Without great ops, you have no credibility for innovation efforts.

Jonathan Feldman, CIO, City of Asheville, NC

April 8, 2015

4 Min Read
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It has become almost fashionable to bash internal IT operations as the thing that must always get cut, as opposed to IT innovation efforts that must be nurtured. I'm a little worried about all the bashing. If all internal IT ops are lumped together and discarded, that's bad for business. Some discernment is needed.

Sometimes, IT operations bashing is deserved -- when organizations don't keep up with the times, aren't customer focused, or won't consider adopting new ways of working that are measurably better. But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I feel I can defend "traditional" IT ops, because I have played in both the innovation and operations spaces: everything from ops of public safety technology, where reliability is about 1,000 times more important than minor innovations, to innovation in cloud computing and open data.

I'll share a non-secret: Operational excellence is the underpinning of any successful internal innovation program. Without it, my IT organization wouldn't have the credibility to launch any of the cool things that we do. We would not have the time either. When things are always on fire, there is no time for innovation activities.

Let me be clear about whom I am defending. I am not talking about the "data center union," those who will not admit that there are better ways of doing things. These folks are so busy saying no that they won't take the time to evaluate new options, which today might include using infrastructure-as-a-service, or non-technology imperatives like collaborating more closely with marketing.

I have no time for those folks, and I'll be watching with a certain amount of head-shaking when they plummet off of a cliff of their own making.

I'm defending those practical people who are focused on the rhythmic, trouble-free fulfillment of IT's everyday details: making sure that we have enough capacity before we need it (people on the help desk, for example), ensuring that we responsibly plan before we execute (making sure that we don't cut over a new system before business stakeholders have tested out critical functions), and so on.

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These people are sometimes mistaken for the data center union because they ask difficult questions. But difficult questions are a very different thing from simply saying "no" for no's sake. Innovators: You avoid those difficult questions at your peril.

The most special operations folks are open and ready for change. They just want to make sure that customers will not be harmed after the change happens.

Perhaps a story will convey the reality of how operations folks prevent change-makers from crashing and burning during their perky change-making.

During budget season, when it became obvious that we were going to convert several systems to cloud-based disaster recovery, one of my ops folks pointed out that we really, really should continue on with traditional disaster recovery provisioning of a certain highly-important system. It was extraordinarily tempting to completely de-fund the traditional ways, since de-funding can be an effective strategy to ensure that the staff understands that failure is not an option. Burn your boats! I said.

But she pushed back at me, pointing out the high risks and low benefits of de-funding the traditional disaster recovery system. I relented. The amount of money to be saved simply wasn't worth the risk.

She proved right. The more innovative new cloud way of doing disaster recovery ran into the typical snags. Although we pushed several systems into cloud DR, we encountered delays in moving a highly risky, critical system onto the platform. Had we not funded the traditional way, we would have been without DR protection for a significant period of time. That possibility is totally unacceptable, no matter what the cost.

That's what someone who's good at operations but open to change can do for you. Value that person. Don't bash him or her.

About the Author(s)

Jonathan Feldman

CIO, City of Asheville, NC

Jonathan Feldman is Chief Information Officer for the City of Asheville, North Carolina, where his business background and work as an InformationWeek columnist have helped him to innovate in government through better practices in business technology, process, and human resources management. Asheville is a rapidly growing and popular city; it has been named a Fodor top travel destination, and is the site of many new breweries, including New Belgium's east coast expansion. During Jonathan's leadership, the City has been recognized nationally and internationally (including the International Economic Development Council New Media, Government Innovation Grant, and the GMIS Best Practices awards) for improving services to citizens and reducing expenses through new practices and technology.  He is active in the IT, startup and open data communities, was named a "Top 100 CIO to follow" by the Huffington Post, and is a co-author of Code For America's book, Beyond Transparency. Learn more about Jonathan at Feldman.org.

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