Bimodal Information Technology

08-BimodalITThe Information Technology (IT) environment at most organizations is one of constant innovation that brings in an influx of new information and data. Managing this, along with maintaining existing processes, requires a sound business strategy. Today, the Office of Information Technology (OIT) at the University of Texas at San Antonio is comprised of approximately 150 full-time employees. This staff consists of typical enterprise teams such as developers, server and network administrators, and other positions vital to the daily operations of an IT department. In the past, however, the culture of OIT was that of a traditional IT shop in that teams struggled to keep up with the day-to-day maintenance and operations.

Traditionally, maintaining existing services, upgrading existing applications, and implementing new business applications, along with other tasks, consumed the majority of our work, leaving employees no opportunity for creative development. Despite these many responsibilities, management still expected them to innovate and craft breakthrough ideas for technology. We realized this workload and structure was inefficient and perhaps even hindered innovative development. We needed a team dedicated to keeping UTSA at the forefront of technology while providing the university with a competitive, strategic advantage. As a result of our research, we discovered the concept of Bimodal IT and decided to implement it at UTSA.

Gartner defines Bimodal IT as “having two modes of IT, each designed to develop and deliver information and technology-intensive services in its own way.” Mode One is traditional, emphasizing safety and accuracy. Mode Two is non-sequential, emphasizing agility and speed. Simply put, Mode One means slow and cautious implementation, similar to that of marathon runners, while Mode Two is fast, similar to that of sprinters.

We needed a Mode Two team that was innovative and not impeded by daily maintenance and operational tasks. The original idea for the Mode Two team involved moving quickly toward implementing innovative solutions while keeping in mind that everything the team did may not prove successful. We adopted a “fail fast” strategy that freed us from spending months on a project only to discover that it was not going to work for one reason or another.

An essential practice with the Mode Two side provides a “proof of concept” that does not involve building projects to scale for the entire environment. Mode One team members implement and build the project to scale only after the “proof of concept” in Mode Two has proven successful. To move towards a successful implementation phase, it is crucial for the Mode Two team to provide thorough documentation for the Mode One group.

Forming the Two Modes
Ken Pierce, UTSA’s former Chief Information Officer (CIO) for IT and Vice Provost, fully supported the Bimodal IT concept, which helped pave the way for forming the new team. The first move was to begin assembling the new Mode Two team. OIT selected a director from the systems side of IT along with two technical staff members from the server and desktop support sides of the house. The staff members chosen for the team had a history of innovation within the organization. The director reported to the CIO, who was committed to the concept. With the newly formed team, the next step was to geographically separate the two teams by moving them into a separate building. This was done to ensure that the subject matter experts from the Mode Two team were not pulled back into daily operational tasks the Mode One team was handling.

The current role and responsibilities of the director of the newly formed Mode Two team then transferred to an existing director on the Mode One side of the department. The two directors created and agreed upon a transition plan that listed all of the outstanding Mode One projects and tasks. A corresponding graph was developed to indicate a percentage of time that the new Mode Two staff would be working on Mode One and Mode Two projects. As demonstrated in the graph, there was a four-month transition plan, and the Mode Two staff were not completely dedicated to Mode Two work until April 1, 2015. This graph allowed executive management and stakeholders the opportunity to visualize the progress of the transition plan.

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During the transitions, two professional developers were contracted and two part-time UTSA students were hired to act as assistant developers and provide help in other areas. We hired one student from the Electrical Engineering graduate program and another from the Computer Science program at UTSA. While neither student had years of development and systems architecture under his or her belt, both had experience developing in C++, Java, and other computer technologies. Since the goal was to find students who demonstrated the aptitude and desire to learn, these two students fit the team perfectly.

Our team was finally assembled with two systems professionals, two developers, and two part-time student workers. It was time to start putting our project list together and build out the planning and documentation processes.

From the very beginning of the team’s formation, we focused the projects on transparency. We built the project list into a SharePoint form that was open to all of campus so that the UTSA community could see what the Mode Two team was working on as well as enter requests for new projects. Anyone could enter a project request, but the team reserved the right to approve or disapprove anything from the list. The main criterion for the acceptance of a project request was that it had to provide a business and/or student benefit.

