5 minutes with... Brian Wharton, IT manager, K&S Group

What does your organisation do?

K&S is a major transport and logistics service provider in Australia and New Zealand. We concentrate on line-haul freight for major customers but also provide local distribution and warehousing services. (In line-haul freight, a transport operator moves goods direct from manufacturer to one, or many final destinations.)

Where is your head office and how many employees and end users do you have?

Our head office is in Mt Gambier (South Australia) and we have 900 employees with around 350 users across about 300 PCs. In my IT group we have 13 full-time employees, which I think is a little rare in transport. My team is terrific — a really good mix of business analysis, network administration and application development. We maintain a user helpdesk for all the applications and develop and maintain our own applications. We use a third-party provider for our wider network, which is excellent, and contract support where it is cost-effective. I am finding that, where elements are core, it is best to develop in-house expertise.

What is your IT budget?

About $2.2 million including salaries and the planned IT capital expenditures.

Who do you report to, and who reports to you?

I report to the company secretary as part of corporate administration. However, in K&S the structure is flat and direct communication and decision-making is encouraged. I have good access to the company MD if I need to discuss issues.

What are your key applications?

We have the normal array of e-mail, financials, HR, payroll and the like. Our main operations system for the management of our transport ops is an in-house application named, “Cosmos”. Cosmos has been in service for about seven years now and is showing the strain. The business has changed over the years and this has meant the functionality of the system has been required to change so much that it is now a coder’s nightmare. It is a terrific system and has served us well, but it is time to think about the next operations system. We have been investigating options in this area for about six months and plan to introduce the first stage of the new system during 2004. We shall scope, design, build and implement the system internally — such is the calibre of my team. We are well advanced with the basis having developed our own integration broker and visibility application around six months ago.

What is your key infrastructure?

Like a lot of small-to-medium enterprises, we run NT Server, NT Desktop with Office 97 as an SOE. Each of these is now under immense pressure for change — mainly due to security and maintainability. We are in the process of rolling out new core servers running Server 2000 and any new desktops are now deployed with XP. This affords us significantly improved security, support, compatibility and centralised management of a diverse user base. I expect the transition to continue through to the end of 2004.

How long have you worked in IT?

It’s hard to say when it all started. I am an electronic engineer. I was there when Telecom Australia introduced the original IBM 8088 PC in the early 80s! About five engineers worked for half a day to plug it all together and turn it on. It booted but simply blinked a green-screen DOS prompt at us — even though we didn’t have a desktop app to run on it, we were in awe! It cost us $6000 almost 20 years ago! It has been a steady progression through PCs, telco network planning and design, onto ERP and CRM implementations for various major companies as a director in management consulting with Coopers & Lybrand and then Cap Gemini Ernst & Young. I have been with K&S for almost two years as the group IT manager.

What IT technology do you lust after?

I would like to see everyone’s data and profiles stored ‘in the ether’ so that you could turn on any PC anywhere and it would boot as your PC. I really want to see a worldwide LAN I guess.

What is overhyped right now?

There are heaps of technology components desperately looking for business problems to solve. I have been a PDA user for years but I have to say, real-time e-mail on a PDA is a bit gimmicky!

What are your greatest IT challenges?

Like everyone I guess, getting head-space in the day-to-day turmoil to make valued decisions for the long term. Crocodiles and swamps come to mind. It is getting much better though — we have done a lot of work consolidating, standardising and bullet-proofing our network landscape to support the planned business growth.

What is the most difficult IT decision you have had to make?

A few years back, when demand for IT consulting was at its lowest, I was involved in the large-scale reduction of my consulting team. These were good people who had given their all, but the work was not there so some had to go. I found that the hardest thing I have ever had to do, because they had done nothing wrong.

What is the most exciting IT project or implementation you have been involved in?

Without doubt, the best project I have ever been involved in was the introduction of SAP R/2 to Telstra in 1995. I was the implementation manager and we were spending a million a week on the biggest implementation of SAP in the world at that time — 5500 users is still nothing to be sneezed at. It was a terrific team of people from all quarters — customer, vendor, consultants, contractors. The key to the success came from the director of the project. He insisted that everyone wear a name tag without any company identifier. It worked a treat — it created a single team of people focused on a common goal.

What’s the most pressing issues IT managers face?

End-of-life technology. It churns faster every year. Vendors cannot afford to support a range of versions and they need to add to the top line through upgrades. Whereas once five to six years life was the norm, it is now common for software and hardware versions to time out in three years.

What IT disaster keeps you awake nights?

Our business is heavily dependent upon its systems — more so than perhaps it realises. We use the Internet as a core and growing part of integrating those systems across our company and with our customers. If the Internet fails; we stop — period. I am concerned that the Internet, as a reliable communications medium, may one day get so compromised as to be unusable. Everyone is in the same boat — it would be a major worldwide impact.

What’s been the biggest lifesaver of a purchase or procedure?

An actively managed firewall that blocks hacks, spam, ping floods, viruses — the works. It is updated in real time through a subscription-managed service. It saved us only five days after it was installed.

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