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Optimize IT operations with better staff management

IT operations and process controls expert Gene Kim discusses a common IT operations fatigue issue and offers advice on how to fix it.

Does this sound like a familiar IT department staffing issue: I am surrounded by really smart people, yet we can't seem to break out of reactive mode. How can I break free and be seen as an "A" player and strategic business driver rather than a roadblock?

Kevin Behr, president and founder of the Information Technology Process Institute, and I have been studying high-performing organizations for eight years. We have come to call this the "Brent Syndrome," and the above question sounds like a Brent question.

Every organization has a Brent; Brent is typically one of the smartest employees in the IT department and is often the only person who knows how to fix the really severe outages or service degradations. As a result, he is often seen as the IT hero. Moreover, he is simultaneously assigned to a lot of strategic projects that only Brent can do. Yet he isn't able to complete them because he is constantly consumed by urgent break/fix work. This eventually results in the delay of strategic projects, making Brent look like a roadblock to everything the business cares about. Seems unfair to Brent, doesn't it?

Brent syndrome leads to IT staff fatigue
The problem is that organizations become so reliant on their Brent that he hasn't been able to take a vacation for four years and every weekend he is held hostage to a pager that alerts him at random times that something has gone wrong. This most often results in a phone call asking him to come fix something that only Brent knows how to fix. All the people I know who are like Brent would rather be working on new and interesting projects instead of repairing unstable applications that the rest of the organization can never find time to fix. And these are the projects that could really help achieve the greater organizational goals as well!

Visible Ops is the culmination of eight years of studying high-performing IT organizations. It codifies what these organizations did to be more effective, efficient and secure than their peers and shares with others the path these IT shops took to become great. Specifically, organizations that leverage Visible Ops to transform from good to great (or not-so good to great) learn to get the most of their most constrained resource: Brent.

Visible Ops helps IT organizations take all the steps necessary to protect Brent and only bring issues to him that are dire emergencies. To do so, IT operations must codify what is in Brent's head, integrating that knowledge into incident management and restoration procedures so the organization can do things without Brent there every day.

Fixing systemic problems in IT operations
One of the biggest surprises from our Visible Ops research is the extent of the culture change when there is decreased reliance on Brent. There are still outages that only Brent can fix. But in these situations, the operations people never let Brent touch a keyboard because Brent can make changes that no one can explain or reproduce. If possible, they ask Brent, "tell me what to type" and have someone else address the issue. If Brent must fix the issue himself, they make sure they have monitoring in place, as Brent will often enter a trance-like state, make the fix and re-emerge with no memory of the changes he made.

This brings value to Brent, who finally gets to work on strategic, exciting projects without being dragged into daily break/fix activities. And the business gains value in the form of fewer outages, faster service restoration and more strategic projects completed by Brent. The organization knows its projects are completed all because of Brent and the end result is that he is seen by the business as an "A" player.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Gene Kim is the lead researcher for the IT Process Institute (ITPI) and CTO and co-founder of change and configuration management controls company Tripwire.

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