Instead of consuming large amounts of time building long, elaborate project charters and project plans, a process was created that resulted in a simple hypothesis form requiring three key pieces of information:

  • Project summary and problem statement
  • High-level requirements
  • Business or student benefit

A traditional Mode One trait that does not go away is the process of thorough documentation from inception to completion. Since these projects were eventually handed back over to the Mode One teams, it was imperative that build documents, lessons learned, and other information were delivered to the new team tasked with implementing the project.

Key Lessons Learned
The Bimodal concept includes two separate and fully functioning groups. It is essential that management does not forget the Mode One team or allow the Mode Two group to become known as an “elite team.” Management should remember that the Mode One team requires their attention and support because they are, after all, managing the heart of the IT infrastructure.

The leadership style of the Mode Two team should be democratic and focus on collaboration. Everything should be designed to function within a collaborative environment.

It may take time for the Mode Two team to change their mindset and ways of doing things. Managers can coach and remind them to start thinking in the new mindset. It is important to have the full support of senior management, especially the CIO’s when managers begin working with the Mode One Team.

Both teams (Mode One and Mode Two) offer two different ways of approaching projects and solving problems. When both teams are used properly and to their full potential, the entire IT department can benefit and produce impressive results.

Don’t assume your white-haired customers aren’t on social media

08-GreyHairSocialImagine it’s 1955 and your next door neighbor is watching Gunsmoke on his fancy, new TV. But you’re not really into this newfangled gadget with its grainy moving pictures. So, you’re listening to your radio – The Lucky Strike Program with Jack Benny is on.

The way you see it, TV is just a passing fad. Like the Hula Hoop, poodle skirts, or air travel. None of these things appeal to you, so you project your distaste onto the world at large and assume TV will fade away. “TV will be long gone soon, so why waste time and money on it?” you say to yourself.

That’s the thing with social media. Folks who aren’t into Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc., often assume that since they aren’t fans, these new communications channels are either just passing fads or only for the young. Boy, are they wrong to assume that.

Look, I write this as a 50-something guy who grew up loving radio, TV and – gasp! – newspapers printed on actual paper. If time and the unstoppable march of technological progress had stopped 30 or 40 years ago, I wouldn’t have minded. The Internet, Skype, smart phones, Pandora, podcasting, YouTube, Dropbox – these and so many other communications, information and entertainment technologies wouldn’t exist if the calendar still said today was May 18, 1985. People would still be reaching for a printed Yellow Pages book to find a local company. And life would go on anyway.

But the pages of the calendar keep flipping. And over the years, millions upon millions of people in my age range have embraced the new ways of communicating. Don’t make me whip out a string of statistics—you can see this with your own bespectacled eyes—but middle-aged and senior citizens are all over social media. Yes, Instagram skews younger and Facebook skews older. But it’s quite common to see a head full of white hair cocked over an iPhone, with thumbs flailing out a new social post.

Yet not a week goes by that I don’t hear a white haired client or colleague tell me that their customers are older and, therefore, they don’t see a need to engage their organization in social media. “Our customers/members/clients still like doing things the old way, with pen and paper,” they’ll say. Or, “They don’t really use stuff like ‘Tweeter’ so it would be a waste of time for us to set up an account. Our printed newsletter still works just fine.”

It’s hard to know where to begin in responding to those kinds of statements. But let’s take a shot.

First, no one should assume the people they need to reach aren’t social media users. A simple survey of customers/members/prospects/etc. could be a real eye opener on this one. We should also not assume that someone not using social media today will never become a social media maven. Hey, some folks just got their first cell phone within the past year, and I bet the vast majority of them will never give it up.

Second, if the company or organization in question currently revolves around older customers or members, that should be a red flag. (Or perhaps a white flag to match the dominant hair color.) In other words, the long-term viability of the organization may depend on recruiting younger members or customers. Do you think you’re more likely to attract them with an ad in the printed newspaper or with a highly targeted social media campaign? And does your absence from social media automatically lead those younger prospects to conclude that your organization is only for older folks?

I know. Letting go of the old ways is hard. But one way to evolve into the modern era is to do just that—evolve. Gradually. Take a few baby steps to creating your organization’s social media presence and get comfortable with the basics of how it all works. Start a couple of accounts. Facebook and Twitter are easy to use, and you’ll very quickly pick up on some great tools, like hashtags and sharing, for connecting with your audience.

Remember, effective marketing isn’t about what you like. It’s about what your customers like, where they are, and how they want to interact with you. Hint: More and more of them—of all ages—are on social media. You need to be there, too.

