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Stop Keeping the Lights On: Part I

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Stop Keeping the Lights On: Part I

Michael Dowden begins a series on the concept of just keeping the lights on, a view shared by many IT departments world-wide.

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When we think of IT departments, we often think of the people we submit request tickets to or the people we call when our computer malfunctions. Essentially, we think of the people “keeping the lights on.”

Keeping the lights on is a phrase that refers to a pressing IT issue many companies face, but one that can be remedied. This is the amount of expenditure a company must use for day-to-day IT activity that is purely operational, such as server patches and updates, managing request tickets, scanning logs, and fixing bugs. Although this is undeniably an important function of IT, it becomes a problem when it is their only function. I have seen this happen all too often and it prevents IT from contributing true business value.

Error Handling

I once worked for a client who gave my entire team the daily task of reviewing application logs and fixing any errors we found. They not only had an entire team devoted to this task but also had invested heavily in tools such as Splunk and Tealeaf, which made it easier to find, categorize, prioritize, and reproduce the errors. I would estimate that client spent $1 million annually on tools and staff to find and eliminate errors already occurring in production. Despite this, our team was only able to keep the largest errors at bay, and following the established processes, we were unable to make any real dent in the overall quantity of errors.

Date Management

At another company, IT management was under pressure to reduce costs. I ended up taking on the responsibilities of a developer they laid off, and I soon began receiving the support tickets for the applications she had been responsible for. After several days of meetings and reading through code, I realized each of these applications had parameters that could be customized month by month. In this instance, an entire developer’s salary had been spent just keeping the lights on, performing tasks that it only took me two weeks to eliminate.

I truly believe the keeping the lights on problem can be fixed, and IT departments should take a close look at the amount of their activity and budget that is put toward these kinds of operational tasks. Given the scope of this problem, I am going to discuss both the causes of the issue as well as the solutions over the course of several bi-weekly articles. The topics that will be covered include:

  • The problems and symptoms of just keeping the lights on.

  • The organizational anti-patterns that cause the problem.

  • The technical debt that contributes to just keeping the lights on.

  • Solutions, including advice for management and employees.

IT has the ability to be a department that adds real business value to an organization, but not when they are stuck just keeping the lights on. Fortunately, there are ways to overcome this issue, and I will walk you through these practical solutions in each upcoming article in my Stop Keeping the Lights On blog series.

So keep an eye out for these articles, and learn how to transform your IT department into more than the people that are just Keeping the Lights On.

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