Smart Business spoke with Mike Landman, CEO of Ripple IT about why businesses shouldn’t skimp on their IT investment.
IT is often seen as an expense. It’s treated as an expense on most income statements, and most companies work as hard as possible to minimize it, like any other expense.
Except that IT is not an expense, any more than hammers are an expense for carpenters, or factories are for manufacturers. IT is, for most modern companies, the means of production. The No. 1 tool of the trade for knowledge workers. That makes it an investment.
Ask any craftsman the best ways to screw up a job: Crappy tools. Cheap tools. The wrong tools for the job.
But, all too often, since IT is treated as an expense, rather than as investment, it is skimped on, stretched and ignored. Which is weird because the employee using that tool might make $150,000 in the three years that his or her $1500 computer is usable. A 1 percent investment.
At Ripple, we try to help our clients see the value in keeping IT current, and we give them strategies for doing so in the least painful ways possible. Here are a few things that can help:
1. Create an obsolescence policy. Decide — in advance — how long the useable life of a computer or server should be. Often it’s three years. The day it is purchased, put a sticker on it, mark the retirement date, and track it in a system. A spreadsheet is fine. That way, there are no surprises about when it’s time for a refresh. Each year you will know, long ahead of time, what needs to be replaced and what the upcoming investment will be.
2. Don’t skimp. If you want something to last for 3 years, it can’t be 2-year-old technology when you buy it. We don’t suggest buying the absolute greatest machine in the world for every job, but the difference between a great tool for the job and an inadequate one is measured in hundreds of dollars, not thousands. If a $1,200 computer is the right tool, buying a $900 tool is a difference of $10 a month. A three-year productivity tax on your $50,000-a-year employee to save $10 a month.
3. Find out what the right tool for the job is. The best person to know? Usually the person that will be using the tool. IT certainly has a role, but IT probably had a minimal role in hiring your new $100,000-a-year sales manager — why should they have 100 percent authority in deciding the tools that are best for the role?
No, we don’t think IT spending should be a free-for-all. But it should not get the same treatment as copy paper. For most knowledge workers, technology is the most significant point of leverage in the business. An investment mindset helps get the most leverage possible.
Mike Landman is the founder and CEO of Ripple IT, an IT company that makes IT run smoothly for companies with less than 100 employees.
When hiring a member of the IT team, weeding through all of the candidates out there is a tremendous challenge. Particularly if you are a smaller organization, it is likely that a non-technical person is doing the interviewing. In that case, it is very difficult to determine whether or not the person you are talking to actually knows their stuff. Even someone with a very technical background can be fooled by an impressive resume and a smooth talker.
“IT people are weird. I should know — I’m one of them,” says Zack Schuler, founder and CEO of Cal Net Technology Group. “They are the hardest to hire and even harder to retain, and are sometimes hard to fire, as many of them make themselves indispensable as they convince management that their skills are unique. Many of them have technical egos that are larger than life.
“At Cal Net, we have roughly 35 talented IT engineers that we had to hire, train and retain. And we’ve had to let some go over the years. We would like to think that we have this down to a science.”
Smart Business learned more from Schuler about the best process for hiring and retaining the right IT people.
Should IT people be interviewed differently than other potential hires?
Like with any position, you should be screening for the personality traits. An egocentric IT person is the last person you want on your team. Some interviewers are naturally talented at sniffing this out. For others, I would recommend a personality profile. In my opinion, personality is more than 50 percent of what you should be screening for.
Another of the most important traits is good communication skills. We have all experienced the IT guy who wants to sit in a closet somewhere to minimize his contact with humans. If they do make end user contact, it is usually a painful experience, as they will say the least amount possible so that they can head back to their cave. You should have the expectation that your IT person will be able to communicate as effectively as anyone else in the organization.
How should a company screen an IT person?
Start with, ‘Tell me about your IT environment at home.’ If they give you an answer along the lines of ‘I have three physical servers, running 7 VMs for testing, and I’ve got my own mail server running Exchange, and I’m running VDI for my primary workstation,’ then that is a good first step. They view this as their ‘sandbox.’ If they respond, ‘I’ve got a laptop at home and I try to stay away from the computer as I get enough of it at work,’ then they probably aren’t a good technical fit. You want your IT folks to be passionate about technology, and most of them do their best research and learning at home, after hours.
The second easy way to screen is to have a short technical quiz that can be administered by anyone. Feel free to e-mail me for our quiz.
Last, and perhaps the most time-consuming and difficult process, is to put them through a technical lab. We require that our new hires come in and build a network in an eight-hour time period. We have a point system that scores the candidate, as no one ever finishes the lab. This gives us an excellent assessment as to what they do know, and what it is that they need help with. Depending on what you are looking for, there are companies that will administer these sorts of labs for you. If you are testing on Microsoft infrastructure skills, we can administer this sort of lab.
What are some of the challenges of retaining IT people?
