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Interim report card on O'Reilly's IT transformation

Six months in and there is much to celebrate and plenty of work still to be done.

report cardLast year O’Reilly Media committed to a new journey: An IT strategy was adopted with the intent to transform the way technology was delivered to support the goals of the business. It was equal parts ambitious and essential.

We’re more than six months into the execution of that strategy and it’s clear there is still significant work to do be done to realize the benefits. Some things have gone really well and some areas continue to challenge us. In this blog I’ll share and grade our progress to date.

While continuing to have success in the marketplace, O’Reilly Media recognized that supporting the future needs of the organization would require a rethinking of how IT was delivered. Motivated by the same growth factors as many businesses, O’Reilly Media required more innovative solutions, delivered with greater speed, and at the right cost.

Working closely with leaders and other key stakeholders across the O’Reilly Media businesses resulted in an IT strategy that was agreed upon in the fall of 2010. The strategy was based on four major pillars:

  1. Governance
  2. Architecture
  3. Strategic sourcing
  4. Hybrid cloud

I discussed the four pillars in a previous post.

Here’s how we’ve done in each of these four areas:

1. Governance

There’s one indubitable truth to all IT organizations: demand for services always exceeds supply. Try as you might, it’s an appetite that can’t be met. One of the core goals of IT governance is to ensure — with so many competing demands — that the right things are being prioritized and addressed.

Responding to the person who screams loudest is not an IT governance strategy.

In reality, governing priorities require a process that is well understood and supported across all teams. It’s also considered a burden, albeit an essential burden I would argue, and can meet with considerable resistance. I wrote about the difficulty in implementing IT governance here.

At O’Reilly Media I am really proud of our progress with IT governance. I do recognize that some of the progress is back-office and not immediately apparent to our end-users. I’m confident that will come in time. All the essential components of IT governance are in place and it is fully operational. The process begins at ideation and runs across decision-making right through to implementation. Today we have a fully agreed upon IT roadmap of projects that stretches to 12 months and soon we will have a view of the next 18 months. It’s a process that has enabled us to move forward with essential projects such as business intelligence and author tools. Bravo!

The grade for this area reflects the fact that the full process is only recently functional and it is still not in a state where most people who interact with IT can see the full value. What we have to do is refine the process, make it much more agile and lightweight where it makes sense, and demonstrate results that clearly show it is the right way to align technology with business goals.

Grade: B-

2. Architecture

O’Reilly Media, like most businesses, runs a collection of complex systems that support its operations. And like most businesses those systems have evolved over time as needs dictated. Unfortunately, unless there had been a grand master plan back at the beginning, things work because of brute-force efforts at integration; not because of a well thought-out multi-year architectural plan. That’s no criticism of our business. It’s just the way things have happened for most organizations.

An enterprise architecture approach aims to reverse this trend and take the long view. It means ensuring that IT is designed and aligned to support the goals and strategies of the business. To do this, the structure and processes of the business must be well understood and documented.

In O’Reilly IT, our first step was to create a new position to lead our architecture strategy. The solutions architect role was filled and that person is now beginning to describe the next steps and create milestones in the difficult but highly rewarding journey ahead of us.

There is much to be done, such as creating an architectural review board to govern standards and make critical design decisions; to fully enumerate an IT service catalog; and to integrate an architectural mindset into solutions development.

I’m going to assign this a lower grade. It’s not a reflection of the challenge and our success to date. It’s merely an appreciation of the level of effort ahead of us.

Grade: C

3. Strategic Sourcing

While acknowledging the concerns people have over strategic sourcing, it’s an area of our strategy that everyone easily understands. Strategic sourcing is about identifying and applying talent from wherever there is a viable source, at the right cost and at the right time. Done correctly, it should also result in internal staff working on higher value work.

Strategic sourcing is also a way to convert IT away from being an organization that when capacity gets tight, must resort to saying “no.” If you want IT to be an enabler, it can’t also be a roadblock. Strategic sourcing turns the situation from a “no capacity” problem into a discussion about investment. If it’s really important, capacity can be purchased. (I’ll discuss this specific subject in more detail in a future post.)

I’ve said it many times; strategic sourcing is not an equivalency of outsourcing. Strategic sourcing might mean using existing staff, and even skills that are available in other parts of the business.

In this area we’ve made good progress. We’ve completed a full project using a combination of existing internal employees and a newly identified off-shore company. We’ve also hired several US-based contractors using new talent placement vendors. Our existing team has found our strategic sourcing efforts to be complementary to our efforts and indeed our internal work is being elevated to higher-level value.

Strategic sourcing is now part of our project on-boarding process. Some process remains to be completed. But we’re aggressively moving forward as the business gets more confident in our ability to supply capacity, and as we see an improving economy that is showing signs of a tightening supply of full-time talent.

Grade: B

4. Hybrid Cloud

O’Reilly owns several data centers in addition to utilizing a colocation facility. It’s an organization that has historically allocated a physical server for each application. Maintaining and supporting this infrastructure is costly, high effort, and a distraction from the higher value work that we could be doing.

That said, a private cloud strategy that predates the existing strategy had been in place for some time, and some applications had moved into an internal virtualized infrastructure.

Our hybrid cloud strategy proposes to quickly identify application candidates to move into the public cloud or replace with software-as-a-service equivalents, and as appropriate, move the remaining applications to our private cloud.

On paper, hybrid cloud for us seems obvious and straightforward. O’Reilly Media has the risk posture and ambition for such a strategic move. However, it’s clear now that we’ve faced unanticipated obstacles.

The key issue is that the resources you need to do the heavy lifting are often the same resources that need to maintain and support the existing infrastructure. It’s a classic chicken and egg paradox. You can’t make progress on reducing the overhead of the legacy infrastructure when you’re consumed with maintaining that infrastructure. In addition, we wanted to hire a person to lead our cloud strategy and soon learned that such talent is scarce at best.

So what have we done? We identified a person on the existing team to lead our cloud efforts (although we have to wait until he finishes a high-priority infrastructure project) and we’ve had to queue up some critical maintenance projects in advance of our cloud migration work. We are also in the process of identifying external partners to help us implement our cloud solutions.

On balance this means we haven’t made the progress we’ve wanted. We’re deeply committed to this strategy and are now optimistic we’ll make significant progress soon. You can read more of my views on cloud computing here.

Grade: C-


Overall, I’ve been generally pleased with our progress. A lot of work remains and it will be some time before staff across our businesses experience the benefits of this strategy.

We’re still in the deep fog of change. We’re experiencing a combination of talent changes (new people joining us and some legacy staff exiting), expected process growing pains, and some strategy implementation bumps.

In the short-term, change can be tough and frustrating for both end-users and IT staff.

In my view, implementing our IT strategy is like changing the wings of an aircraft in-flight. We’re making considerable change but at the same time we can’t disrupt the services and projects that are already underway. To this end, I am deeply grateful to the O’Reilly IT team as we haven’t skipped a beat. We continue to deliver a considerable volume of value to the business while fundamentally changing the very nature of how we deliver that work.

In addition, it’s also important that we’ve continued to get support for the changes across the business. Those that see the changes are very pleased and others remain patient.

If you’re going to succeed with your IT transformation, you’ve got to keep the business on your side.

Being CIO can be a tough gig. But seeing positive change and how, when done right, technology can empower people and teams to do amazing things, is exhilarating and reminds us of why we do this work.

Photo: Report Card by Mark Gstohl, on Flickr

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