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Fighting Outsourcing with Unix and Strategic IT

By Paul Murphy
Feb 19, 2004 10:33 AM PT

One of the unfortunate realities of the Wintel monoculture is that expectations are set mainly by ads, the Sunday supplements and stereotypes like TV character Marshall, the supertech on the show Alias. But delivery is constrained by reality. As a result, the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) has no chance of meeting user expectations and must always operate in a kind of rear-guard mode, balanced between short-term fixes and Microsoft's promises for the next upgrade.

Fighting Outsourcing with Unix and Strategic IT

This inability to meet expectations has many negative consequences, among them an increase in senior management's vulnerability to an outsourcing pitch. What happens is that general dissatisfaction arising from unfulfilled expectations greases the way for acceptance of an outsourcing pitch that is actually based more on appealing to behaviors learned in high school than business fact.

The fundamental emotional appeal is that senior management can distance itself from the people who run IT by passing the burden of association with IT to social peers working for the outsourcing contractor. Because this reality is hardly an acceptable business rationale, two levels of rationalization -- cost savings and service equivalence -- are generally applied to cover it.

Of these two, it's service equivalence that's truly important and cost savings that's most talked about. The underlying issue with service equivalence is IT commoditization. Fundamentally, if your company has the same Microsoft software, the same hardware and the same MCSE skills as everyone else, then there isn't any competitive advantage in IT -- and cutting its cost by contracting a specialist service provider makes perfect sense, especially if that outsourcer also promises to do better than your own people.

Avoiding 'Nerd Central'

That's why outsourcers almost always promise to provide highly reliable services using the very latest in Wintel gear while cutting costs. In practice, I've never met an executive naive enough to believe such obvious nonsense. After all, IT commoditization means that the outsourcer's costs can't be all that different -- and that the outsourcer's skills can't be all that different, either.

It takes, in other words, extraordinary incompetence on the part of the internal IT group for an outsourcer to be able to add a layer of management and still improve service while reducing costs.

Unfortunately, rationality doesn't stop management from signing such contracts because they're not really doing it for business reasons; they're doing it for social reasons. IT, after all, is "nerd central," something to be avoided at all costs. Thus, senior managers seldom believe either the cost or the performance claims on offer. Instead, they invoke cost savings as a business rationale while telling each other that their decision won't affect IT costs or performance because IT will always cost more than expected and deliver less, no matter who runs it.

That's totally wrong, of course, and the attitude itself signals a disconnect between top management and the flow of information within the organization, but marching on up to the executive suite and telling them to do their jobs isn't going to help you keep yours.

Putting Yourself at Risk

So, what can you do? Well, if it's not already a done deal and you have at least six months to act, the right answer might be to put yourself at risk through a combination of user education, Linux and decentralization.

I know all three are anathema to most MCSEs, but you need to understand that the more you centralize control and the tighter you lock down those user PCs, the easier the whole thing will be to outsource and the more reasonable that outsourcing will look.

To head this off, what you want to do is break IT commoditization because that's the basis for the current "utility computing" rationale. When Scott McNealy first used that term, it meant something about reliability and having IT services there when you need them. But now that term is being used as a marketing slogan covering the abdication of IT responsibility to a third party or "IT utility" -- and that's what you want to stop.

To see how, consider the lessons learned from 1990s-style organizational IT outsourcing; Every single one of those deal announcements should have been seen as a signal to sell that company short. Willingness to outsource IT almost always turned out to mean that management didn't value its most significant organizational assets: people and information.

Cheap and Effective

In most cases, implementation of those contracts led to several years of nominal stability in the formal IT budget expense -- even while the contracts grew more holes than Swiss cheese as exceptions, special authorizations and addendums were tacked on. In most cases, however, actual IT operations started to diverge from the contract within minutes of the internal announcement as line management -- the guys who actually make the money -- set out to duplicate everything they liked about IT before, but this time without central coordination, support or budget authorizations.

Two of the best things about these subrosa IT activities are: First, they tend to be cheap; and second, they tend to be effective. You don't get a line manager investing in a couple of BASIC developers for SQL Server on Windows Advanced Server if that manager can get someone to bang the thing together using Java with Apache and MySQL on Linux. IT might care about standards, but a line manager's attitude is usually much simpler: He just wants his stuff to work, he wants it now, and he wants it cheap.

That attitude makes him the guy you want to work with before you get outsourced. Build those bridges strong enough, and these guys will get so heavily invested in IT that they'll stop any outsourcing proposal long before it becomes a threat to you. In effect, what you need to do is break senior management's IT commoditization rationale for dissociating themselves from IT by making IT strategic to middle and lower management.

Making IT Strategic

So, how do you do that? More of the same Wintel stuff is just going to make things worse.

You have to break out of the mindset with user education, Unix and decentralization: education so they know what can be done, Unix so you can do it and decentralization to make it theirs. Do what you can, at whatever organizational level you work at, to help users make effective use of IT.

Learn how and when open-source tools like Apache or Linux simply make the most sense -- and then go tell everybody about that strategy. Volunteer to work with the nastiest, most demanding, most anti-IT user managers, and be prepared to fight your own bosses to deliver what the users want.

That's risky, but remember that user management doesn't care about commodity IT services any more than senior management does. From their perspective, the CIO is a contracts administrator who works for the enemy, standards are things that raise costs, and vendor viability reviews are excuses to waste time.

They do care, however, about getting things done. So if you step outside the Wintel box to make things happen, they'll see a benefit -- and stop any outsourcing effort in its tracks.

Paul Murphy, a LinuxInsider columnist, wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 20-year veteran of the IT consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.

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