The journey from support to advisory
To me everything seemed obvious, surely no one would NOT understand why having the need for services that were business management focused. The concept that having penetration points along all key elements of the lifecycle to me, has been obvious for years.
I thought I’d share some insight into my career to date so the path to today is a bit clearer – I tried to include some of the key highlights! There’s been far more excitement but that’s for another day.
IT as a business because of games?
Why do I love my career in IT? Well the only truthful answer is that I loved playing games when I was a kid… I loved editing them, hacking them, creating new levels, making a shotgun take out 100 enemies, combining mods and generally playing around. It did however during my mid teenage years strike me that I was not very good at the art of game creation, I did however have a great knack for how things worked.
My start in IT was probably when I was about 10, a printers my mother used to work for had a virus. So we went down to remove it using an antivirus tool on a floppy disk! My interest in computer games and the internet was clearly capable of serving another purpose. This was the first but definitely not the last time I was asked in to look at problems as a favour!
My first role in IT was for free! I worked with the IT department at a medium sized holiday firm as part of my work experience. I didn’t leave there for 6 months when I finally went to earn some money working for sub-contractor of Tiny computers providing telephone warranty and software support.
When I started working for a council I was shunned because my want to change how work was conducted, after a few years I had moved from apprentice to architect, problem solving, designing, fixing and automating as much as I could (often having to manage upwards to achieve the required business benefit – often meeting strong resistance from peers and management). I started at this time working with frameworks such as MSF and MOF.
The comments on my leaving card (which I still have) were enough to show that I had been very successful even when faced with strong opposition.
My next role was with an engineering and logistics firm as an “Enterprise Solution Architect” at the grand old age of 21. Here I worked on a 20,000 seat transformation working on the (probably) most complicated component. Client device management architecture. Luckily we had a good team, and we worked on automating and optimizing every user experience, we also invested heavily in understanding how to manage the lifecycle of each endpoint.
The Journey from Performing a Role to Consulting
When I first started consulting I was 23, I joined a small channel consultancy firm and started to work for an insurance company on behalf of a well-known large OEM/MSP. My first project was to create a solution to enable a team of engineers perform user migration tasks, rather than cobble together a load of complicated scripts I wrote an XML driven web service with a nice wizard, audit and rollback features. I didn’t build a reporting dashboard as the exercise could be completed in excel but I recognised the need to have that capability if required.
Why was it obvious? Surely I was just creating a technical tool for technical people? Well the truth is, I was taking a complicated tasks, automating as much as possible and creating a layer of governance and management. To me the technical aspect was the simplest one, a few ADO commands, some input, output, validation, measurement and away we went. The reality is that I was reducing the requirement to have expensive staff complete a procedure that would be run thousands of times. Instead the concept was that we would take a high level of domain expertise (ok so we settled for me) and applying that to technology, allowing a team of less skilled (cheaper) resource complete the task and monitor and govern the action that were occurring.
Around this time I started to study ITIL v3 and completed my foundation exam. The course to me was useful in calling out a number of elements from a technology perspective I had failed to consider.
I remained working on and off with that client for several years, in between projects I would work on internal improvements and other client projects. A few years later I went back full time onto the account as a solution architect, with far more consulting experience under my belt the task was far easier, where others were arguing about minor technical details I had built good relationships with the CTO and UK IT director as well as my peers in operations management, problem and change management. Its most likely for this reason that I ended up performing two roles at once, on a day to day basis I continued my SA activities, constructing solution appraisals and cost/benefit analysis so that I could present to the business and IT my recommendation, however I also took over responsibility for priority 1 (P1) major incident management.
Major Incident & Problem Management
I performed the technical management of the major incident management procedure following my ability to understand how to take many factors and work out fast resolution actions. There is one incident however that always stays in my mind!
For every hour a specific system was down the client lost over one million pounds of revenue, for 48 hours my phone and email hadn’t rung. It was early (0730) Saturday morning and I was filling the car up at the garage down the road from where I live. The operations manager (Paul) rang me and I laughed saying he was luckily I hadn’t gone out on a Friday night! He began to explain the problem they were facing. I told him I’d call him back within 15 minutes, I paid for the fuel and jumped back in the car and headed up the road.
As soon as I got home I logged into the hop server and started to run a series of diagnostic tools, whilst also arranging for our global P1 response call to occur. While running commands, viewing logs I was also getting the team to run through previous changes, steps that had been taken and trying to get a feel for where we were at. I fumbled around looking for my Citrix architecture diagrams. So with people, process and technology all aligned I felt we were starting to regain control. I had worked with the team for over a year by now so people were used to seeing how my train of thoughts came through at pace. I reviewed the log files, the same error repeated over and over again and a poor retention configuration in place.