In general, IT people are motivated by advancement and the quest for knowledge. In organizations where there isn’t any room to move up, nor is there anything new to learn, IT people will stagnate and usually move on.
Good IT people are always looking to explore and learn the latest and greatest technologies. Just as they have a sandbox at home, they want to work for an organization that invests in IT and gives them an opportunity to learn.
Good IT people are also looking to move up the food chain. While some IT folks are motivated heavily by pay, many are more motivated by an increase in title and responsibility.
How can these challenges be overcome?
Quenching the IT person’s quest for knowledge isn’t always the easiest thing to do. There are two ways to attack this. First of all, if you hire someone who is a master of all of the technologies that you are currently running, you’ll get someone who can hit the ground running, but you will also get someone who becomes bored quickly. On the other hand, if you hire someone with like experience and aptitude, but not exact experience in the technologies you are running, you will give someone an opportunity to learn. You will obviously have to weigh the business risk in doing this — and while they are learning you may want to supplement their skills with a consultant — but it can be well worth it in the long run. In short, I recommend slightly ‘under-hiring’ for the position.
The second way to attack this is to give your IT person some latitude when it comes to decision-making. If they want to implement a new technology that is reasonable from a cost standpoint, and delivers business value, I would err on the side of letting them do it. Even small concessions can give your IT person a sense of worth and something new to learn.
Last, in terms of advancement, don’t ‘over-title’ a person. Don’t call your lone IT person ‘IT director’ right away. Create a career path: network administrator, senior network administrator, IT manager, IT director, and so on. Even very large IT organizations should be using this model. Look for increases in responsibility along the way, along with small increases in pay. Thinking out a career path before you hire someone will go a long way in making sure that they hang around for a long time.
Zack Schuler is the founder and CEO of Cal Net Technology Group. Reach him at ZSchuler@CalNetTech.com.
Operating in the network storage space, the biggest challenge for Michael Klayko hasn’t been growing his company, but growing it fast enough to keep up with customer demand.
“I’ve gone to pretty much every country in the world, every vertical segment, any type of industry and asked the question, ‘Whose information isn’t growing at triple digits?’” says Klayko, CEO of Brocade Communications Systems Inc. “I haven’t had anybody raise their hand and say, ‘Me.’ No matter where I go, it’s ubiquitous. It’s an issue around the world.
“Just around managing information in a company, there are 8,000 laws around the world on how do you manage, protect information, and now that varies between different industries. … When you look at it from that standpoint, I think opportunities become unlimited — you know, how do you solve very specific issues? Because the issues supply customers face, which is the [Forbes] Global 2,000 companies, are daunting. They are just absolutely daunting. You talk to some of the CIOs and some of the business owners, and they’re scratching their heads going, ‘How can I get ahead?’ They’re trying to just catch up.”
Having grown up in the networking space and data storage, Klayko saw when joining the company in 2003 that the $2.1 billion company was in the position to be the challenging brand — as long as it could adapt fast enough to changing technology and increasing consumer demand for the newest products.
“Fifteen years ago we were four guys, a dog, were a very prototypical Silicon Valley startup,” Klayko says. “And now, today, we’re roughly in every country — about 160 countries in the world, a little more than 5,000 people — and growing quite nicely, frankly because networking storage continues to grow.
“A lot of this has to do with the fact that there’s been one very large networking company, and they didn’t have to innovate. What they had to do was provide features and functionality, and it was good enough. Today, it’s not good enough.”
Klayko has kept Brocade on track for growth by ensuring innovation is paramount in the minds of employees. By nurturing a culture of innovation, Klayko has continued to strengthen Brocade’s foothold in the crowded IT and data storage marketplace.
His strategy for building this culture begins with setting performance-based innovation metrics that keep his employees thinking one step ahead. When you are a company with competitors ten and 20 times your size and revenue, you have to be able to offer customers the newest and latest products. To give Brocade the edge with customers, Klayko knows Brocade needs to make those products readily available on an ongoing basis.
“There’s only one weight class in networking — it’s heavyweight,” he says. “There are no different weight classes. There’s one weight class. So we have to compete like that. And one way we do this on innovation is we constantly like to stay anywhere from 12 to 18 months ahead of our competitors. We have to. That’s how we are actually not just surviving but growing.
“I think every company, when you go back the last couple years, is trying to figure out not how to grow, but how to survive and stay alive. We’re fortunate. … We happen to be in a segment where information, traffic and data traffic is growing triple digits.”
Klayko uses metrics to track the company’s quarterly percentage of innovation. The benefit is two-sided. For one, having innovation metrics gives your employees a benchmark to aim for in terms of continuous improvement, but also, your ability to meet these goals signals to customers you can consistently provide them with the newest products.
“No one wants to sit around and say, ‘Yeah, I don’t innovate, I just kind of collect money,’” Klayko says. “Everybody is innovative. But we do it a little bit differently in terms of we have the innovation metric. How do you measure it? Ours is we want 60 to 80 percent of all of our current revenue to come from products introduced in the previous six quarters. So if you think about that, I have to reinvent myself every two years.
