Dream IT departments do exist

As part of a programme to get to know our readers better, Computer Weekly staff spent time recently shadowing IT chiefs in their...

As part of a programme to get to know our readers better, Computer Weekly staff spent time recently shadowing IT chiefs in their departments. Here is one set of reflections.

If you listen to IT suppliers, you would think that IT departments are working under a black cloud right now. Although it may be true that some IT departments have made cut-backs, I was lucky enough to follow an IT chief around a department which is sparking with innovations.

The company is a small- to medium-sized enterprise with 500 employees and a high annual turnover. It is a relatively specialist, high-tech manufacturer and an early adopter of technology.

As an international company with remote sites, its IT department needs to look at the latest ways of communicating. Consequently the average week for the head of IT is heavily concerned with discovering new ways "to advance the business strategically". He says a major goal is to work smarter with cost savings a motivation for only "half of the time".

Besides ensuring that helpdesk, hardware, software development and R&D worked well together, the bulk of the IT head's projects concern making improvements in the company's IT infrastructure.

These include tendering for a £300,000 billing system; evaluating Voice over IP alongside data in a wireless environment; setting up a network-attached storage system; and keeping an eye on a new SAP system installed by the finance department.

On the downside his biggest headache is negotiating with telecoms providers. "You never deal with the same person twice," he says. Maintaining a private branch exchange, which can only be worked on by the supplier's staff and requires second-hand phones costing £450 each, is the other bane of his life.

The department head did not begin his career in IT. Likewise, most of the staff heading up the subsections have engineering and electronics backgrounds.

What sets the head of IT apart is his ability to negotiate. Again and again people say he is a "very good", "streetwise" and "robust" contract negotiator with suppliers, known to spend all day working through contract points and "tying vendors in knots".

If the head of IT is characterised by his ability to deal robustly with the outside world, his lieutenants are endowed with a quality which suits them to their task.

The head of the helpdesk is strong in people skills. His modern management style initially reminded me of TV's David Brent from The Office with his comment, "We have a no-blame culture. Where there would be blame we turn it into a learning point. People feel bad enough about making a mistake as it is". But then he is running a small, young team of in-house trained staff. His background is as a technical writer and trainer.

On the technical side the heads of R&D and hardware can be described as enthusiasts. The hardware manager comes across as "king of the computer room" when in his domain.

His role centres on managing his team, which looks after the network and hardware, in a way that allows them to come up with ideas. The priority is to keep up with technology advances and to stay supported in an environment based on three-year upgrade cycles. This amounts to almost constant change given that cycles overlap.

This particular "king" is not on the throne for life though - he has held a number of similar posts in the past and sees his career as a succession of roles where he goes in, improves things and moves on.

If anything, constant change characterises this particular IT department and their working lives are typified by a succession of new, interesting projects.

It wasn't quite what I, as a journalist who writes about IT, expected. I wonder if they have any vacancies?

Read more on IT for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME)