Friday, October 26, 2012

Bring Your Back End Forward

Since the late 1990s there has been an explosion of popularity in the United States for the National Football League, or "NFL".  Previous to that time, the game was very popular but people tended to gravitate towards and support only their favorite team.  Then along came Fantasy Football - a concept where a group of 10-12 people could get together to form a "league".  At the beginning of the season each person drafts a team, most usually a squad of players selected from multiple teams.  As an example, I play Fantasy Football, and this year my team looks like this:
  • Quarterback - Tony Romo, Dallas
  • Running Back 1 - Darren McFadden, Oakland
  • Running Back 2 - Ahmad Bradshaw, New York
  • Flex Back - Michael Turner, Atlanta
  • Wide Receiver 1 - DeMaryius Thomas, Denver
  • Wide Receiver 2 - Hakeem Nicks, New York
  • Tight End - Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta
  • Kicker - Sebastian Janikowski, Oakland
  • Defense/Special Teams - Minnesota Vikings
Why bring up Fantasy Football in this blog, you might ask?   It's because the list I show you above reflects just one person in each area when there are at least 10 others on the field at the same time helping them to be successful. 

In an IT organization, like a football team, there are a number of individuals who are almost completely invisible that are always contributing to solution.  The label within IT for these types of individuals is usually "back office" or "back-end" staff.

Perhaps the most significant strategic administrative task a CIO has is to create an organizational structure that is aligned to the needs of the company.  In almost every case there are positions in the org that are "no-brainers".  You always need heads of infrastructure, applications, and project management.  You usually need heads of customer support, security, and web support.  What I find most interesting is that most organizations that I have seen have back-end data management buried within either Infrastructure or Applications.  What is back-end data management, you might ask?  This area and the people within it are highly technical individuals who deal with the basic structure of data (database admins), reports, SQL developers, and application-specific data architects like BASIS admins in the SAP world.

There is nothing inherently wrong with putting these resources within more "strategic" functions like Applications or Infrastructure.  Most CIOs are comfortable with this arrangement because they see back-end data management as just "bits and bytes" and not worthy of the strategic input of a senior executive.  The problem with this approach, if there is one (and I think there is), lies in what the CIO misses by not having (or naming) an overall back-end data management leader AND elevating that position as a direct report. 

If you've seen any of the "Matrix" movies, the protagonist Neo, could see the world as it truely was.  Where others saw normal reality, Neo saw existence as a computer program that he could manipulate.  Of course, this gave him what appeared to others as super powers. The back-end data personnel have the same view of what is happening within the IT systems they support.  Problems that manifest within applications, email, or desktops are visible to the "tekkies" in ways that others don't or can't see.  I don't know how many times I have seen a technical person solve a problem in minutes where a functional counterpart may have floundered for hours before reaching resolution.

By having a direct linkage to my most technical personnel I can pick up on problems often before they manifest to the user community.  I also gain a perspective on how to manage IT that incorporates a more pure form of reality.  In a way it's how I stay ahead of the game - it's how I become the proactive CIO and not just a break-fix specialist.  Another way to put it is that I can manage like a *vaccine* rather than an *antibiotic*.

Like Fantasy Football, you can manage with and through the people who score the touchdowns, or in the case of IT the people who act and speak to the user community in the mainstream.  But unless you build and strengthen your relationships in the "bowels" of your shop, it's not likely that you will be that elite CIO who can handle an IT shop with complete aplomb.

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