“Now that sounds like a lot. The reason it’s not is that any one point in time about 2/3 of my customer base is going through an acquisition, a consolidation. They’re actually getting rid of a company or so forth. So their data centers and their information requirements are evolving and changing. Everybody wants the shiny new product, and so if you have the shiny new product at that point in time, you will be considered.”
Look for the disconnect
When you are in a rapidly advancing industry, keeping innovation steady at 60 to 80 percent can be a huge advantage in staying ahead of competition. But continually innovating doesn’t mean you are placing your bets on anything that’s new and different either. It’s important to take calculated risks so you don’t bet too big on an area that never takes off.
“Our biggest challenge sometimes is where do we go, how do we put scarce resources, because if you make a bet on a certain area or a certain vertical and another one grows faster, your competitor can actually grow faster than you, even though you are growing, because you made that wrong decision,” Klayko says.
But how do you find those areas for employees to innovate in ways that add new value for customers yet haven’t yet been exploited by your competition? Klayko does it by asking them to look for a disconnect or a contrasting position.
“By 2020, there’s going to be 35 billion devices connected to the Internet, I think, to 6 or 7 billion humans,” Klayko says. “So every time someone comes out with a smartphone or a new iPad or anything that creates digital data, it just more and more burden on that network that needs to get bigger pipes, faster, larger.
“You’ve got network traffic growing at 100 percent, data traffic growing at 100 percent. Budgets aren’t growing at 100 percent. So there is a huge disconnect going on. Whenever there’s that big of a disconnect, there’s an opportunity.”
By identifying contrasting market positions on common issues, beliefs, pieces of technology and so forth, your team can visualize new ways to solve emerging problems as an industry evolves and customer needs change.
“If you go back, how we originally started with this is the contrasting position that’s around simplicity,” Klayko says. “The last couple years, the recession really affected the data centers in terms of personnel. They were the first people to go in many companies, and so they would continue to buy the equipment but the human beings to run the equipment were released. So costs were really disconnected again. We just said, let’s focus on simplicity. What if we could actually have equipment go into a network and self-discover, self-manage, self-heal if it broke? What a contrasting position.
“We always look for an area where we can provide contrasting positions. Anybody that goes into a market says, ‘Oh, I’m a lower cost or I’m a little bit faster,’ — in my business, technology is always improving. You’re always getting better price performance. So you need a relatively different way to approach the market. We said from a contrasting position, ‘What are the real issues?’”
Lead the vision
Setting a culture of innovation involves a lot of decision-making on the part of a CEO. You have to get the right people on board and give them the resources they need to innovate. But once the culture is set up as an idea-making machine, it’s your job to grease the wheels. To get people thinking creatively about new opportunities, you first need to get them excited about what that innovation means and the effect it has on driving your company’s vision.
One way to do that is by engaging your key creative people in new projects or areas of potential growth. For example, when recently bringing a new category to market, Klayko made sure he assigned his long-term engineers to the project. The piece of technology, called Ethernet Fabrics, was 15 years in the making for Brocade.
“We actually made a big bet that this technology was going to be the future of the company and so we just redirected the people from some of our core businesses into this new technology,” Klayko says. “Then we backfilled our core business with new people who were brought into the company.
“That’s what gets engineers excited, working on the new project and so forth. So there was accommodation and new folks that we brought into the company, but primarily we repositioned a lot of folks that were in the company and gave them the opportunity to work on this project.”
Building an innovative culture starts with leadership. In the end, it’s largely your call on what risks the company takes and which it doesn’t. You also set the precedent for areas such as accountability, performance, entrepreneurial thinking and of course innovation, which is why Klayko doesn’t just have metrics for his team’s performance, he has them for himself.
“You have to lead from the front,” he says. “I do a thing in the company called a performance contract. I list top six areas that are going to be a focus to me. I put my metrics down, and every quarter, I do a broadcast to all 5,000 people and I give myself a report card. I give myself a public appraisal every quarter, but when I walk to see you, I expect you to do the same thing. It’s all about accountability and setting the culture.
“We have a lot of bright people, and there’s a myth that CEOs create strategies. What they do is they participate in the creation with very smart people. So my job is to ask a lot of Socratic questions and push and say, ‘Is this the right thing to do?’… I have to be the chief cheerleader when times are good and times are bad. When times are good, I have to tell people, ‘Don’t get complacent.’”
In the end, while successful innovation probably involves a little luck, good marketing, the right timing and other factors, it all starts with setting a culture where people are inspired to compete and improve their industry and company every day.
In fact, while achieving first quarter year-over-year revenue growth, this year Brocade was also named one of Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work for in 2011.
“I ask a question on our employee survey every year that tells the truth about the health of the company: ‘Would you ask your best friend to quit their perfectly good job and come work with you at Brocade?’” Klayko says. “When I first came in, that number was at 8 percent. In fact, I answered it no, which was a telltale sign. … That number is 91 percent right now. So we’ve obviously focused on the right things.”
