5 hot tech projects to boost your IT career

Take the reins of any of these five forward-looking initiatives and become an IT hero in the eyes of upper management
  • (InfoWorld)
  • 07 November, 2011 22:06

Too many projects, too little time: That's the sad lament of many IT professionals who must constantly balance the needs of the enterprise against the desires of business users -- all while keeping a close eye on the newest technologies coming at them from every direction.

Still, some less obvious projects may pay bigger dividends in the long run, both for the company and, more important, for your career. A sure hand on the reins of the massive influx of mobile devices into your network will be a boon to the organization -- and will get you noticed. So too will sussing out a sound social media strategy, spearheading a crisis response team, or merging your development and operations teams to accelerate your ability to bring new apps online.

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Then there are the troves of data your company has been collecting just waiting to be mined to improve decision-making.

Done well, these five projects will make you a hero to upper management while enabling the organization to move forward:

What IT projects do you think are essential? Post your comments here (Add a comment) so that all our readers can share them.

Essential IT Project No. 1: Streamline your company dataIt's hard to resist the allure of big data. Gather enough data points, harness enough computing horsepower to crunch them, and you can predict what your company's customers will want before they even know they want it. You'll be a hero, and the business will own a license to print money. That's the promise, anyway.

The problem? Most organizations already have more data than they can handle, much of it inconsistently defined and captured in incompatible ways. So when decision-makers show up at meetings, they spend all of their time arguing about whose data is correct, not what the data is telling them to do, says Chris Stephenson, co-founder of Arryve Consulting.

The project you want to own is to simplify that data, make sense of it, and use it to propel the company forward.

Step one: Take the conflicting streams of data collected by different systems in your organization and consolidate them into a single database before business users ever get their mitts on it, advises Stephenson. To do that you'll need to work with business users to identify the important data points and arrive at common definitions.

"That's much easier said than done," he says. "But it will ensure that a company is managing to one version of the truth and allow multidepartment conversations to focus on the decisions the data is driving, not the data itself."

But even big data doesn't have to be that big. While you're waiting for that multi-million-dollar business intelligence initiative to pay dividends, you can employ "tactical BI" -- isolating the information that really matters to business leaders so they can make decisions more quickly, says Bill Brydges, managing director in MorganFranklin's Performance Improvement practice.

"Say Company A acquires Company B," says Brydges. "The CFO of Company A needs to look at the consolidated financials of both companies, and he doesn't have time to wait for IT to run it through its data warehouse. You need a tactical solution that can quickly pull data from multiple sources into a tool like Excel or SharePoint so your CFO can use it right away."

The key is to do it in a structured way so that results are consistent no matter what data is input or who does it, Brydges says.

"If you're going to create a spreadsheet where you mix the financials of Company A and Company B, you need to define the architecture so the next time someone asks for this, you don't start with a blank spreadsheet that produces different results and then have to create a third spreadsheet to reconcile the two," he adds.

That means business and IT need to work together to identify the bits of of data that drive results and figure out the best ways to mine them.

So, if this is such a great idea, why isn't everyone doing it? "Because it's hard to do," says Stephenson. "There are tons of companies stuck in the middle of $6 million BI projects. People are afraid it's too big to tackle. But our definition of 'big' is changing. In 10 years, everybody will be living in the world of what we consider Big Data today. There's no reason you can't start out by using smaller subsets of data to validate your ideas before investing too much time or money in a big initiative."

Essential IT Project No. 2: Master your mobile devicesThe consumerization of IT is here to stay. The question is, What are you going to do about it?

You have two choices: Resist and kiss your career ambitions good-bye, or embrace it and win the undying respect of the C-suite executives who really want to use their iPads at work, even if they're not entirely sure why.

The project IT pros need to wrap their arms around is the mobile device dilemma: How to manage devices securely, provision them efficiently, and make your bosses happy without compromising the integrity of your network, says Mike Meikle, principal of Hawkthorne Group.

Even if you or your enterprise aren't quite ready to jump with both feet into the realm of mobile device management, you should at least be conversant with all the options available to you, he adds.

"A lot of IT folks will simply say no, they don't want those devices in their environment," says Meikle. "That's not going to fly, especially if this is being driven by executives. If you're approached by senior management about what it will take to integrate these devices into the enterprise and you say they're too risky or that you want to take a wait-and-see approach, you're not going to look so good. Being knowledgeable about what solutions are available will make you look like a pro to the business side of the organization."

If your enterprise is thinking about going BYOD, you'll have to figure out how to securely sandbox those corporate apps and what kind of authentication hoops users will jump through in order to log on, he adds.

You'll also need to take a deep dive in the mobile apps pool. If you have the programming chops to develop mobile apps that align with your business objectives, go for it. But even if you don't, you should be familiar with the apps commonly used in your company's industry, and be provisioning a store of approved apps your business customers can select and install with a click.

If this is such a great idea, why isn't everyone doing it? Transitioning from a legacy mobile device infrastructure (typically BlackBerry) isn't trivial, notes Meikle, especially if you are planning to support multiple mobile platforms.

Until recently, managing iOS devices required a Corporate Apple Developer Certificate, which some organizations -- particularly those in government -- were loath to obtain due to their issues with the terms and conditions of Apple's developer agreement. Meikle says Apple recently relaxed its policies to make it easier to manage devices in the enterprise.

Even so, mobile device management solutions are still relatively immature, and there are few clear-cut choices. "These devices are only a couple of years old, and enterprise IT doesn't typically turn on a dime," he says. "So trying to come up with the right solution can be difficult."

