DECISIONS: Keep it simple

How do you juggle available skill sets, keep the infrastructure running, the projects under way and keep users and customers happy?

Luxury is a luxury that most smaller IT shops cannot afford.

The exigencies of doing the same as the big end of town but with greatly diminished resources (people, time, skills, money) means that efficiencies must be applied. Whereas a large player may have a roomful of developers or business analysts, most smaller IT shops are limited to single digits and fractions of skilled employees to draw upon.

And you can only stretch people so far before they break.

For Mike Solomons, CIO of law firm Gilbert + Tobin (G+T), the issue has come down to optimizing the resources he has and maximizing the benefits, and that has meant giving serious thought to whether you hire more people, train those you have or bring in contractors on an "as-needed" basis. It has also meant looking seriously at packaged applications versus developing their own, which may mean forgoing some functionality in favour of ease of integration.

While G+T is widely acknowledged as one of the most successful law firms to emerge in Australia in the past 15 years, like other organizations it still faces the same IT challenge of resource management. This is the stuff that most IT managers face every day, particularly those with limited resources - how do I get most bang for my buck, keep the infrastructure running, anticipate needs and keep the customers satisfied?

Although Solomons says this has not brought great changes to his operations, what it has meant is that some re-evaluation has taken place.

The contract solution

"I think it's a constant battle for any IT shop, large or small, to have the right mix of skill sets in-house," Solomons says.

As much as they can be an organization's most valuable asset, permanent employees can at times be a constraint for managers - they have their specific skills, and they can be sent on courses to upgrade those skills, but there is always a learning curve to be considered.

The alternative is to get in a contractor to fill the gaps on a short-term basis. "They're at the top of the learning curve," Solomons says. "They've learnt their skills somewhere else, they know all about an application or the problem you've got and can be instantly productive."

He admits it is a juggling act between permanent staffs versus contractors, but it is one that he is willing to perform.

Serving a total staff of 350, G+T's IT department currently has 16 people - four IT service desk, four infrastructure and operations, four on applications development, two on IT training, one IT admin assistant and himself. One of those in applications development is a contractor, while two additional contractors are used on short-term projects as required.

Solomons thinks getting in contractors is a cost-effective way of doing things. Given that a contractor who comes on board is productive from just about day one, while they may cost more per hour than a permanent employee, that can be traded off against productivity. "And," Solomons says with a smile, "the beauty with contractors is you can try before you buy."

G+T now brings in contractors for periods of weeks to months to complete specific projects, and while there may not exactly be a steady stream of new faces coming and going, the presence of at least one contractor at any one time is not unusual.

Recent projects that contractors have been brought in for include the firm's migration from Lotus Notes to Exchange/Outlook, its implementation of a development platform in ASP.Net, as well as a review of printer and scanner requirements.

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