How to reach: Brocade Communications Systems Inc., (408) 333-8000 or www.brocade.com
The Klayko File
Brocade Communications Systems Inc.
Education: Bachelor’s of Science in Electrical Engineering from the Ohio Institute of Technology
Affiliations: Klayko currently serves on the Boards of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and The Tech Museum of Innovation
On his decision to join Brocade: One of the inherent issues of storage area networking is you just built these flat networks and we saw an opportunity to route between different networks. There was no product in that space. We got a bunch of smart people together. We had about 100 people together when we ended up selling the company to Brocade. We built the routing technology that is now the industry standard. That was the impetus is we found that there was a huge opportunity with nobody looking at it, and we went, ‘Wow, why is nobody going after this? It’s possible.’ And so that’s what we focus on.
On transforming the networking space: We’re taking those principles, applying it into the IP site, which is the Ethernet, and your Internet connections and so forth. By applying that knowhow and that technology, we’re bringing a new category to market, which is going to challenge all of the incumbents.
We took 15 years of heritage and created a new product and a new category called Ethernet Fabrics, and where it’s going to apply in the data center. And by the way, what we’re addressing in this market is measured in the tens of billions of dollars. So there’s a big opportunity and frankly, there hasn’t been a large piece of innovation or significant piece of innovation in the networking space for a decade.
Jerry Williams thought it was going to be a good thing when the firm that provided software services to Schuylkill Valley Sports Inc. sold its business to a larger software firm.
“We thought that the larger software company was going to take the aspects of this other company, integrate them and make it a more solid system,” said Williams, president of the $25 million sports equipment and apparel company.
Last year, Williams needed software to support the retail and wholesale aspects of his business, so to save money, he agreed to let the software provider try a beta version of a new management software system. But Williams and his staff quickly found out that the system wasn’t ready for use. As the holidays approached, the staff at Schuylkill Valley Sports was flying blind, unsure of how much money or inventory the company had. Williams and his leadership team were thrust into crisis management mode.
Smart Business spoke with Williams about how to manage through a crisis and how to stay prepared for when things go wrong.
How did you react to that situation?
The biggest thing is it completely stressed out every employee. They basically had to do their job blindly, based on experience, and as a result, some can handle the stress and other people can’t. A lot of what I had to do was deal with people, calm situations down. A lot of it was just sitting with people individually and try to get them to not panic. Take it one day at a time and get them to do their best. For some it worked, others were ready to jump ship. It depended on the person. Some people thought the sky was falling, some held it all in, even though they were equally frustrated.
How did you start to dig the company out of the crisis?
The biggest thing was to pressure the software company, to let them know the effect it was having on us. At the same time, they knew if this system doesn’t function, no one in the industry is going to purchase it. So I had let them know that without threatening them and try to work on it in a way that was mutually beneficial.
However, as I ratcheted it up with the president, their reaction was kind of acting nonchalant. They told me that they always have problems when they roll out something new, and it was going to take six to 12 months.
But there was no point in getting angry with them. The same sales task you had with your employees, you had with the software company. You had to sell the software company so that they would understand that they had something riding on this, and it wasn’t just all our problem, but do it in a way that wasn’t threatening.
We began to see improvement probably at the beginning of March. Our people knew they went through the worst part, several were still sarcastic, but the key people were starting to realize it was a work in progress and these things can’t be corrected overnight.
What would you tell other CEOs about managing a crisis like this?
Well, first off I’d tell them never to do a beta test. But really, I’d tell them to prepare mentally for the worst, and I think that was the biggest challenge. Our people didn’t know how difficult this was going to be. We weren’t prepared for the all the challenges. The only thing you can think of is to prepare for the worst-case scenario, not having information, not being able to do a sale or a return or a credit card sale or paying invoices. If you prepare for the worst case scenario, as challenges come up, you will be better prepared for the difficulty.
How to reach: Schuylkill Valley Sports Inc., (877) 711-8100 or www.svsports.com
IT resources are often pulled in several directions, with more time spent on the ongoing maintenance and monitoring of the core IT infrastructure in place than they would prefer. Projects that would position the company for more profitability or greater efficiency are not always achieved in a desired time frame.
Smart Business spoke to Christian Teeft, vice president of engineering at Latisys, to help define the business benefits of off-loading routine IT services to a provider of managed services, and what to look for in an IT off-load solution.
How does IT off-load differ from off-site and how does a firm know when it is ready to transition?
IT off-load solutions, which are designed to enhance the performance, reliability and security of an organization’s core IT infrastructure, are delivered as fully managed services so an organization’s internal resources can focus on strategic IT initiatives and critical server infrastructure.
IT off-load solutions allow organizations to better control their hardware, system and personnel costs by alleviating tactical day-to-day management operations and converting the capital dollars needed to procure these technologies into operational expenses for the services.
