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Ask Slashdot: How Do You Tell a Compelling Story About IT Infrastructure? 192

An anonymous reader writes "Every month we submit status reports to upper management. On the infrastructure side, these reports tend to be 'Hey, we met our service level agreements ... again.' IT infrastructure is now a lot like the electric company. Nobody thanks the electric company when the lights come on, but they have plenty of colorful adjectives to describe them when the power is off.

What is the best way to construct a compelling story for upper management so they'll appreciate the hard work that an IT department does? They don't seem particularly impressed with functioning systems, because they expect functioning systems. The extensive effort to design and implement reliable systems has also made IT boring and dull. What types of summaries can you provide upper management to help them appreciate IT infrastructure and the money they spend on the services it provides?"
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Ask Slashdot: How Do You Tell a Compelling Story About IT Infrastructure?

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  • by Clyde Machine ( 1851570 ) on Friday May 09, 2014 @04:01PM (#46962127) Homepage
    Why is it that they need to be told a compelling story? Appreciation is nice, yes, but is it necessary for them to be wow-ed in every future report? Like OP said, they expect functioning systems and get functioning systems, and people get mad when things don't work right.
  • by Dishwasha ( 125561 ) on Friday May 09, 2014 @04:01PM (#46962129)

    What is the best way to construct a compelling story for upper management so they'll appreciate the hard work that an IT department does?

    In my many years of experience none of this will ever change until a mass exodus of the IT department occurs and all the unappreciated talent leaves. And even then executives will probably never be able grasp how good they really had it because they'll be in recovery mode for a minimum of the next 3 years.

    The only other situation I've seen is when the CTO is a really charismatic guy who can describe the most simplest of task in the most interesting way and can play enough politics so people kiss his butt to make sure he's happy. Then the CTO tells his underlings how appreciated they are by the executives even though they themselves never thought to say so.

  • by amosh ( 109566 ) on Friday May 09, 2014 @04:03PM (#46962151)

    It sounds like you're upset because upper management is treating you like infrastructure, rather than the heroes you are?

    You made the point yourself - nobody cheers when the lights come on, they get pissed when they go out. IT SHOULD be boring and dull. To an average person in your company, they shouldn't - EVER - care about how or why their systems work.

    Do you think providing electricity isn't a difficult enterprise, requiring a huge number of highly-trained people doing a bunch of things right, 24/7? And I bet, a hundred years ago, people looked at people working in "electricity" the same way people looked at "IT" twenty years ago.

    It's not 100 years ago. It's not 20 years ago. And we're not heroes or geniuses. We're plumbers. (Except that we're too dumb to unionize.) If anything, we are incredibly lucky that our uses are satisfied with the - in most cases - poor level of service they receive. Think about it - in all the time you've worked in IT, how many times have you seen the electricity in a building just go out, without explanation? Now, how many times have you seen major server outages, costing more than a million dollars in lost productivity? For me, I have never seen an electrical outage not related to a major disaster that kept everyone out of the building anyway. I have seen at least 5 outages that led to $1m or more in losses - and three of them were for stupid, easily preventible things. (Really? You upgraded both the primary and backup SAN at once, and killed the entire network for six hours when the patch turned out to not run properly?)

    Take another look at your question. It's premised on the proposition that IT SHOULDN'T be boring and dull - which I disagree with entirely - and that IT should get more appreciation than it does, which is questionable at best. What's driving you to ask those questions, in that way?

  • by amosh ( 109566 ) on Friday May 09, 2014 @04:40PM (#46962433)

    This has never been my experience. This sounds like the kind of thing a lot of people SAY happens - but I've worked at enough places, in and out of the server room, that I question whether it actually DOES happen. Does IT need to justify its budget? OF COURSE. Everyone does. Every single department, every year. But in most places I've been, IT budgets go in one direction only - up. (And in the federal space, where I've been working recently, they go up hugely, for a terrible product.) And I've never been in a functional company where the people making the budget decisions don't recognize that infrastructure has value.

    The best IT shops - the few and far between where things truly "run without issue" (and I've never been in such a place, though I was in one or two which were pretty close) are like that because management DOES recognize the need for the proper investment and support for these mission-critical systems. Frankly, I'd LOVE to see a counterexample. While we love the idea of the bastard systems engineer who keeps his systems running like clockwork despite being hated and despised... that's not the reality. If things are working well, it's because there's support at every level.

