It's bittersweet for IT managers in vendorland

For IT managers in end user organizations the prospect of having unlimited access to the latest and greatest technologies is an idyllic dream.

But IT professionals working for technology vendors claim they have their own very distinct set of on-the-job challenges, one of which is being treated differently to their peers. There is also the added pressure of ensuring the vendor's IT shop is a pristine, industry showcase example of how successful technology really works. In this special report Computerworld's Michael Crawford profiles IT managers from this small but cutting-edge community. IT executives from Hewlett-Packard, Toshiba, Acer and Microsoft talk about the pros and cons of life as an IT manager at a leading technology provider.

For IT execs working at a vendor company all the same rules apply. Like their peers at end user organizations, these IT professionals have to choose technology that fits the company's business model, tight budgetary constraints and maintain efficiencies.

As Hewlett-Packard IT manager Kerry Holling points out, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Don't get the impression that because Holling works at a hardware vendor his days are spent thumbing through glossy catalogues of the latest and greatest technical innovations that have, or are about, to hit the market.

"We still have to justify projects on their merits, there are no backdoor means to basically get stuff for free," Holling said.

"While HP is a technology and IT company, it is primarily a business with the same financial constraints as any other.

"I do get early insights into technology roadmaps bearing what we are doing at the time and as a professional it is good to get an early perspective into industry directions because we get to see competitive material regarding how our products are positioned in the market."

He said a real bonus is an end user base that appreciates the value of IT and its role in business.

But with access to HP's broad portfolio of products, Holling has to remind himself that HP is a business not necessarily a showcase and that means only using the products the company actually needs.

He said this can create tension with the marketing department because they would love to do client demonstrations showing brand new applications running 24x7.

Basically turning the company into a HP exhibit for customers.

"But we do not need that kind of platform internally; we could install it, but the cost would outweigh the return," Holling said.

Toshiba Australia IT manager Renee Claravall has worked both sides of the fence and was previously employed as a project manager at food giant Nestle.

While the food industry is very different to IT, Renee said the on-the-job issues are exactly the same.

He said the pressure is still there to keep the system up and running and to deliver software on time and under budget.

Claravall said a priority for him is selecting technology that allows the staff to perform their roles with efficiency and ease.

He said this means knowing the needs of users as well as identifying industry trends.

"The technology side of the role is so important because we have to keep up to date, particularly in the computer division," Claravall said.

"We need to be using and constantly integrating the technology that is in line with that used on a global scale, not just because of pressure from Japan but pressure from end users as well. If people are using and buying more notebooks than desktops, then we have to use the notebooks rather than desktop systems.

"Sure, we get the first bite of the cherry when a new notebook is released but on the other side we have to use it as opposed to any another, but a notebook is a notebook. It is an IT decision what we use but we have to justify the use of it to help our own business. We have to anticipate what the business needs from an IT perspective and at the end of the day find out the difference our product makes." There is also a dose of realism attached to the role of working for a vendor.

"The role is about being realistic as sometimes the needs and wants clash regarding what we can afford internally and what we can integrate with our current systems," he said.

"We need to test any hardware or software first to see if it is appropriate for us because at the end of the day my role is about cost effectiveness and seeing a product deployed within budget; normally we see what's out there and work out a way to integrate it with the business model."

Cache for resume

So you secure an IT manager position with a well-known and successful vendor. Does that high visibility add a little cache to your resume? Maybe, but there is also the downside of that equation when the technology provider makes questionable decisions, or during times of poor economic performance.

This is particularly true when there is publicity surrounding a failed implementation at a large bank or end user organization and the company you work for provided the software. In this climate Acer IT manager Patrick Wu says working for a vendor is anything but normal.

"We are in an industry that is constantly changing and highly competitive," he said.

"Within a vendor company I have to have an acute awareness of business and the situation in the marketplace.

"If you work in a 'normal' industry then there can be times when business is steady but we are in an industry with a lot of competitors selling more or less the same product in a different colour."

The upside is that an IT manager at a vendor company recognises the need to be thorough.

Before launching a product Wu says there are endless tests and pilots.

