Top 10 qualities of a great IT shop

Unlike other professions, IT doesn't seem to have a common set of basic principles across companies.

No two IT shops conduct business in the same way: CIOs report to various executives, project approval processes are all over the board, and personnel policies are vastly different. Unlike other professions, IT doesn't seem to have a common set of basic principles across companies.

But some best practices have bubbled to the top. If I were anticipating a move to a new company or evaluating an IT shop as a consultant, here are the most important practices I'd be looking for:

1. The CIO reports to the CEO or, at least, the chief operating officer. This is vital to the success of the IT department. It gives the CIO clout and ensures IT's independence.

2. There is an IT steering committee composed of C-level executives from the business units. The executives make their decisions based on some set of priorities and criteria such as ROI. The committee is necessary to ensure that allocation decisions are made in the interests of the entire company, not of an individual department.

3. The IT shop uses up-to-date software and hardware. It should also have reasonable policies for PC software upgrades and other regular system updates. In addition, the company should be spending an appropriate percentage of corporate revenue on IT. This indicates the company's level of commitment to IT.

4. There is a high-visibility system security team. Since security is one of the most vulnerable areas of IT, it must be well managed.

5. There is an ongoing disaster recovery process involving users, and a documented recovery plan that is tested regularly. Commitment to security and disaster recovery indicates the importance of IT to senior management.

6. There is an ongoing commitment to training to keep IT staffers up to date. This should include attendance at technology conventions as well as training seminars and industry events. If there is a lack of training and a parallel use of consultants, you know that the focus is not on in-house staff.

7. There is rigid adherence to some system development life cycle (SDLC) that is understood by IT and the user community alike. (Knowing how IT works helps users interact with IT more effectively.) Any of several SDLC plans may be used, depending on the type of project, but the process of selecting the approach should be documented. This gives you some insight into the professionalism of the IT organization.

8. There are established technical and managerial career paths that enable workers to remain technical and achieve higher pay and status within the organization. This is the only way to retain top technical people who have no interest in managing others.

9. IT produces, at minimum, a monthly status report that shows progress on all major IT projects. This document should be widely distributed throughout the company. Its existence shows the level of interest of IT within the organization.

10. IT sits at the long-range planning table and participates. If this is lacking, it is a sure sign that IT is looked at as an implementer and not an enabler.

These are the things I would look for in a top IT shop. I have seen many shops that follow some of these practices, but few that follow all of them.

If you agree or disagree or would like to suggest other practices, please let me know. Perhaps with such a dialogue, our industry could at last agree on some basic principles that would be common across the majority of IT shops. Such consistency would be a big step forward in the growth of IT professionalism.

This is the third in a series of columns on some of the things I've learned about managing people during my 40 years in IT. Previously, I discussed how to determine when you are not delegating enough, and how much to tell your boss when you're about to make a decision. You can find those columns online at www.computerworld.com/opinions .

Paul M. Ingevaldson retired as CIO at Ace Hardware Corp. in 2004 after 40 years in the IT business. Contact him at ingepi@aol.com.

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