    Again, your mileage may vary - and if you have been in a shop where this was in fact the case, I'd love to hear the actual story.

  • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Friday May 09, 2014 @04:51PM (#46962521) Homepage Journal

    You talk about something the listener wants to hear. Things that interest them.

    It's simple in principle but tough in practice because you need to know your audience. The only way to do that is to listen to them. What are *they* talking about? What are they trying to get the company to do? Use that to frame your story. So if it's trying to cut costs, tell them a story about how you successfully cut costs; or even better, how you *failed* to cut costs and but then later on figured out a better way. If they're pushing some management theory, show how you are putting it into practice, and how it's going to solve some long standing problem you've been struggling with.

    There's not a "clear bright line" between effective communication and kissing ass. Superficially it looks much the same because both involve getting the audience to connect your story to something significant to them. The difference is in what you intend the audience to take away. If they come away knowing something about IT they didn't know before, that's solid communication.

    Communication requires some shared frame of reference; a common model to which the symbols you are exchanging refers. I learned that on the first page of my data communications theory text, and it's true for human communications too. To communicate effectively with an audience you have to speak in their language. If you don't, everything you'll say just sounds just blibber-blabber to them, even if they're a *smart* audience.

    That's another simple-sounding principle that's hard to put into practice. If you want to communicate unfamiliar information to someone, you have to bridge the gap and familiarize yourself with their mental landscape. Imagine a cosmetologist is tasked with explaining to you how to select and apply make-up. If she talked to you the way she'd talk to another cosmetics geek, you wouldn't learn anything. If she related it to something you already understood, like the OSI network stack or the 3SAT boolean satisfiability problem, you might learn something. But it would be a lot of work on her part; it's a lot easier to pretend you understand what she's talking about and hope you come away with something.

  • by Just Brew It! ( 636086 ) on Friday May 09, 2014 @05:00PM (#46962589)
    If you're primarily focused on meeting the letter of "service level agreements", IMO you've already entered what I'll call "metrics hell" -- a desolate realm where meeting some (more likely than not) ill-conceived measure of "performance" takes precedence over actually helping your users get their jobs done more efficiently. Closing helpdesk tickets within some predefined timeframe is meaningless in the grand scheme of things if you haven't actually solved the users' problems.
  • by roc97007 ( 608802 ) on Friday May 09, 2014 @05:50PM (#46962951) Journal

    "We have twelve thousand users accessing our resources daily. Those resources have collectively exhibited a 99.997% uptime.

    "We see nine terabytes of data flowing through our networks on a weekly basis."

    "We manage nineteen B2B connections representing 22.5 million dollars a month in company business."

    "We process an average of 120 helpdesk tickets a day, with a mean time to resolution of eight minutes."

    And so forth. I've also seen reports on capital equipment vs overhead, trending over the last X number of years. It's useful to show, for instance, that the majority of your costs are not personnel related, lest upper management get the idea that they could save a buttload of money by outsourcing personnel to a bunch of taxi drivers in Nanjangud.

    Customer satisfaction surveys could also be important, especially if they're substantially better than, for instance, the average customer satisfaction for offshore IT...

  • by attemptedgoalie ( 634133 ) on Friday May 09, 2014 @05:59PM (#46963003)

    Hi there, in the month of April, this is what we saw:

    1. 248,000,000 spam killed at our outer gateway that never made it to employee inboxes.

    2. Major security announcements verified in April: Heartbleed, we use our scanning tools and have verified that we have no exposure to this issue.

    3. No down time in messaging, payroll/HR/Finance systems.

    4. Moved 250 separate pieces of code into production across various systems.

    5. Completed IT installation at new facility X.

    6. Etc.

    Give them numbers that don't mean a lot, but show that stuff is happening.

  • by Darinbob ( 1142669 ) on Friday May 09, 2014 @07:55PM (#46963677)

    Meanwhile, the janitorial staff are over on their blogs asking "how can we present a compelling story to management?"

"My sense of purpose is gone! I have no idea who I AM!" "Oh, my God... You've.. You've turned him into a DEMOCRAT!" -- Doonesbury