Friday, October 06, 2006

Automation Attempts without Executive Sponsorship = Failure

I’m part of a team that works with numerous companies attempting to inject a higher degree of automation in their IT operations, specifically within database administration (DBA). We are more successful in making this happen in some companies than others. Even companies in the same industry sometimes have dramatically varied results. I have often wondered why this is the case. After all, DBA work is DBA work and there is a huge amount of commonality – no matter what individuals working within that company may think per se.

When I put my finger on the pulse of this issue, it boils down to one core element: executive management involvement or lack of it. While we typically go into a company from the top down (at the C-level or VP-level), the Executive often hands us over to middle-management who in some cases, then hands us over to the DBA team. We are very successful in implementing automation within companies where the Executive keeps track of where we are traversing within his/her organization and the reactions we are getting from his/her team, even after the hand-off. In case, the DBAs or their managers are not that automation-friendly and push back saying their environment is too complex to automate, a red flag goes off in the Executive’s head. He/she probes further - Why is this the case? Have we backed ourselves into a corner due to the variety of customizations we have done over the years? What can be done to simplify the environment? Can we still automate some tasks that are the most painful/time-consuming? Without this thought process occuring and without the Executive being engaged, it is difficult to attain positive results.

Does this mean that middle managers and DBAs are not to be trusted with evaluating automation options? Not necessarily… Middle managers and DBAs that are typically tasked with evaluating and validating automation-enabling products are already busy with their day-to-day work. Any free time is taken up by meetings. This makes it hard for even the DBA with the best of intentions to invest time in the process thereby causing it to die on the vine or alternatively, being pushed out until no one remembers any longer what this effort was all about. In spite of automation having the capability to significantly enhance their environment and help them reduce their task burden, the effort never takes off.

There are seven simple things Executives can do to ensure this doesn’t happen:
1. Be up-to-date on virtualization and automation technologies and some of the activity from especially startups in this space. (Interestingly, almost all innovation comes from startups; I feel industry giants are incapable of innovating, I will elabore more on that in a future blog…).

2. Talk to your peers to find out what they are doing to reduce their pain of managing large number of databases. Have they pursued any innovative approaches?

3. Talk to your favorite analysts about which companies they are seeing as emerging stars in this space. (For instance, an analyst I follow closely is Noel Yuhanna from Forester Research. He provides a rather unique perspective on this space. For example, see

4. Don’t hesitate to get into the weeds. Meet with your line-level IT managers and DBAs at least once a quarter. Challenge them to think out of the box. Ask them to come up with solutions besides just throwing more bodies at the problem. The latter approach doesn’t scale in the long run. Make them feel comfortable that their jobs are not at stake. Show them by example that their value in the organization will only increase by them investing time in strategic initiatives such as standardization and automation.

5. Help your executive admins be more aware of technology areas that are interesting to you (such as data center management technologies, IT automation tools, etc.) That way, when vendors in this space attempt to reach you, your gatekeepers can properly vet them and see if their offerings fall in any of the “interesting” categories and if so, bring them to your attention.

6. After the initial due diligence with these vendors, if any of them are brought in for a more detailed evaluation or a proof of concept, keep your ear to the ground on how their efforts are progressing. Have periodic status meetings with your internal people as well as the vendor representatives to understand each party’s perspectives and coach both sides to achieve success.

7. Work with your internal team and help them re-prioritize some of their activities so they have appropriate time and energy to work on these high-value areas with the vendor. Otherwise it becomes an exercise in futility if the attention span of the internal staff is very limited during the evaluation.

These steps seem overly dewy-eyed, but yet it is painful to see so many Executives ignore these and toss any automation related messaging to their subordinates expecting them to magically have the time to fit yet another thing in their already packed schedules. It’s a straight equation:

New Technology Initiatives without Adequate Exec Sponsorship = Failure!

With the above approach, Executives will be able to more effectively speerhead new technology initiatives and leverage the ones that really add value to their organizations in the shortest amount of time.


Anonymous said...

You are right. I'm a project manager and a customer of the DBA group in our company. They have been claiming to be automating things for years now. But things still don't work properly and the support level is horrible. I don't think our CIO or any senior manager has bothered to look into what they have been doing. The bottomline, is no value to the company.

Paul Robison said...

Best of luck getting the CIO's time.