Imagine that you want to build a house. The contractor tells you that you can have any two points on the fabled project triangle — fast, cheap, or good — but you can’t have all three. On top of that, he tells you that there is only a one-in-three chance that you’ll get what you’re actually looking for when he’s done, but whatever you get, that’s all you get. Take it or leave it.
Dave Smith, product manager at Computer Aid Inc. in Allentown, Pa., uses this analogy to describe how we traditionally have seen (and justifiably so) the IT department. The good news for those of us formerly saddled with expensive, clunky equipment and surly IT professionals is that this is no longer the paradigm.
IT departments have become friendlier and have expanded their scope in recent years, Smith says. The bad news for the IT department is that its competition is doing the same work, only better and more reliably, for free.
Smith will be one half of the panel discussion titled “Mobile, Social & Local — Accepting Change in the Business Process,” hosted by the New Jersey Technology Council on Thursday, February 23, at 3 p.m. at the Commercialization Center for Innovative Technologies in North Brunswick.
The panel will look at how incorporating mobile apps and devices into disparate network platforms is changing how companies conduct their information technology business. Cost: $50. Visit www.njtc.org.
Smith will discuss risk management within the ways companies set up and connect their employees to networks.
Rich Napoli, COO of ObjectFrontier in Jersey City, will talk about how businesses must contend with the changing nature of the increasingly remote and mobile workforce.
Smith has been in computer technology for almost 30 years, though he originally went to college wanting to be a lawyer. He had dreamed of it, having watched Perry Mason deliver his famous “Where were you on the night of the 13th” style of jurisprudence. But when Smith arrived at Muhlenberg College, near where he grew up in the Lehigh Valley, he was bored by his pre-law classes.
His aptitude for math and science compelled him to shift to a dual major in mathematics and computers, in which he got his degree in 1984. When he graduated, Smith thought he would be an actuary. His father was a loan officer whose company changed names a half-dozen times, and Smith figured on a related future in, well, figures. He went to Philadelphia to take the actuarial exam and promptly got a nosebleed, for the first time since he was a boy. “I took it as a sign,” he says.
Smith’s first job was in operations at a place called Frank Burns Computing Services. There he worked with IBM mainframes, and the company made money by selling time to people to use them. Smith soon joined Computer Aid, where he stayed until 2000, gearing up to start his own business. He got the company, a consultancy on the IT practices of small and medium-sized businesses, ready to go and set the official launch date — September 11, 2001.
The rocky start smoothed over and Smith ran his company for four years before coming back to Computer Aid, where he is now the manager of the company’s suite of products. The company’s most famous product is Automated Project Office, an IT services software that manages projects and minimizes the risks on company networks.
Talking SAAS. In the old days (by which Smith means barely a decade ago), companies called in the IT department when they needed hardware. “IT was a necessary evil,” Smith says. IT started as an offshoot of accounting and recordkeeeping in the 1960s and grew into its own as a provider of network and services systems. This meant that if you wanted a system that all your employees could use, IT would build you one.
But, says Smith, IT professionals were a lot like contractors. They were the experts and they were the only game in town, so what they said went. Then about a decade ago the acronym SAAS (software as a service) entered the popular consciousness. Regular people could go online and find shareware, freeware, and SAAS programs for little — and often no — money that could provide the far-reaching services heretofore available only through the IT department.
Then came “the cloud,” which refers to being able to create, store, and share documents, files, and programs online. As companies and employees realized they could get all kinds of general administrative programs and calendars through services like Google — and securely share them through Google’s Gmail without cost and without worrying about storage limitations — the rip in the IT department’s armor became obvious.
Getting personal. IT has had to readjust its purpose, Smith says. It’s no longer about systems and technology, it is about processes and people. And the biggest challenge IT professionals are facing is the rise in mobile devices like the iPad and smartphones, and the proliferation of wireless networks that can turn every house, every car, and every seat at the diner into a mobile office, Smith says.
“It’s the commercialization of technology,” he says. “You can have a computer system up and running at home for free on Gmail in minutes. It used to take the IT department weeks. And it was expensive.”
The problem for IT amid this new, mobile workplace is that with everybody on their own systems and devices, linking people up in a company’s network brings its own set of risks. IT professionals have to ask questions like: Who has access to what information? Who has access to what devices? How much can a company monitor its employees who have their own devices (as opposed to ones given to the employee by the company)?
Procedures. When Smith talks about security and risk, he does not mean cybersecurity. He is talking about procedures — are the proper ones in place to allow for the proper governance of information and devices across the company?
The first thing Smith recommends is that companies establish generally accepted practices that employees sign off on; something that sets the policies for how and when to use personal mobile devices. Second, he says, companies need to understand procurement. Will you as the company president provide your employees with these devices or let them use their own? Or, will you provide them with a voucher that allows them to buy whatever device they like on the company’s dime?
From here you can establish who is responsible for the device and what to do about security. You also can establish how much of the network each employee can have access to. On SAAS providers such as Gmail, folders and documents can be made open to everyone or shared with only some. Knowing where to draw the line, Smith says, is key to keeping information in the hands of those who are supposed to have it.
Lastly, Smith recommends that companies looking to implement mobile devices into their networks establish a pre-link-up virus check. Is the device set up to keep viruses and malware at bay? And is it clean before it is connected to every other device in the company?
There is no one right way for every company, Smith says. It all depends on what each company wants and what each is willing to do about it. But IT has changed forever. “You still have IT doing the infrastructure,” Smith says. “But in the cloud. They’re not the king anymore. IT now has to say ‘I’ll be the coach.’”