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How to balance maintenance and IT innovation

Minda Zetlin | Oct. 22, 2013
Many IT leaders admit their spending is too heavily weighted toward keep-the-lights-on projects. Here's how to tip the balance.

Planning Ahead
One thing that makes keeping the lights on much more costly is the need to make unexpected repairs. You can save money — and lead a more pleasant life — if you plan ahead and prepare for system maintenance needs.

For The Reinvestment Fund, a Philadelphia-based community development financial institution that manages $700 million in funds, automatic monitoring of the IT infrastructure's operations has made a huge difference, says CIO Barry Porozni. "Upgrading our monitoring system was one thing that really made an impact," he says. "It probes into applications and devices so we know proactively if email is down — we don't need users to come to us. Same thing with data storage — we're very data-intensive, and it tells us how close we are to running out of space."

The new monitoring system has freed up a lot of time, Porozni says. Previously, he and his staff had to go through a checklist first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening to make sure all systems were functioning well. Adopting the new technology and other steps have helped cut the percentage of the IT budget devoted to keeping the lights on from about 80% to about 70%, he says, and he aims to get it much lower.

For Michael Leeper, director of global technology at Columbia Sportswear, a Portland, Ore.-based outdoor clothing retailer with $1.67 billion in annual revenue, planning ahead also means not doing anything you're likely to regret later. "Hopefully, you've done your homework so you don't have to create short-term solutions just to solve a problem," he says. At the same time, though, he's careful not to turn down requests from business people.

"Inevitably, you have to do something you don't want to do just to make people happy," he says. When that happens, it's important not to leave the quick fix in place, but to go back and improve it. "Once that first [request] is up and running, you start figuring out how to fix it," he says. "We'll show the business what they're asking for, and then go fix it in the background. You don't want to start building on something that's bad."

Planning ahead also applies to projects designed to grow the business, so Leeper and his team are in the habit of piloting new projects before anyone asks for them. "Once the platform's stable and current, the next thing we do is make a small investment in technology we may not need immediately," he says. One example is virtual desktops — Leeper saw that there might be a need for them so he implemented some to learn about them. "Then when the business did come to us, we didn't have to tell them to wait," he says.


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