Ask The Secret CIO: IT Rule Of Thumb

Herb answers the ponderous question of how many support staff an IT shop really needs, plus suggests ways to deal with unwanted phone calls without appearing rude.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

December 19, 2001

9 Min Read

A guideline! A guideline! My kingdom for a guideline!

Greetings, Herbert!

There's an issue that keeps coming up again and again over the years. It's the question of how many support people an organization should have to support an office of any given size. Just what is the proper ratio?

I recall seeing some data on this in the past, but can't seem to find anything new, let alone the old stuff.

Years ago, I worked with 10 to 14 people to cover an 800-person office. This worked well considering that 33% to 50% of the office was out at client sites on any given day. This was an environment that had a standard hardware platform and a standard software suite.

Now, I've got a mixed team of eight (50% allocated to other tasking), supporting 120 people. The environment is mixed (PCs and Sun boxes), has a need for special experience with firewalls, virtual private networks, and other types of equipment in a government setting--and the demand for support keeps us hopping!

One of the arguments that has been presented to me is that management is aware of an organization that has 1,000 people, but only one support person. It's very obvious that this one person could not be offering the level of service my team is offering.

However, I know there are some guidelines out there. I just need to find them. I need to find the facts before I'm forced to downsize my team. It's one thing to say that we've got plenty of work to keep the team in high gear. I need to find cold hard facts--guidelines of what an organization should have. Can you help?



Dear D,

I don't know if I can help. Not because the ratios that you seek don't exist, but because they're essentially meaningless. Even though benchmarking against other groups of a similar nature can be useful, it's an exercise that can quickly become an end in itself rather than a tool to improve one's own workplace. Organizations have different needs, and what's important is whether the people who are doing your information technology support are skilled, effective, and efficient. In other words, are they working on the right things, doing their jobs quickly enough, and getting quality results?

Once, I worked for a guy who wanted to know what the proper ratios were for the number of IT support people we should have in my shop. So, like the lemming I was at the time, I spent all sorts of time getting him the information as to what our competition was doing. It required quite a few phone calls with my friends in other companies, but they came through for me, and I wound up with reams of input. After I had gathered all of the data, I spent an entire weekend putting together a summary report of nine companies. I was very proud of myself (almost always a fatal character flaw in a CIO).

The following week, I was able to score a meeting with my not-so-benign leader to discuss the results. He spend about five minutes skimming my report and picked the one party with the lowest ratio (still higher than ours) and announced that he knew the company and that they were overstaffed in their IT organization, according to a friend of his who worked there. Therefore, he concluded, we evidently had too many people. End of meeting.

Just as your boss can find an organization of 1,000 people that has only one support analyst, he or see will be able to find all sorts of reasons to explain why the ratios that you show are either irrelevant or support his preconceived notion. After all, anyone who believes that a 1,000-person organization can be supported with one IT analyst either doesn't want to hear reality or is talking about providing computer help for the permanent residents at a cemetery.

My suggestion is that you write a presentation (please, not fancy PowerPoint--it will just prove that you have too much time on your hands) that shows what percentage of time is spent on which activities by your staff. What is spent on resetting passwords? How about support for word processing or spreadsheets? Computer basics? Network security upgrades?

If your boss has some understanding of the tasks involved in their daily work, then focus on the value, effectiveness, and efficiency of your staff. At that point, the discussion can shift to whether it's possible by training or changes in procedures to cut the efforts on some low-return activities. When your boss has a good understanding of what you do, if it's worthwhile to have a dialog about where other shops spend their time, you'll have a meaningful basis on which to hold that discussion.

Good luck.

I am not paid to do what you suggest


I just finished reading your response in your online column of Nov. 26 (Getting Into The Executive Suite) to the salesperson who doesn't understand why he does not get a call back from CIOs.

As the IT director for a software company, I receive calls every day from salespeople trying to sell me a product. Many just leave a name, company, and phone number and ask me to call them back. I'm paid for the work I do for my employer. I'm not paid to spend half of my day listening to people trying to sell me something I have no interest in.

When did it become rude for me not to return an unsolicited call, but OK for a salesperson to disturb my time?

Just Trying To Do My Job

Dear Just Trying,

We both agree that you are paid to work for your employer. Unless you have much less authority than most IT directors, part of your job is to determine when and what you need in the way of products to run your shop. How can you know you have no interest in what a salesperson is selling without ever returning a phone call?

When salespeople phone, you control when and for how long you speak to them. By letting them know that you're not interested in their products (or that they should be calling someone else in your organization), you'll avoid receiving multiple callbacks. The person on the other end of the line is trying to earn a living, just as you are. Give him or her the courtesy of learning that you're not interested without having to discover it by making repeated phone calls to you.

Perhaps I'm rude, but I don't have the time to talk to return calls

Dear Herbert:

Let me start by saying I really enjoy your column--it's the first thing I look for when InformationWeek shows up in my mailbox. I'm also looking forward to your book.

I must disagree with you, however, in your response to the salesperson who lamented not getting calls returned from the CIO. I'm director of IS for a 140-person nonprofit that for various reasons can look like a high-tech firm (in some ways we are) to an outsider.

I regularly get five-plus calls a day from various salespeople. For a brief time I returned these but rapidly found that I was losing 30-plus minutes a day politely telling them that we weren't interested in their products. In better than half the cases, the person would just not take no for an answer until they'd tried four different forms of their pitch on me. I don't have an executive assistant and my other staff people are even more crazed than I am, so I just don't return the calls now.

Perhaps it's rude, but 30 minutes a day is a really valuable commodity to me and to my company. I should add that cold calls are the ones I don't return--anytime I've contacted the vendor I do return the calls (obviously).

Thanks again for the advice in your columns.


Dear David,

Thanks for your comments about the column. I enjoy writing it and getting letters from the readers.

Being the head of information systems for a nonprofit cannot be easy--too much work, too many people to please, and never enough money or staff. I'm sure it requires a great deal of creativity to do your job. So, let's get creative in how to handle your problem of answering vendors' messages without taking 30 minutes a day or being rude to salespeople who are just trying to earn a living.

Here's how:

Before you go to bed each night, call the salesperson's office number. Unless you're dealing with an incredibly dedicated person, you will get voice mail. Explain to the machine that you're working late but did not want to finish the day without returning his or her call. Next, quickly say that the budget simply doesn't permit you to consider spending money on his or her product now or for the next year. Since you work in a nonprofit, this statement is probably true. If there's a possibility that you might someday want what this person has to offer, ask him or her to mail you literature for your files but not to follow up with you about it. Otherwise, just say that what the person has to sell doesn't fit into your technical plans. Then hang up.

The vendor will be impressed that you were courteous and that you work so late. You will have avoided both another call (if they call back again, repeat the procedure after waiting a day or two, this time gently asking that they to stop wasting their time) and being rude. The best part is that you can to bed feeling good about yourself.

Your letters to my print column and this e-mail forum raise some serious issues about managing information technology in today's world. Since today's world is essentially absurd, my serious responses may sometimes sound a little whimsical, and my occasional whimsical one, serious. In any case, if you want to participate, or comment, write to me at [email protected]. I reserve the right to edit for size and content. Just sign your E-mail the way you want it to appear online.

NOTE TO READERS: As I've mentioned, I'm planning to put my InformationWeek columns together into a book with a little bit of additional commentary around the events and people about whom I write. If any reader would like to be notified of such an event, please drop me an E-mail and I'll build a mailing list to let you know about it. Just use the word BOOK as the subject line.

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