The IT off-load profile enables an organization to build upon the robust infrastructure provided in the off-site profile by leveraging IT staff from the data center provider for the maintenance and monitoring necessary to fully support the infrastructure.
The following are characteristics of organizations that fit within the IT off-load profile:
- Human resources constraints within the IT organization
- Internal or regulatory requirements to maintain full control of compute resources within the infrastructure
- Subject matter expertise gaps within the IT knowledge base
- Massive data growth that exceeds capital availability
What specific applications and services can an enterprise leverage with off-load?
Commonly leveraged managed services include:
- High-performance primary storage
- Enterprise data backup
- Load balancing
- Site-to-site and client-to-site VPN
- Intrusion detection
Additionally, IT organizations can leverage a team of highly trained network and system engineers to validate and escalate issues within their IT infrastructure, improving the signal-to-noise ratio of monitoring activities and reducing fatigue and workload from key internal IT personnel.
How can an off-load solution free up a business’s resources to focus on its core competencies?
A large amount of time is spent on the ongoing maintenance and continual improvement of IT systems. From configuration changes, firmware upgrades, change-control meetings, managing multiple vendors and training on specific technologies, there is often little time for anything else. In organizations that have limited staffing resources, these routine — but very necessary — activities divert critical thought cycles away from solving more strategic IT challenges.
Why can it be beneficial to off-load data protection, system security, monitoring and maintenance of your IT infrastructure?
The infrastructure needed to support these capabilities is typically very expensive. Aside from the associated capital expenses, a huge amount of due diligence is typically done to ensure the particular technologies you invest in perform as expected within the specific environment they are to be deployed in. Off-loading these types of services not only relieves internal resources of the management tasks, the associated Service Level Agreements (SLAs) mitigate risk for the business.
On top of the risk mitigation benefits, off-loading security and monitoring tasks typically increases the visibility for most organizations, as they receive 24-7 support from a staffed network operations center.
Are there different types of companies that provide managed services?
Indeed. As with all industries, there are providers that have different variations within their service portfolios, different levels of investment within their infrastructure, different demographics and different specializations that their staff focuses on. These variables ultimately mean that organizations that are considering an IT off-load strategy need to be diligent when identifying the right partner. They need to make sure that partner aligns with their own business needs and is positioned to grow with their business over the term of the relationship. We recommend that CIO’s consider the following:
- Ensure the partner you choose is focused on the services they are offering you. Many firms are willing to stretch beyond their area of expertise in order to secure new business.
- Understand the associated SLAs, and make sure they support your business needs.
- Understand your infrastructure growth path, and make sure your partner can support it. Don’t overlook potential future regulatory needs, or the regulatory needs of your own customers. Also keep in mind that while you may want to maintain full control over certain aspects of your infrastructure today, consider that you may not have that requirement tomorrow.
- IT is a 24-7 business, regardless of industry. Make sure your partner can support you 24-7.
Christian Teeft is the vice president of engineering at Latisys. Reach him at email@example.com.
This is an answer to my favorite age-old anti-security argument, “we don’t need security, we’re too small to be a target.” Really? Who is more likely to be a target? Is it the big guy walking down Main Street with four armed guards flanking him on each side, or the little guy walking down a poorly lit alley whistling loudly so it seems like he’s not really scared? The answer as always depends on the motivation of the attacker. If the attacker is looking to send a message or get some publicity, then the big guy is the right target. If, however, the attackers are just looking to steal money or identities and draw little attention then the little guy is the right target. On to the original question: are little guys targets? Absolutely.
The problem with the little guys thinking they’re not targets is that they often don’t have anything in place to tell them if they’ve been attacked or breached in the first place. This is the old head in the sand approach and just is not a good idea. You wouldn’t go months without reviewing your bank statements would you? Then why is it the systems that your money runs through (your business’s computer network) does not deserve the same attention and respect? There is too much neglect of best practices in small businesses and at some point it is going to hurt your small business. You have data that bad guys want, the problem is you don’t know what or where that data is. It’s okay to know you don’t know something; it is not okay to remain ignorant after you have been informed.
I’ve put together a little list, more like an outline, of things you can do to help better secure your business without bankrupting you. Hopefully it gives you a good idea of where to start and shows that it’s not terribly difficult to achieve some sense of understanding about your systems and the data they move around.
1) Be aware! There are countless news feeds and portals out there that can help keep you aware of what’s going on in the bad guy world. You don’t have to become an expert but you should have a sense of what sort of evil is lurking out there.
2) Use Open Source or so-called Free Software. There is a ton of it out there, it’s not as complicated as it sounds and it won’t take a monster-sized bite out of your budget. Some of it can be a little obtuse, but there are some great tutorials out there and if you get stuck you can always find someone who can help. (Full disclosure: My company does this sort of work so of course I think it’s a great idea.)
3) Build a security strategy. Figure out what kind of stuff (computers, data, people) you want to secure and then build a strategy around that. If you don’t know what you have then you can’t possibly secure it properly.
