What I learned in the downturn

InfoWorld (US)

In the early days of the current IT downturn, most IT folks I talked to expected a relatively quick rebound — they usually thought a recovery was only six months away, maximum. When the first rounds of layoffs hit companies, many managers took the opportunity to weed out poor performers, which was definitely painful for those poor performers, but usually best for the company. As the going got tougher, many managers were forced to cut deeper into staff and look even harder at operational costs at all levels. I hope we’re nearing the end of the belt-tightening, but even if we haven’t, I’ve learned some very specific lessons that have helped me get through a downturn in which my time and resources are constantly strained.

Standardize your hardware. In many IT shops where I have worked in the past (including ones I’ve managed myself), the IT department buys whatever is least expensive at the time of purchase, and the result can be dozens of different types of hardware in operation at any given time. No big deal — most Wintel hardware is just commodity stuff, right? Yes, that is true to some degree. But in practice, having many kinds of hardware is more inefficient than you might think. At InfoWorld, for example, we standardized a hodge-podge of laptop models into one line just over a year ago. When one of our users has a hardware problem, we simply pull the hard drive from the ailing machine, put it in one of our spares, hand the employee essentially the same machine, and send the problem machine off for service at our leisure. Even with bad hard drives, we have plenty of extras on hand. On the server side, it works the same way. With a small staff that is always pressed for time, you wouldn’t believe what a difference this approach makes.

Use instant messaging. IM is like any other communications medium — it can be abused and overused to the point where it loses its utility. However, without it, I’m not sure I could get as much done every day. The day-to-day work of business management is often just a series of small tactical decisions, but if those small decisions aren’t made quickly, critical business functions can be held up and important opportunities missed. When used appropriately, IM is the perfect medium for making quick decisions without the undue overhead of setting up a meeting. IM occupies a nice middle ground between the highly synchronous world of phone conversations and the asynchronous realm of e-mail. The use of IM can actually free up more time for productive face-to-face meetings that deal with matters of more strategic consequence.

Don’t forget to right-size maintenance contracts. There can be big savings in taking a fresh look at your maintenance agreements. At InfoWorld, new network gear was purchased in early 2001 with growth in mind, but when we entered tough times we ended up with substantial extra gear. When the annual maintenance agreement renewal rolled around, I realized that it would be silly to pay maintenance — if one of our switches went bad, we could simply replace it with one of our extras. Simple idea, of course, but it saved us five figures.