[TriLUG] [OT] What's the value of IT?
neilson at windstream.net
Fri May 8 08:32:13 EDT 2009
Here are some thoughts that might be helpful...
I've seen "IT" (we used to call it just "computers") at a number of
small companies. The value of IT can be viewed from various
perspectives. Here I've chosen Opportunity, Hopes, and Fears.
Opportunity is identified by someone in control of the company. My
father, running his newspaper company, noticed that computerized
typesetting would be far more efficient than using the mechanical
Varityper A20 or (later) the electromechanical Friden Justowriter. He
bought a Photon computerized typesetting machine. After several years of
trying to use the machine, which he called Nervous Nellie for good
reason, he was about to spend perhaps $100,000 on a new machine from
Compugraphic. That was maybe 1983, the year the original Mac appeared.
My brothers went to the Mac Expo, and realized that the Mac, for almost
no money at all, could do everything the Compugraphic could and more.
Our family's paper was one of the first to use the Mac, which became a
standard for newspaper publishers. Years of hope, chasing after that one
opportunity of reliable computerized typesetting, finally paid off.
Hopes and Fears go together. You hope the system will work, and you fear
it won't. IT staff are brought in not to fulfill the opportunity, but to
tend the fears. The paper's Mac network did not need an IT staff! It
still does not.
There was a bit of professional IT input, when I recommended that the
paper buy not one but two laser printers. This was at a time when a
laser printer cost over $5000. I said, "If you buy one, it will croak
when you need it most. If you buy two, the second one will set on the
shelf and collect dust. Take your choice." Years later my brother Fred
said, "I don't know why you recommended we buy the second printer. We've
never used it." I had to remind him of the fear and how we overcame it.
That's the tragedy of IT. Even when you do something exactly right, no
one notices. But if anyone perceives that something is wrong with the
computers, or indeed with anything that runs on electricity, it's IT's
The value of IT is thus very hard to pin down. Accountants looking for
ROI on the money spent on IT may make tremendous errors in judgment
because their methods are incorrect.
A similar difficulty can happen with quality engineering.
My wife, a quality engineer, has been told by several employers over the
years not to bother with incoming inspection because it was seen as a
waste of money. The "proof" that incoming was unnecessary was that she
was finding no bad raw material. So she didn't get to inspect incoming
degreaser at a company which was making parts for Xerox. Someone in the
purchasing department had substituted trichloroethane--it was
cheaper--for trichloroethylene. The yarn that went into the product was
improperly degreased, and the company lost millions of dollars and
nearly lost the Xerox account. At other companies where she's prevailed
at doing incoming, she's discovered wrong materials in time to prevent
what would have been months of downtime from clogged reactor vessels.
Her reward? Often she's been fired, or forced to quit. "We found the
problem, and we've fired the quality engineer who was in charge."
I think that neither IT nor Quality can be perceived as having any value
unless they report to the the top of the company. If, for example, IT is
part of the Technology group, or Quality is part of Manufacturing, there
are bound to be problems that might be avoided by having dedicated
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