4) Build a culture of caring. You need folks who, while not necessarily security experts, understand the need for and appreciate the efforts required to secure systems and people.
5) Secure your people too. You have read this sentiment over and over, but yes people need to be secured too. A lot of attackers would rather go after people (it’s called social engineering) than systems because typically people are more trusting and more willing to give out confidential information.
Bonus: While securing your people, make them aware of social media security issues. This is an important part of any security strategy, especially if you’re using social media for marketing already. Knowing what to say and what not to say is crucial.
This is not to say that security is not hard; it actually is quite difficult to be 100 percent completely secure (many would argue it is not even possible), but the idea is not to be 100 percent completely secure. The idea is to have in place processes and tools to prevent as much as you can while understanding what to do if something bad does happen. Once you’ve figured out that it is not insurmountable you will be wondering why you didn’t start sooner. The hardest part though is getting started — it always is.
Bill Mathews is Lead Geek at Hurricane Labs, an IT security services firm founded in 2004. He has nearly 20 years experience in IT, 13 of that in information security, and has been interested in security ever since C3P0 told R2 to never trust a strange computer. He can be reached at @billford or @hurricanelabs on Twitter, and other musings can be read on http://blog.hurricanelabs.com.
There are a lot of skills companies look for in IT people. Smart, analytical, experienced. Windows, Cisco, Dell.
The one most often overlooked is Nice.
When I started Ripple, it was in no small part because of the way IT people were acting. Busy, smug and secretive. So I set out to build an IT company with a culture of being nice, friendly and approachable. Pretty regularly people will say to me “well, that’s neat, but does it really matter?” Yes, and it’s a meaningful IT skill.
Here’s how I know. After we engage with a company, we suddenly start getting a deluge of weird, semi-easy requests. Not right away after we start, but about a month after we begin servicing a company (as it turns out it is after they realize that we are nice, friendly and approachable). Things like random pop-ups, people having to reboot twice and other annoyances. For a long time it was kind of a mystery for us, until we started asking people about it. What they told us was quite illustrative.
“I hated calling our previous IT guys, and this was just something I could live with.”
In a 50-person company we’ll spend weeks cleaning this sort of thing up. Things that are not hard from a technical perspective, and things that are not causing a work stoppage (yet). Often in companies that had had access to professional IT help. Competent IT help. But since the issues were not work stoppage issues, the friction of having an unpleasant experience outweighed the benefit of having a smooth work experience. Think of it as a Smug Tax.
These are things that eat up 5-10 minutes a day per person, which adds up to about 20 hours per month in that 50-person company. Those “little” problems would often turn into big problems down the line, eating up even more time and productivity. The difference between nice IT people and not-so-nice IT people is the difference between people calling to get problems fixed or just suffering through them. The cost of suffering through them is not just an issue of morale; it is an issue of dollars.
So how do we quantify the IT skill of Nice? We’re an IT company, so we have a process for it!
1. Nice is a value we nurture, develop, hire and fire for.
If it’s not something that is valued at least as much as hard skills, it will never catch on.
2. We test for Nice.
We have used a variety of work aptitude profiles over the years, but the two we like the best are Criteria and The Berke Assesment. At Ripple, we are looking for traits like empathy, cooperativeness and patience.
3. We interview for Nice.
In interviews, we don’t just probe for IT skills and problem-solving ability; we push people to see how they will act under pressure. IT people are under pressure all of the time, and people with short tempers and dismissive attitudes make people recoil — and live with their problems.
4. We never fall in love with a resume.
Falling in love with a resume means falling in love with the IT skill set. Falling in love with a skill set before understanding temperament will lead to hires that fail the Nice test.
5. We ask our grandmother.
Not literally, but we ask ourselves: If this person was working with my grandmother — who knows nothing about computers and has unending questions — would this person make her feel good? Or would this person make her feel stupid and small? We love our grandmothers and we love our clients. We don’t want either of them to feel stupid or small.
When someone has the hard skills, plus the Nice skill, they are a complete IT asset. Without Nice, they are incomplete.
In the end, treating Nice as a nonnegotiable IT skill makes moral sense and financial sense. Nice is a killer IT skill.
Mike Landman is the founder and CEO of Ripple IT, an IT company that makes IT run smoothly for companies with less than 100 employees.
BERLIN (New York Times) -- Nokia said Tuesday it had settled a two-year-old global patent fight with Apple over smartphone technology through a licensing agreement that will commit Apple to make a one-time payment to its Finnish competitor and to pay regular royalties in the future.
The agreement settles all outstanding patent litigation between Apple, the leader in the smartphone market, and Nokia, its main rival. The companies also agreed to withdraw complaints against each other with the International Trade Commission over the use of intellectual property.
“We are very pleased to have Apple join the growing number of Nokia licensees,” said Stephen Elop, the Nokia president and chief executive. “This settlement demonstrates Nokia’s industry-leading patent portfolio and enables us to focus on further licensing opportunities in the mobile communications market.”