"From an IT point of view before we launch a product we have to know how we can support our internal customers, which initially for us are the sales team and marketing," Patrick said.

"Every time there is a change in technology either from us or from a competitor our hardware team has to learn more and enrich themselves simply to satisfy user needs."

Predictably, a vendor's IT team is intimately familiar with its product range.

Patrick believes an IT savvy organization equals an informed IT shop and a strong knowledge base.

He said everyone benefits when staff has access to the best resources and technology companies generally have a corporate culture of knowledge sharing.

Bleeding edge can be painful

The budget might be big and the push for bleeding-edge technology strong, but try facing the pain of twice-yearly operating system upgrades on a regular basis.

When it comes to international branding, few IT companies equal Microsoft in the recognition stakes.

The company's ANZ IT director Michael Lane said the recognition factor and high profile is an equal mix of pros and cons.

This certainly applies to spending. He said dealing with the massive spending power that Microsoft can flex at the boardroom table makes his job easier, but also difficult at the same time.

"Microsoft has a lot of reciprocal business in Australia, especially with carriers," Lane said.

"We have to look at the strategic spending relationship between organizations as pricing is always to be considered and I consider about 25 to 30 percent of Microsoft business is involved in strategic relationships; but no CIO or IT director would think differently.

"If you look at a large company like Microsoft, it holds a lot of spending power and name recognition, which creates a lot more advantages. You can be more engaged, both as a customer and as a supplier, and get involved with the sales force to help in closing a reciprocal deal."

Lane considers his role as primarily that of a tactical or strategic thinker: a role more aligned to that of an extended CIO, one that demands the ability to understand not only technology innovations but also customer and client relationships. More importantly, Lane has to understand his staff.

Lane said an IT director with a vendor company, like any other, cannot just concentrate on running a tight financial ship. They have to have a holistic view of the industry.

"As an IT director I have to have an operational view of what works best, what keeps staff productive and what keeps the overall organization's costs down," Lane said.

"You have to work closely with the sales force as seldom would you make decisions blindly.

"The role of an IT director in Microsoft is all about cross-team collaboration and conversations as the better people are informed of a situation, the better chance they have of making the right decision for the right reason.

"Chiefly we concentrate on making our IT fit the business model that has been developed internationally as a standardized approach, not compared to a rogue individual deciding they need high-speed IT.

"We then take the idea through the approval process which involves a lot of push and pull between us and the head office to ensure whatever IT solution the corporation offers is easy to replicate, easy to support and fits the standard business model."

But really, Lane reckons there is little difference between the roles of an IT manager at a vendor company or an end user organization. "A smaller-sized business may not have to take things in consideration like the pressures surrounding reciprocal business, but at the same time there are a lot of similarities. You need to be financially responsible and take a look at where your options are," Lane said.

"As a vendor we are scrutinized a bit more; internally I have no choice over software or hardware but other IT directors do have that choice." And those painful operating system upgrades?

"Microsoft's key strategy is dog fooding software as we go through all products internally because we are our first and best customer. As an IT director, it is very painful as employees upgrade twice a year to a new operating system, 12 months before it is rolled out!"

The other side of the coin

After meeting IT managers from vendor organizations, Subway Australia IT manager Murad Talukdar says he is glad he works for an end user organization.

"I have had conversations with IT managers from vendors and it makes me glad I work where I do, because they can be surprisingly frank. I don't have to constantly watch the bottom line," he said.

"Sure they have different pressures, like sales, but our pressure is getting value from equipment and value from support as well. The biggest bugbear with support is compatabilty across different platforms. The minute you approach a vendor after a system is up and running, they just play the blame game and say it is not their fault if there are compatability issues. We, as an end user, spend a lot of time chasing our tail so we can just resolve issues."

Talukdar said the biggest issues he has when dealing with vendors is the fact that they are constantly watching their bottom line.

Talukdar said while he understands an aggressive sales strategy is necessary for vendors in such a competitive marketplace they should realize that the reason they are in business is because end users want product.

Without them, they would have no business.

"In our business, we are what matters," Talukdar said.

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