IT organizations need to manage infrastructure, people, and processes effectively to excel and deliver consistent value. But the question arises: how can IT leaders ensure they're making the most of every resource? How do modern infrastructure principles work with skilled staff and efficient processes to create an agile, resilient, and proactive IT department?
What follows is my conversation with Katie Tamblin, a Board Member of Alcumus Group, where she shares her five best tips for IT optimization.
Can you share your backstory with us?
More years ago than I’d like to admit, I started my career as an entry-level analyst at a company selling economic publications. I helped our team digitize our products by working with software engineers to build a web platform to host the economic books we sold. After that, I was hooked on technology.
Over the next ten years, we acquired several companies, and with each acquisition, I learned a little more about how different product and technology teams work together. I moved from Washington, DC to London, giving me greater exposure to the benefits and challenges of working with global teams. I worked my way up to Team Director, then Product Director, and eventually Chief Product Officer.
Over that tenure, I worked on some pretty gnarly software projects, racking up several hard lessons learned along the way. These days, I help other teams get the most out of their teams when managing large, complex software systems. In short, I help teams avoid many of the mistakes I made.
Let’s talk about how to optimize IT resources. How do you assess the current state of your IT infrastructure? What metrics do you use to measure its efficiency?
I primarily work with large, mature software businesses. As such, they have incredibly complex IT systems. The infrastructure will inevitably be a mixed bag. Some systems and applications will be pristine, recently built, and maintained to a high standard. Others may be creaking under the strain of product fragmentation or left behind due to historical changes in product strategy or focus.
When we set out to measure team performance, we separate our metrics into two categories:
- Performance of our systems – We measure up-time, production incidents, load times, and service desk activity.
- Performance of our development – We do our best to determine our efficiency in allocating software development resources to business needs and the productivity of those resources. We measure if the things we ask our engineers to build are the right things (i.e., they achieve specific business outcomes) and if our build processes are optimized to deliver them.
To measure these, we assign business outcomes to each software development milestone and include these in our definition of done. We track the incidence of bugs and design gaps related to milestones, not individual features. We look at the disparity between story points and actual delivery times, and we closely track any underlying causes of program delays.
How do you prioritize and allocate resources for hardware and software upgrades to maximize performance?
Resource allocation can very quickly feel like a game of “Whac-a-Mole” if not tended carefully. IT teams might constantly put out fires instead of systematically addressing a well-planned backlog. The key to effective resource allocation is ensuring alignment with business leadership. Misalignment, where management expectations don't match IT operations, can lead to dissatisfaction among business partners.
What security measures are in place to safeguard your IT infrastructure while optimizing its performance?
Naturally, there is a balance to be struck between performance optimization and safeguarding infrastructure. We deploy the usual monitoring tools, like endpoint protection, traffic monitoring, and control. We structure our systems to contain breaches through network segmentation, load balancing, and rate limitation. We manage tech debt proactively and are serious about staying on top of system updates.
I’ve worked with several private equity-backed organizations, and most use independent consultants to test security in their portfolio companies regularly. This can be a great tool for understanding if the security measures you have in place are market-leading, middle of the pack, or require improvement.
Critically, we also work hard to enable our colleagues across the organization to prevent security breaches (or at least not enable them). We require multi-factor authentication, mandatory VPN access when logging on remotely, and regular cybersecurity training across the organization, not just in IT.
Let's get to the good stuff. What are your best tips for optimizing IT resources through infrastructure, people, and processes?
Efficient IT management hinges on people and relationships. The most effective processes, infrastructure, and individual talents are only valuable if they align with business strategy and foster teamwork. Success depends on having an infrastructure that supports cross-team collaboration – people who are clear about their roles in achieving business outcomes – and processes that keep teams focused on collaborative, efficient delivery.
1. People first
Relationships are key. Managing any large, complex system effectively depends on aligning people and empowering them to communicate and work effectively. It's not just about the tech team; we need strong connections with everyone involved – colleagues or external customers. Understanding who the stakeholders are for each milestone and making them part of the team, regardless of their reporting lines, is the best way to unlock efficiency. It's naive to think a single team can whip up a complex system independently. Success comes from everyone pitching in across the organization.
As far as expectations, when everyone's on the same page, adapting to changes becomes smoother. If a project's timeline shifts, we owe it to our customers, both internal and external, to be upfront about it. It's about honesty, setting realistic expectations, and keeping them in the loop as things evolve. That's how you build trust and strong relationships, which are just as crucial as delivering top-notch IT solutions.
2. Define and Align
Aligning a large organization with shared goals is challenging. What I observe most frequently is that the CEO and CTO are on the same page, so they assume the whole team is. But when you talk to mid-level managers or engineers, they often have a vague understanding of the bigger picture. They might know their team objectives as cascaded down to them as part of an annual objective-setting process, but they often can't explain what these objectives mean or how their daily work supports them. This is a failure of leadership.
