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NETWORK WORLD

How to overcome infrastructure firefighting
and other distractions

There are many obstacles that can keep IT professionals from the mission-critical parts of their job,
steering them off track of their strategic IT roadmap. But there are ways to regain control.

By Rich Harper, Contributor, Network World

As an IT professional, you were hired for a certain, specialized job. But why can’t you seem to get it done? Maybe you’ve been busy “fighting fires.” For anyone responsible for network infrastructure, that’s a leading culprit. But there are others.

On the theory that to solve a problem first you need to identify it, we’ve listed a number of obstacles that may be keeping you and your team from the mission-critical parts of your jobs. Taking note of these distractions can be a first step toward fashioning solutions that lead to better outcomes for you and your organization.

Infrastructure firefighting

When things don’t go according to plan and you have to trade your strategic IT roadmap for tactical reactionary decisions - that’s infrastructure firefighting. The network may not be working as intended; capacity planning may be off mark; production issues could be causing outages, requiring in-depth explanation and research to mitigate repeat outages in the future. Outages may require special actions, as we discuss in this article. You may not have signed on to extinguish unwanted fires, but like it or not, that has become part of your job.

Your management want their systems to work, the application teams swear it is the network, and the vendor blames your lack of capacity. Meanwhile, you’re tackling issues daily, delaying your improvement projects. Your business wants you to transform and update, but as long as you’re firefighting, the chances of staying on that path diminish.

Any technology professional who has maintained infrastructure has been in this position where daily energies are consumed by unplanned interruptions. The danger is that key initiatives don’t get done, you get farther behind, and the gap between expectation and reality widen. And it isn’t just infrastructure firefighting that gets in the way.

4 other distractions

1. Documentation

If you have tech writers available to draft documents describing your company’s products, services or processes, good for you. But if that is an explicit (or implicit) part of your job, you may have a problem, because few engineers really like to write or do documentation. Fewer still can do it well. The result is that many companies have critical systems and processes that lack effective documentation, leading to a risky gap in the corporate knowledge base.

2. Critical projects, outside of scope

From time to time, you may be assigned “other duties” that are strategically important for the company. A tiger team of experts convened to address an urgent problem; a cross-functional marketing initiative requiring integrated technical support; a risk management team staging disaster simulations. Those are all examples of projects that may fall outside of your wheelhouse.

3. Hiring and employee churn

Employee acquisition and retention may not be on your list of mission-critical tasks, but if you have any management role, it can be a time-consuming part of your job. From recruiting and interviewing to on-boarding and training, it could take between 4 and 12 months before new engineers are ready to take on their actual job. In a small team where the engineer needs a lot of training, your entire team might suffer from the time commitment to train. Productivity is expected to increase, but in a technical field, it often decreases as the new hire is brought up to speed. Only after the proper investment of time has been made is that engineer ready to stand on their own. And you want to retain these new hires. If they leave before turning the corner, all your investment is lost.

4. Non-critical projects

Then there are projects that don’t merit the top-tier or red-alert status. These tasks range from nice-to-have to important but carry no pressing urgency. They could include refreshing a webpage, modeling the demand for a database project or writing a blog article. One initial task for these projects may be to determine or renegotiate any deadlines. Recall that important tasks, once neglected, have a tendency to turn into urgent ones.

From project overload to focus

A common workload management technique is to split an engineer’s time between on-call shifts and projects. But when things break, and outages happen, the project side of the equation will back up. The ensuing downward spiral often leaves behind a gap in capability. This scenario can also lead to unfinished projects that continue to consume resources but never make it into production.

So, what next? You’ve identified your distractions and realize that dividing your time is at best a bandage, not a permanent solution. Here are some suggestions for regaining control and focus:

Rank your tasks. If you’re in a downward spiral, ankle-biters may get mixed up with network meltdowns. The key is to pre-assign degrees of urgency so that in the heat of battle, you can triage the workflow and tackle the most critical tasks.

Partner up. Review your workload. If infrastructure firefighting is your biggest impediment and you can quantify the costs, seek out a managed service provider. As we note in this article, your workload will lighten, not disappear as you shift to managing your partner, rather than fighting fires yourself.

Divide and outsource. Delegate separable tasks. Build a business case for hiring recruiters, trainers and other contractors to handle those parts of your job that can be farmed out.

Automate, when possible. The tools are out there. Especially in the case of day-to-day chores, automation can help ensure quality and enable you to work more on the level at which you are uniquely qualified.

Manage expectations. Renegotiate deadlines and be realistic with yourself and others. In the case of new hires, build in a lag-time to any projected productivity increases and map that against scheduled work in the pipeline.

Most jobs require flexibility. Yet loose boundaries are risky. To stay focused on your key initiatives, identify and analyze what is keeping you from getting them done. Partnerships, outsourcing, automation and realistic management are all ways to neutralize those threats – and help you avoid being driven to distraction.

Rich Harper, Contributor, Network World

Rich Harper’s primary focus as leader of NTT America’s Professional Services is to assist clients with development and delivery of their technology roadmap. With more than 19 years of experience running engineering, procurement, PMO, development, and outsourcing he has a diverse perspective on what it takes to keep the technology of a company competitive.

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