Tuesday, 20 November 2012

How not to manage an IT dept

I think enough water has flowed under the bridge for me to talk about my experiences as IT manager in a small start up company where I worked until 6 years ago. The characters and events described herein are entirely genuine; only the facts have been changed to protect the innocent.

Having previously worked as Computer Services Manager for a UK retailer, the job sounded like everything I could have wished for - head of IT for a small company producing and selling digital media (that's ringtones for the civilians out there). Hands-on IT work, developing software. Hence I  was happy to accept the job at a significant salary cut from my previous job where I was increasingly just managing contracts.

I joined the company near the end of it's first year of trading when it had a turnover of just £80,000 but promising things were afoot. In the following year, it turned over £2M, then £4M, and was on target for £6M when I left 30 months later. But within a year of my departure it had stopped trading and subsequently wet into liquidation. I'd like to think that I had something to do with its success while I was there. But for now I'll start at the beginning.

In terms of infrastructure they were unusual in doing their own hosting. The implementation of the infrastructure was remarkably well thought out. The code which ran their websites and PRS IVR systems however left a lot to be desired. The code had been delivered an East-European individual who operated through a chain of shell companies. He was then sub-contracting the work to the cheapest bidder. Hence the code was all in different styles and not very sophisticated. However, to be fair, since each page (PHP script) had no dependencies on any other bit of code at least any issues were well isolated, and the code was commented in English.

I was expected to take on the management of the infrastructure and some of the development work, with the plan that I would build a small team of in-house developers. Looking after the servers was easy enough - I made relatively few changes to the configuration. But based on my previous experience, I did spend a lot more time defining and documenting processes than my employers were really comfortable with, although anyone with a background in CMMI / ITIL would probably have said that I didn't go nearly far enough. Along side this I was developing new functionality for the systems and trying to recruit more IT staff.

As this was after the internet bubble had burst, people describing themselves as web developers were ten-a-penny - and that's about all I was able to offer them in a salary. But I really needed competent software engineers / analyst programmers - that the sites were mostly developed in PHP was merely an implementations detail. Hence my first big problem was how to recruit and retain people with real programming skills at half the salary which was available elsewhere.

The story will continue in a future post....