Every team member should clearly understand the business strategy and how each aspect of IT infrastructure and software feature ties into it. If any team member struggles to connect their daily tasks to the overall vision, there's more work to do. Vision setting shouldn’t be a one-way street. While leadership defines the vision (the 'what'), the conversation shouldn't end there. The transition from what we aim to deliver to how we can deliver it involves critical decisions. Team members should be able to explain to their managers how their tasks contribute to this vision. This is the essence of setting objectives, yet it's often not implemented effectively.
3. Use real data
In many companies, there are thousands or even millions of data points stored across various databases. When upgrading software systems, data migration software can move data from old databases to new ones. A common approach observed in these upgrades begins with focusing on key features, using dummy data for User Acceptance Testing (UAT), and then moving actual data into the new database once the software is ready. However, this method often leads to issues at the final stages, such as discovering bugs or design flaws due to incorrect assumptions about the existing data.
4. Design, execute, and check
When you have multiple teams working across a complex system, they can quickly lose a grip on exactly how the various elements of the system are being coded. The sheer volume of code generated makes it difficult for technology leaders to read, check, and provide guidance across all of it. Engineers across the project must work to the exact specifications to ensure the applications knit together into a functioning system. Technical designs must cover all aspects of the build: data structure and storage, API design, technical workflows, user interface assets, NFRs, and a definition of done related to the business outcomes. Design, execution, and testing must thoroughly demonstrate success across the following:
- The end-to-end workflows users will undertake
- Proving applications are separated to prevent systemic issues
- Proving services can be deployed independently
- Design application: infrastructure and applications fit together, reflecting technical design
- Achieving a definition of done that includes the business outcomes associated with milestones, not just feature acceptance criteria
5. Sunset old products and infrastructure
For each new application your IT team launches, you should either retire an old one of a similar scale or allocate additional maintenance resources. To avoid continuous growth and a backlog of outdated systems, it's essential to balance new and existing applications.
How do you balance short-term resource optimization goals and long-term strategic IT planning?
Navigating IT leadership in a private equity-owned or publicly traded company can be challenging. The focus on short-term resource optimization and reduced IT spending, especially during sales events or when costs are high, often undermines long-term strategic IT planning. As an IT leader, it's crucial to advocate for the long-term health of your IT infrastructure and systems. This means integrating and safeguarding specific resources and initiatives within your plans that support your long-term objectives. Without this dedicated effort, achieving these goals is unlikely.
When securing approval for long-term strategic initiatives, which often don't align with short investment cycles, you face a tough task. However, there are effective strategies to increase your chances of success:
- For startups seeking investment, choose a venture capitalist or private equity investor who shares your long-term vision and values robust IT infrastructure.
- In a private equity-backed environment with 5-7-year investment cycles, present your resource needs for long-term planning at the cycle's start. Be aware that PE firms tend to reduce IT spending as the investment cycle closes.
- For publicly traded companies, make a compelling case for consistent investment in IT infrastructure maintenance. Vigorously defend these resources to prevent them from being compromised by short-term pressures.
What role does feedback from end-users and stakeholders play in shaping your resource optimization strategies?
Stakeholders and end-users are a critical part of optimizing IT resources. We organize our teams into scrums but also squads. The squads have additional stakeholders who are not part of the scrum but provide critical inputs, testing, and sign-off.
Squad members can include finance business partners, product specialists, CRM configuration specialists, operational leaders, and more. For each software development milestone, we explicitly identify the non-IT resources that know best what the business is trying to accomplish. Those resources are empowered to support IT in building and maintaining solutions. I wouldn’t call it feedback. I’d say those stakeholders are part of the team.
I actively encourage my teams to ignore the organization chart when it comes to identifying requirements and ensuring IT solutions are fit for purpose. I ask them to engage with the squad to deliver the best outcomes. That is their top priority, and they are empowered to skip hierarchical, org-chart-related meetings in order to spend more time with their squads when necessary. The point here is that stakeholders are more important than line managers when it comes to delivering IT milestones.
How do you adapt your resource optimization strategies to accommodate technological advancements and industry trends?
I am not the top technologist on the team – not even close. I rely on much smarter resources than myself to help us keep on top of technological advancements. That’s why I’m a manager/adviser, and they do the work.
As far as what’s trending, product and technology teams must work together to remain informed regarding competition and evolving ways of solving customer problems with new technology. New technology may sound exciting, but the trial and error to work out the kinks can hamper efficiency. Optimizing efficiency is about striking the right balance between staying current and delivering predictable performance. It requires that, to the best of our ability, we deploy the right resources to the right tasks and enable them with the right skills.
Katie Tamblin's insights offer a comprehensive roadmap for IT leaders navigating the complexities of resource optimization, balancing innovation with efficiency, and aligning IT initiatives with business objectives. Her experiences underscore the importance of understanding team dynamics, the strategic use of real data in development, and the necessity of cross-functional collaboration for successful project outcomes. Most importantly, her emphasis on maintaining a balance between short-term demands and long-term strategic planning in IT provides valuable guidance for leaders in any organization.
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