The New IT Survival Guide: How to Thrive After the Recession

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Better budgets will help IT transition to the "new normal"

If the recession that started some three years ago was a hurricane that blew away IT budgets, business is now living with calmer but still unsettled weather. Instead of cuts, increases of 2 or 3 percent are common now. But mundane "run the business" expenses are taking a backseat to initiatives, particularly around cloud computing, that will save money in the not-too-distant future, says Tata's Sing Rajpal.

Sing Rajpal has probably never heard of Steve Davidek, but the Tata executive and the system administrator for the city of Sparks, Nev., are speaking the same language. Sparks, with a population of about 88,000, was hit hard by the recession, and when it came time to trim services, the IT department was in the cross-hairs, losing 6 of its 14 full-time employees.

During the very worst of the budget crunch, Davidek's budget for new projects was zero, and it was all he could do to keep the city's network up and running. Things are looking a little better now, and if the recession doesn't go double-dip, he expects to launch projects that will modernize his infrastructure and keep costs down. "Running leaner is my new normal," he says.

First on Davidek's list is upgrading his 45-server data center: "We're about half virtualized now, and it's been a really positive experience." He plans to virtualize more of it, and then initiate a desktop-virtualization project. One reason: His inventory of PCs is getting old, but rather than replace them, he may use them as clients. Or, if the money is there, he'll buy thin client machines. Either way, he figures on significant savings.

Davidek knows that desktop virtualization has not really taken off. But while his budgets were frozen, he made a point of being active in his user group (HP Connect) and says he's gotten encouragement from other members to take the plunge. He even brought in a vendor to virtualize one PC as a test, and the results were excellent, he says.

Embracing the "bring your own tech" culture

Meanwhile, Davidek and other IT executives are also embroiled in a culture war over the use of personal technology (think smartphones and iPads) and social networking in business, the "bring your own tech" movement. "We want to hire a younger group of people used to using that kind of technology. We can't be the roadblock," he says.

In the old IT, where marketing would see a business opportunity and HR would see a way to hire younger, hipper employees, IT would see security threats and threats to job security. Larry Miller, who has headed IT for large retailers and legal firms, saw this conflict firsthand: "Our marketers wanted to use social networking like Facebook and Twitter; IT was afraid of it." Although Miller has been an IT hand for more than two decades, he comes down on the side of the new technology. "IT shouldn't get in the way of business. It should build it," he says.

Such "old IT" conservatism is being challenged from the top, says Cisco's Sterns. "CEOs read about [new technology] in the inflight magazines. They hear that they can get results for an eighth the cost and they ask IT why they're not doing it," he says. Sterns was referring to cloud computing (which is both a form of "bring your own tech" and a form of outsourcing), but the CEOs are of course bombarded with news about iPhones, Twitter, and the like and thus want to know why their companies are being left behind.

The acceptance of adopting new, consumer-oriented technologies and supporting the heterogeneity of "bring your own tech" won't happen over night, particularly at very large enterprises, but it's a battle that "old IT" will lose in the long run.

The value of soft skills

Not everyone who succeeds in IT leadership will have a résumé like Intuit's Lee -- and hard-core technical skills remain critical in many positions. For example, "everyone wants to use virtualization," says Sean Dowling, manger of recruiting for Winter Wyman, a technology contracting firm "Also at a premium are UI skills and the ability to take mobile apps across hardware platforms," he says.

But senior executives like Adam Rice, vice president of Managed Security Services for Tata Communications, says when he hires for high-level jobs he's looking for the "soft skills" as well, such as risk management, compliance, and the intangible "business acumen."

Intangible? Maybe, but Intuit CEO Smith explains how he wants his IT mangers to think: "When something goes wrong, the purely technical person tells management that the network was down for four minutes. But the business-oriented person says the network was down and 55,000 customers couldn't reach us, and our call center was backed up for hours." That's the "new normal."

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