Backup and Disaster Recovery

08-backupRecently we had a technology group meeting regarding backup and disaster recovery. During the course of the presentation, the topic generated many points of discussion regarding the best ways to perform backups and what solutions seemed to work the best in the personal experience of those in attendance. Suffice it to say, the opinions were quite varied. This made me think: if there were that many different opinions on the topic among technology professionals, then it surely must be confusing for the everyday consumer or IT professional who has not had a lot of experience in this segment of the IT industry! So, I thought I’d try to shed some light on some of the types of solutions that are available and what users may expect from them.

The types of backup solutions that are typically seen in small businesses are:

  • Portable (USB) hard drives – These are typically hooked up to a server or main PC, and files are backed up to the portable drives either automatically via software or manually by a key person in the office or the IT professional. These portable drives typically are set up to save a certain number of backups onto each drive before the oldest backups are overwritten with the newest ones. Multiple portable drives can also be used to create a rotation to extend the number of backup sets that are kept and to allow drives to be taken offsite in the event of a catastrophe.
  • Cloud backups – These are a category in and of themselves, and there are countless solutions available. Some of the most common solutions are Carbonite, Mozy, and Crashplan. These backups are typically set to run on a daily basis in an automated fashion. Some offer unlimited data storage, and others have data limits set by the package that is being paid for on a monthly basis. These online backup solutions also typically have retention period settings that determine how many days, weeks, or months the data sets are backed up for (i.e., how far you can go back and recover data).
  • BDR (Backup & Disaster Recovery) Devices – These devices are in most situations the equivalent of having a backup server in your office. They provide both onsite backup and cloud backup as well. The backups performed on these devices are typically snapshots of your in-house server that are stored both locally and in multiple data centers in different locations to provide redundant protection from catastrophes by geographically locating your data in multiple secure locations. This solution can also give you the ability to bring up a virtual instance of your server in your cloud environment if there is damage to your physical property that houses your server, or the ability to bring up a virtual instance of your server on the local appliance in your physical building in the event that your server or servers fail to provide time to fix whatever the issue might be while minimizing downtime.

The above solutions are listed in the order of how well they generally work as well as the amounts they typically cost on an ongoing basis.

Some observations I have made over the years that people may not be aware of until they have had a situation where they have a need to restore data or recover from a disaster are as follows:

  • Even if you are using a cloud backup solution, you should always still also have some form of onsite backup solution. The reason for this, depending on the amount of data you are backing up to the cloud, is that even with a modern day high speed Internet connection, you could be talking about hours or days to download all of your data from the cloud backup provider, versus restoring much more quickly from a local backup. Some cloud backup companies will overnight you a hard drive (referred to as seeding) with your data on it for a fee, but this still involves a lot more downtime as compared to just restoring from the local backup and reserving the cloud backup for a situation where your local backup has failed or you have a disaster you are dealing with at your building site.
  • A backup is only as good as your last restore. Commonly, backups are being performed and emails or status reports are sent out saying that backups are being completed successfully. However, without doing a test restore of some of the files being backed up, there is no guarantee that you could actually restore your files (whether from a cloud backup or onsite).
  • Dropbox is not a backup solution. Dropbox is a good solution to synchronize files between multiple computers, devices, and other people, but it is not a backup solution. There is revision history where you can go back and bring back old versions of files, but to restore your entire data set or entire folders all at once from dropbox is not possible with the consumer version of dropbox (which is what most people use). Only the business version of dropbox allows for full folder restores. That being said, it is still recommended to perform your own backups of your dropbox or other file synchronization software data.
  • What type of backup are we running? If you are like a lot of companies, then you likely could still just be performing file level backups. The issue with only performing file level backups and not a “bare metal” restore type backup is that if your server crashes and you have to perform a restore from a file level backup, the server will typically have to be rebuilt from scratch before the backed up data can be restored to it. This is very time consuming and contributes to a lot of downtime versus having a “bare metal” restore backup solution, which is like taking a snapshot of your server so that it can be restored from absolutely nothing in a much faster manner.

The moral of the story is that there are a lot of backup solutions out there with different functionalities. It is best to know what solutions are out there, what your current backup solution is, and what kind of downtime you are looking at in the event of hardware failure or disaster.

If you would like a review of your current backup solution setup or to talk more in-depth about the available options, feel free to contact me.