Nokia did not disclose the financial terms of the settlement. It did say the agreement would have a “positive financial impact” on Nokia’s revised second-quarter results.
Nokia shares rose 1.8 percent in Helsinki trading following the announcement to 4.37 euros per share. The Finnish company’s shares had plunged on May 31 after Nokia revised its second-quarter sales and profit forecasts sharply lower, and abandoned its previously announced full-year targets for 2011 amid rising competition.
Apple appeared to describe the agreement as limited in scope, and emphasized that the patent settlement did not extend to most of the unique features of the iPhone, the world's best-selling smartphone.
“Apple and Nokia have agreed to drop all of our current lawsuits and enter into a license covering some of each other’s patents, but not the majority of the innovation that makes the iPhone unique,” Apple said. “We are glad to put this behind us and get back to focusing on our respective businesses.”
The mobile phone makers had been embroiled in more than 40 patent lawsuits in Germany, England and the United States since 2009 over basic technologies relating to a handset’s user interface, power management, antenna and camera.
Florian Mueller, an intellectual property analyst in Starnberg, Germany, said the announcement was a victory for Nokia, which in the first quarter ceded its long-held lead in global cellphone revenue to Apple.
Mueller said while Apple benefited by settling its legal differences with Nokia, it was likely that the patent settlement with Apple involved “significant” payments by Apple to Nokia.
“I’m sure Nokia had to go down from its maximum demands because otherwise there wouldn’t have been a settlement,” Mueller said. “But the deal structure is very telling: a combination of a payment for past infringements as well as running royalties is a clear indication that there’s serious money in this for Nokia.”
Mueller said the agreement was the first fruit of a new Nokia strategy to more aggressively defend its patent portfolio, which includes more than 10,000 groups of handset patents called “patent families” that it developed over the last two decades. Nokia has said it invested more than €43 billion ($62 billion) to develop its patent archive.
“Having proven its ability to defeat Apple after the most bitterly contested patent dispute that this industry has seen to date is clear proof of” the effectiveness of Nokia's more aggressive strategy, Mueller said. “Other companies whom Nokia will ask to pay royalties will have to think very hard whether to pay or pick a fight.”
Mueller said Nokia may now turn its sights on Google, the maker of the Android open-source phone operating system, which is the world’s fastest growing mobile operating system. Mueller asserted that Android is technologically similar to Apple’s iPhone operating system and may invite a legal challenge from Nokia.
“Android-based devices are highly likely to infringe on largely the same Nokia patents that Apple now felt forced to pay for,” Mueller said.
Businesses across every industry face an ongoing need for more power, space and performance from their IT infrastructure. And yet the prospect of spending several months and significant capital investment building out a facility to meet this demand is one many firms find unfeasible.
Smart Business spoke to Evans Mullan, chief operating officer at Latisys, to better understand what a company should look for when considering an IT off-site solution. There are several important considerations when it comes to selecting the right off-site colocation partner that can offer the complete set of capabilities.
What are the primary benefits of an IT off-site solution?
Companies that choose to outsource their IT infrastructure to a data center provider achieve four significant benefits:
More reliability from fully redundant systems for power and cooling, with back-up batteries and generators for continuous uptime.
More connectivity from multiple business-grade bandwidth carriers delivered as a blended network for maximum performance and speed.
More security with several layers of physical security, including 24-7 staff on site, extensive camera surveillance throughout the facility and multi-factor authentication at entryways, such as man-traps, biometric scanners and key-card access.
More capacity and growth potential as data center providers have an inventory of available space for new customers and for existing customers to be able to expand their footprint as their business grows.
What current economic and business factors are driving the business case for colocation?
Capital expenditures to build a world-class facility often exceed the budgets of all but the largest organizations. Outsourcing the physical location of the IT infrastructure allows companies to benefit from the economies of scale that data center companies can provide with regard to Internet bandwidth, cooling and power, as well as security staff and round-the-clock remote hands support. Gaining the increased flexibility and tighter control of costs that come with the operational expenses of colocation make it an attractive solution compared to an investment of capital to build out new data center space.
What size of company benefits most from an IT off-site solution?
Most data center providers have a variety of inventory options available, making them a fit for any size company. Typical colocation packages include partial or full cabinets on the small side, and customizable caged space that can range anywhere from 150 square feet to 10,000 square feet or larger for companies with the need for more space. Some data center companies also provide private suites, which feature fully enclosed data center areas for clients who want additional layers of security, climate control and privacy.
How does this solution help enterprises enhance their security posture?
In addition to the multiple layers of physical security previously mentioned, there are third-party audits that data center providers can achieve that result in the highest levels of reliability and data integrity for their customers.