I couldn’t see what the cause was, all I knew is that the system was not working and the log files had failed me, sure I could have restored the logs from backups but that would have caused even greater a loss and carried much risk. I asked the team if anyone could access the service… a fast no came back. “So guys, you’ve rebooted the whole platform right?”… Silence hit the call… “Ok so first thing since we can’t see anything in log files is we are going to do that!”
Two hours after my garage phone call and the service was restored, the CIO asked me what the root cause was, and I could only tell him that all I could say is that it was a people problem.
Sure there may have been a technical reason, or maybe a process document didn’t cater for this scenario but deep down it was a people problem, and so my journey from technology, process and people began its transformation into people, process then technology.
Lead Architect and Head of Pre Sales
Once that account closed down I moved into the world of pre sales (it was called solution architecture from some unknown reason). Here I was promoted to head of presales and I began taking my technical and ITSM knowledge and experience and pointing it inwards, creating sales processes and service catalogues as well as providing SME skills in a number of areas.
Here lay my hardest and most insightful part of my career to date. I believe I spent the first part of my career learning to manage up because of my age, I had at this point however only just turned 27. The age element still felt like it was against me, along with a plethora of people, process and technology challenges.
Back to People
The people who knew me trusted me with practically anything, not only could I script and code, but I had also planned, designed, deployed, supported and sold almost every major infrastructure system in the Vmware, Microsoft and Citrix space. For those who didn’t I encountered various different reactions. Client’s (either pre or post sale) always seemed to be the easiest to deal with, none of them ever knew anything about me, I turned up, gave advice, called in an SME to design, deploy or fix and everything went as smoothly as possible. I think only once did an IT director turn round and ask who I was ( this was after I exclaimed that their most revenue risk line of business (LOB) application was architecturally flawed when it came to high availability (HA) – he did however laugh at my response and told me to carry on, we’ve got on very well ever since!).
My biggest challenge was internally, peers who had been in roles for years, managers who (no offense) had no idea about management and this general tone that everyone knew what they were doing so “the why change” mentality. Technically no one even questioned what I had to say, yet when it came to systemic thinking which covered anything outside of ITSM and solution knowledge people seemed scared. It is here I started to learn far more of my own weaknesses as well as strengths.
From definitions of terms, to in efficient and risky process and procedures, poor management across the board plagued my days. I also had a very poor understanding of the different learning pace people had.
For me I’ve been lucky enough to be able to grasp almost every aspect of the IT business at a very rapid pace, this has however sometimes left me at a disadvantage.
Understanding that fear of change and the unknown is a challenge that must be overcome is key to being a successful consultant. Whether it’s enabling SSL or re-structuring an organisation to key element here is that we are changing something and people are naturally resistant to change. When I was 27 however I was far less aware of this.
Fixing the business
Even a promotion to the management team seemed to do little to ease the efforts to make a well-oiled machine that had low financial risk and a high level of customer satisfaction. This at the time was rather worrying as I had invested a lot of time and effort in this company.
Something was wrong, I had drawn out a set of documents with one of my most trusted colleagues, and we had used every bit of best practise combined with practical knowledge. We produced financial models and architected what should be a fairly good model to keep the business afloat. I spent months of my life (on top of work time) reading management theory and trying to draw on people’s experience and knowledge (including my own).
Sure we had some wins in some areas, but for every win there were multiple failures. A director initiative to hire a junior to the architecture team (despite strong protest) went ahead, yet two weeks after his hire the same director changed the taps so he would never be able to attempt to complete his role.
A business plan template was created based upon guidance from a few very experienced sources… headway was being made to reverse the fortunes of the business to be dramatically halted with a “go sit over there, I’m handling that!” response by a consultant (sic).
The plan never materialised, the internal conflict increased and the number of projects running at a loss became too much. On retrospect I should have moved on a lot quicker, it did however teach me a great deal. I learnt a lot of how not to run a business, I was involved in almost every facet of business which gave me great experience and insight.
Overall however it taught me that the most important element in business is people. If we get the right people in the right place, at the right time we’re always going to be in a better place! Sure we need policy, process and procedure to scale, but most importantly if the people area is problematic the rest just slows down rate of decline.
Making it work
Two years ago I had enough sleepless nights and I realised I was fighting too hard for too little gain, I picked up the phone to a guy I knew since I was 21 at the initial upwards management stages and not too long after, I moved to Xtravirt.
So now we get to the present! Now I work with clients in an advisory capacity, recognising my strengths to see areas for improvement but recognising that I don’t always have to be the one to actually make the changes on their behalf, that’s something I’m looking forward to improving in the future (I’ve even found people to help me improve along the way!).
So the above is the short story as to how and why I arrived in advisory services, not only in the belief that giving people the best advice is they only option, but also that as a consultant my living comes from selling knowledge. Advisory services enables you to either create or engage at the idea stage and then live through the lifecycle of change with your customers, keeping funds not only in your pocket but also in theirs.