in the 80 staff but that's expected to grow quickly as the business is expanding. For now, a managed services provider is probably best but once the business hits a critical mass, a more permanent, in house IT person will be needed.

Most CIOs look at the systems they are responsible for and wonder what it would be like to start over and build everything with the benefit of hindsight. It seems like I might just get the chance to do that.

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