One of the most significant third-party validations of a data center’s security is the SAS70 Type II audit. This audit is an independent review of the control objectives and activities in place to ensure all controls are valid and enforced. Controls include building access and security, data center access and security, data storage, customer information security and change procedures for equipment and systems. Data center providers that have completed the SAS70 audit can provide a copy of the audit report to their customers to verify that the controls in place are adequate for the customers’ requirements. And the fact that the audit is performed by a third party will alleviate the need for colocation customers to perform their own audits for their IT infrastructure.
How can an IT off-site solution specifically improve a company’s bottom line?
Replacing capital outlays with operational expenses that can be scaled as needed has immediate impact on a company’s bottom line as it faces the need to optimize its IT infrastructure spend. Additionally, the 100 percent uptime service level agreements achieved through a colocation solution will safeguard a company from the financial ramifications of any potential instance of downtime.
Another bottom-line benefit to an IT off-site solution is the economies of scale offered by data center providers. The blended network of premium carriers and shared systems for cooling and security are much more affordable when outsourced and shared amongst multiple clients.
What else should a company look for in a colocation provider?
While an off-site solution comes with many improvements and benefits for a company, it is really just the foundational layer when it comes to the full benefits provided by outsourcing its IT infrastructure. Beyond SAS70 Type II compliant characteristics offered, companies should look for data center providers that also offer growth in terms of additional services and solutions. Common growth requirements include the outsourcing of managed services to improve monitoring and performance optimization systems as well as managed security services. The ability to offer elastic hosting options including managed virtualization and multi-site replication are important factors to look for as well, to ensure that the data center provider can accommodate the maximum scalability for a company’s IT infrastructure now and years from now.
Evans Mullan is the chief operating officer of Latisys. Reach him at Evans-Mullan@latisys.com.
Do you know which page of your website is visited most? The answer may surprise you. It’s also a good starting point for discussing informed content creation and customer engagement. Page visits are only the tip of the iceberg and one of the most elementary metrics for digital content effectiveness, but they are still useful information. The wealth of information generated by website analytics tools is astounding and this data should be the driving force of your content creation strategy.
A colleague of mine worked at a consumer electronics company that spent a great deal of time and money documenting the celebrities that used its products. Interviews, photos and other media were incorporated into the website and expectations were high that these celebrity endorsements would generate “buzz” that would have a positive impact on sales.
Nearly two years later, it was discovered that the most visited page on the site was still the specifications page for a popular product. In fact, the top 10 visited pages were product specifications and the celebrity-related pages appeared to have no measureable impact on website traffic, let alone sales.
While it was a costly mistake to continue with an ineffective program for as long as it did, the more egregious mistake was the company’s failure to understand its audience and what they wanted from the company via its website. The company eventually scrapped the “buzz” approach and directed resources into enhancing its product specification pages.
It’s not about you
Regardless of what you think you know about your customers and their behavior, the only way to know for sure is to collect and analyze data about them.
Whether you employ free website analytics from Google, Yahoo or others, or more advanced measurement software from highly-rated companies like Coremetrics, Omniture and Webtrends Inc., the actual behavior of your customers is the best way to know what they find most important. This information makes up the basic building blocks of your content creation strategy.
Today, even the simplest embed tools come with their own analytics. Indianapolis-based measured marketing service providers like Formstack LLC, Compendium, Delivra, ExactTarget and more offer vast quantities of actionable data. It is important make sure this data is put to good use as you develop content.
Make an effort
Popular Web-scraping or harvesting technologies allow companies to take relevant content from another website to display on their own pages. These relationships are often negotiated and reciprocal between multiple websites. A lot of companies utilize keyword-enabled news feeds from local or national news sources on topics relating to their businesses.
While these types of content filler are useful for keeping a company connected to the larger marketplace or having the latest headlines displayed, they don’t offer original thinking or insights that strengthen a company’s position as a leader in the field.
There simply is no substitute for thoughtful content designed to meet the search needs of your customers. In order to satisfy your customers, you will have to put in the time it takes to do it right — or hire content experts to help you do it right. Companies like Raidious and Professional Blog Service LLC in Indianapolis help dozens of high-profile brand names produce the kind of quality content that their customers are seeking.
Keep content fresh
Getting a customer to sign up to receive your newsletter is a good thing, but it’s only the beginning. Companies like Right On Interactive in Indianapolis have developed products that help you easily segment, schedule, trigger and deploy a series of communications to customers and prospects as they move through the customer life cycle.
This is why content is so important at each stage in the customers’ relationship with your company. If your customers lose interest in you because you fail to keep them engaged after you expended time and resources to draw them to you in the first place, then you may as well consider spending money on your own ill-fated celebrity “buzz” marketing campaign.
James L. Jay is president and CEO of TechPoint, Indiana’s technology industry and entrepreneurship growth initiative. He also serves as president and CEO of TechPoint Ventures, which has invested more than $16 million in early-stage capital in 12 Indiana-based technology companies through HALO Capital Group since 2009. An Indianapolis native, he has a successful track record as an entrepreneur, business leader and public servant.