Essential IT Project No. 3: Become a devops shopTens of thousands of developers have adopted agile development methodologies -- a highly iterative approach that keeps coding projects from going off the rails, out of scope, or over budget. But when those projects need to move from the development team to operations for load or functionality testing, they're no longer so agile.

"When programmers have to put in a request for system resources and go through that whole approval and provisioning process, projects can stop dead in their tracks," says Brian Moloney, managing partner of Web design and development firm Imaginary Landscape. 

The project you need to own: Building a cross-functional devops team that blends programming chops with sysadmin acumen to keep projects flowing. "It requires a blended skill set," says Moloney. "Programmers need the authority to make administrative changes, and Ops needs to know how to do a little coding. That way the dev team doesn't have to stop the flow of what it's doing to disconnect and then reconnect the project."

Interdisciplinary skills become even more important as organizations build apps to run in the cloud, says Todd Olson, vice president of products at Rally Software, an agile project management and coaching firm. "Developing for the cloud affects how software is written," he says. "Coordinating what happens to that binary after it leaves Dev's hands is even harder. If you're doing both agile and cloud deployment, devops becomes something you really can't ignore."

The best way to get started? "Select a small proof-of-concept project, pluck people from each silo, put them in a room together, and look at the result," says Moloney.

If this is such a great idea, why isn't everyone doing it? A lot of organizations haven't solved the first problem, yet -- getting good code out the door quickly, says Olson. Interdepartmental politics also plays a role, especially in larger organizations. And the devops concept is still fairly new, while divisions between developers and admins are not.

"Dev people and ops people speak different languages," Olson says. "The role of the ops guy is to reduce risk so he doesn't get desperate phone calls on the weekend. The goal of the dev team is to produce as much good new stuff as possible. There's a conflict there. You can't just buy a tool to make it happen. It requires a change in culture."

Essential IT Project No. 4: Create a crisis response teamWhen Sony's PlayStation Network was taken down by hackers last spring, spilling some 77 million customers' records, the electronics giant responded by doing just about everything wrong, says Christopher Budd, a former member of Microsoft's worldwide crisis response communications team.

After the network went offline last April, Sony failed to acknowledge or explain the cause of the outage. For a week the company provided virtually no information -- allowing the press and blogosphere to fill the gap with speculation and misinformation, says Budd, who now runs his own crisis communications company.

The reason? Sony lacked an effective incident response process for online security and privacy issues, something even smaller organizations need to implement. "Any organization that's a custodian of customer data needs to spend time figuring out what it's going to do if something happens to that data," he says. "Besides avoiding damage to their reputations, they also need to protect themselves against legal and regulatory risks."

Nearly every state has laws requiring organizations to notify customers in the event of a data breach. Publicly traded companies must also worry about the impact of security and privacy incidents on their share price.

Building an emergency response team means marshaling resources across the organization -- legal, communications, and technical. It also requires a mandate from top management that empowers the team to do what needs to be done, swiftly and without interference, Budd adds.

"You need to get out there as quickly as possible and be as transparent as you can be," he says. "You need to say what has happened, and also what hasn't happened. Because one way or another, the story will get out. You want to be the one to step out onto the stage, grab the microphone, and take charge of the situation."

Because it bungled its initial response, by the time Sony finally did something right -- shutting down the network for a month and rebuilding it piece by piece, taking a huge financial hit in the process -- it got almost no credit for it, says Budd.

However, Sony may have learned its lesson, he adds. After thwarting attempts by hackers to access nearly 100,000 PSN accounts earlier this month, Sony got ahead of the crisis by reporting it quickly and in detail, minimizing further damage to its reputation.

So, if this is such a great idea, why isn't everyone doing it? Most organizations are focused on generating revenues, not on the bad things that might happen to them, says Budd. Crisis response can be expensive, and many companies simply lack the expertise.

"When people get in trouble, a lot of them automatically start acting like five-year-olds," he adds. "Their first response is to cover it up. It takes a certain amount of courage to go out on stage in front of a hostile audience and say, 'Here's the bad thing that's going on now.' It's easier to adopt a bunker mentality."

Essential IT Project No. 5: Gain control over social mediaLike iPads and iPhones, Facebook, Twitter, and their ilk are finding their way into the workplace whether IT officially endorses them or not. Organizations that aren't steering the social media bus are likely to end up with tire tracks on their backs -- and, worse, a real security nightmare on their hands.

"If you do not provide the means for business users to access social media, they will go around you," says Justin Kwong, senior director of IT operations and security at 24 Hour Fitness. "That's a worst-case scenario for a security professional, because instead of having some mitigated risk, you're fully exposed."

The project you want to own is bringing social media into the workplace in a way that benefits the enterprise without leaving it exposed to internal leaks, external threats, or embarrassment, says Meikle.

That means helping to create social media policies that define acceptable and unacceptable behavior on social networks, as well as the kinds of information that should never be shared. But even that won't work without first obtaining buy-in from top management.

"Effective policies for how to use social media must be governed and supported by senior management," says Meikle. "This will allow employees to engage customers at a far more personal level. And employees will understand the boundaries they are constrained by when these policies and tools are communicated and supported by senior management."

So, if this is such a great idea, why isn't everyone doing it? Corporations remain wary of social networks, says Meikle, in part because Web 2.0 security solutions are still relatively immature. Enterprises in heavily regulated industries like finance and health care face severe penalties for accidental data leaks, making them especially cautious.

"Social media has to be carefully monitored in these environments so sensitive information is not released," he says. "It also opens a door for malicious actors to gather data on key individuals in the corporation. That's why effective and well-communicated social media usage policies are critical."

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