Thursday, July 17, 2014

Moving IT Beyond Maintenance to True Problem-Solving

An interview with
Ryan Sallee
Chief Information Officer
The College Network

Interviewed by Sam Narisi

In February, The College Network received Frost & Sullivan’s CIO Impact Award in the Cloud Computing category. The organization was recognized for its recent move toward a modernized, cloud-based infrastructure that has helped enable the business and create new solutions to business problems.

Frost & Sullivan recently spoke with Ryan Sallee, The College Network’s CIO, about the company’s cloud strategy, what benefits were achieved, and what challenges were overcome along the way. Ryan will also join Frost & Sullivan for a complimentary eBroadcast, The CIO Impact Awards Experience: What It Takes To Be a Winner, Wednesday, July 30, at 2 pm EDT.

Explain the work you’ve done with the cloud.

About two years ago, we developed a strategy to move our infrastructure and a fair amount of our applications to the cloud. We started with some applications, like Google Apps and Salesforce, and ultimately decided to move more of our infrastructure. So we’ve moved most of our servers to a private cloud provider, Earth Link, and we also have a fair amount of virtual desktops running there as well.

We’ve continued to move down that path, and we’re in the process of moving our phone system to Voice over IP and using Earth Link to host that as well. We’ll always have some physical presence in the office, but I think the vast majority will end up being cloud-based. By the time it’s said and done we’ll have maybe two or three applications that run on two or three physical servers. Everything else will be with a cloud provider.

What went into the decision to go with private cloud systems vs. public cloud services for different elements?

We really have a hybrid approach, but our core data is in a private cloud. Where I can use the public cloud, I use it – again, we run Salesforce, Google Apps, and project management software from a company called Smartsheet – but when we need something that fits just for us, that’s where I use the private cloud. For example, I’m not a huge fan of moving file servers to a public cloud instance. I think some small companies can do it, but the bigger you get, the more you need to have it on your network.

What’s the situation like after moving to the cloud as opposed to before?

Before, we spent a fair amount of time in IT maintaining equipment, troubleshooting equipment, doing general IT tasks – the same things every IT shop in the world does. When we made the switch, we were able to change our focus to really going out and finding solutions to business problems. Now we ask different business units, “What are the problems you have? What can we do to help you be more productive? What’s the perfect scenario for how you would like do your job?” Then we’re able to find technology to help solve some of those issues. We haven’t solved all of them by any stretch of the imagination, but we’ve been able to engage with the business more and enable the business through technology.

That’s great because IT has traditionally been the maintenance guys, the guys who keep the servers running, and nobody really understood what IT does. Now we’re able to go in and understand the business and how we can help different business units be more productive, which ultimately helps everybody.

What are some things IT teams can do to become more of a strategic partner with the business?

One, understand what your business does. Don’t just understand your IT organization. It has to be more about the business as a whole. And two, you have to execute your strategy. You have to take care of yourself first before you can take care of everybody else. You have to get some of these daily and weekly tasks off your plate so you can focus. If you try to do both at the same time, nothing ever gets done. We tried that for a long time and it didn’t work, so we finally decided to make a push and unburden ourselves so we could then go to the business and say, “How can we help?”

What were the top challenges you ran into during your move to the cloud? How did you overcome them?

I think the biggest challenge is just doing it. Especially in a company of our size and I’m sure for bigger companies, you have so much invested and your infrastructure is built a certain way. Trying to unwind all of that and move it creates a lot of questions: Will the applications work? Will the speed be there? Will there be latency? Will the users accept it if it’s different than what they’re used to? It’s a challenge to make the change as seamless as possible for your user base.

One reason we were successful is that our tech team was really engaged and really understood the systems. They didn’t just rely on a vendor or a partner to make it happen. The internal technology team and the partners of choice all have to be in sync. If that happens, you’ll have success.

Was it a challenge to get end users on board during the switch?

I think that’s a challenge for everybody, but one way we’ve been able to combat that is we get users involved from day one. We make them part of the decision-making process and show them the business value and how it will make their lives easier. Then we have each business unit sell it to their users. If it’s the manager or team leader in the business units showing them new technology and how to use it, people are a lot more accepting than if IT comes in and says, “We’re going to change your job.” I’ve found over the years that the more IT pushes on users, the more resistance you get, so we back away and stay behind the scenes to enable the technology and let the users actually use the technology.

Was there difficulty getting upper-level decision makers on board?

Not really for us, because we were able to show how it saves money. I went to them and said, I get more functionality, we won’t have to do all of these tasks, it will save us money long term, and it will evolve and grow with us. After that, they were all about it, and I never really had that struggle.

What other advice do you have for IT teams embarking on these kinds of projects?

My advice is: Be open-minded. IT people like to guard our technology and not let a lot of people in. We’re the experts in that world. But we need to be open-minded, be open to change, and be open to looking for new and better ways to do things.

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