The Smallest IT Department

Working with small businesses means working with small IT shops.  It is very common to find the “one man” shows and I am often in discussions about how to handle environments so small.  There is no easy answer.  Unlike most company departments or job roles, IT is almost always an “around the clock” job that services the fundamental “plumbing” of the business – the infrastructure on which everything else depends.  Normal departments like finance, human resources, legal, management or marketing tend to knock off at the end of the day, leave an hour early on Fridays, go completely offline during the weekend, take normal vacations with little or no office contact, require little ongoing education or training once they are established and almost never have to worry about being expected to spend their nights or weekends doing their work to avoid interrupting others while they work, but this exactly how IT departments need to function.  IT staffs don’t reminisce about that “one time” that things were so bad at work that they had to work through the whole weekend or a full overnight and still work the next day or had to give up their family vacation because the company made no allowance for it operationally – that is simply day to day life for many people in IT.  What other departments often feel is completely unacceptable in IT is just normal practice.  But that doesn’t mean that it works well, IT departments are often driven into the ground and little consideration is given for their long term viability or success.

With rare exception, IT departments have needs that are different from normal departments – based primarily on what business demand from them: high reliability, continuous availability, deep business knowledge of all departments, ability to train others, knowledge of broad and disparate technologies, business skills, financial skills, procurement skills, travel, experience across technologies and industries, efficiency and experience on the latest technologies, trends, architectures, techniques and knowledge of the latest threats and products arriving daily – and to not only use all of that skill and experience to provide support roles but to also be a productive engineer, customer service representative and to present and defend recommendations to management that often pushes back or provides erratic or emotional support of infrastructural needs.  Quite literally, no single person can possibly fill those shoes and one that could would demand a salary higher than the revenue of most small businesses.

How do larger businesses handle this daunting task?  They do so with large IT departments filled with people who specialize in specific tasks, generalists who glue specialists together, dedicated support people who don’t need to do engineering, engineers who don’t get support interruptions, tiered support roles to filter tasks by difficulty, mentors to train newcomers, career pipelines, on call schedules or follow the sun support desks and internal education systems.  The number of challenges presented to a lone IT professional or very small IT department are nearly insurmountable forcing corners to be cut nearly everywhere, often dangerously.  There is no time or resources for tiny IT departments to handle the scope of the job thrown at them.  Even if the job role is whittled down to a very specific job role, SMB IT professionals are often faced with decision making for which they cannot be prepared.  For example, a simple server failure might be seen as just another “hardware upgrade” task because the overworked, under-scoped IT professional isn’t being given the necessary latitude to be able to flag management as to an arising opportunity for some strategic roadmap execution – maybe a complete departure from previous plans due to a late breaking technology change, or a chance to consolidate systems for cost savings or a tactical upgrade or change of platform might deliver unrealized features.

Having worked both in the trenches and in management I believe that there are two thresholds that need to be considered.  One is the minimum functional IT department size.  That is, the minimal size that an internal IT department can be to be able to complete basic job functions using internal staff.  To clarify, “internal staff” can be a rather ambiguous term.  Internal here I use to mean dedicated or effectively dedicated staff.  These people can be employees or contractors.  But at a minimum, with the exception of very rare companies that don’t operate during full business hours or other niche scenario, it takes at least three IT professionals on an IT team to functionally operate as an IT department.

With three people there is an opportunity for peer review, very critical in a technical field that is complex at the best of times and a swirling quagmire of unknown requirements, continuous change and insurmountable complexity at the worst of times.  Like any technical field, IT professionals need peers to talk to, to oversee their work, to check their ideas against and to keep them from entering the SMB IT Bubble.  Three is an important number.  Two people will have a natural tendency to become adversarial with one carrying the weight of recommendation to management and one living in their shadow – typically with the one with the greater soft skills or business skills gaining the ear of management while the one with the greater technical acumen losing their voice if management isn’t careful to intentionally include them.  As with maritime chronometers, it is critical that you have three because you can have a quorum.  Two simply have an argument.

IT is an “around the clock” endeavor.  During the day there are continuous needs from IT end users and the continuous potential for an outage or other disaster plus meetings, design sessions, planning and documentation.  In the evenings and on weekends there is all of the system maintenance that cannot, or at least should not, be done while the business is up and running.  This is often an extensive level of work, not an occasional bit of missing happy hour but regular workload eliminating dinner and family time.  Then comes the emergency calls and outages that happen any time day or night.  And there is the watching of email – even if nothing is wrong it is commonplace for IT to be involved in company business twelve to sixteen hours a day and weekends too, even in very small companies.  Even the most dedicated IT professional will face rapid burnout in an environment such as this without the ability to have a service rotation to facilitate necessary rest and work/life balance.

This comes before the considerations for the unforeseeable sick days, emergency leave or even just holidays or vacation.  If there are not enough people left behind to cover the business as usual tasks plus the unforeseeables, then vacations or even sick days become nearly, if not totally, impossible.  Skipping vacations for a year or two is theoretically possible but it is not healthy and doesn’t provide for a sustainable department.

Then there is training and education.  IT is a demanding field.  Running your own IT department suggests a desire to control the level of skill and availability granted to the company.  To maintain truly useful IT staff time and resources for continuous education is critical.  IT pros at any stage in their career need to have time to engage in discussions and forums, attend classes and training, participate in user groups, go to conferences and even just sit down and read books and web sites on the latest products, techniques and technologies.  If an IT professional is not given the chance to not just maintain, but grow their skills they will stagnate and gradually become useless technically and likely to fall into depression.  A one or two man shop, with even the smallest of organizations, cannot support the necessary free time for serious educational opportunities.

Lastly, and far more critical than it seems at first, is the need to handle request queues.  If issues arise within a business at a continuous, average rate of just enough per day to require eight hours per day to service them it may seem like only one person would be necessary to handle the queue that this work load would generate.  In an ideal world, perhaps that is true.  In the real world, requests come in at varying degrees of priority and often at very inopportune moments so that even a business that has taken on the expense of having dedicated, internal IT cannot have the “instant response time” that they often hope for because their IT professional is busy on an existing task.  The idea of instant response is based on the assumption that the IT resource is sitting idle and watching the ticket queue or waiting by the phone at all times.  That is not realistic.

In large enterprises, to handle the response time concerns of critical environments, surplus IT resources are maintained so that only in the direst of emergencies would all of them be called upon at one time to deal with high criticality issues at the same time.  There is always someone left behind to deal with another pressing issue should one arise.  This not only allows for low latency response to any important customer need but also provides spare time for projects, learning and the necessary mental downtime needed for abstract processing of troubleshooting without which IT professionals in a support role will lose efficiency even if other work does not force them to multitask.

In small shops there is little to be done.  There is a lack of scale to allow for the excess IT resource capacity to be sitting n the wings just waiting for issues to arise.  Having three people is, in my opinion, an absolute minimum to allow for the handling of most cases of this nature if the business is small enough.  By having three people there is, we hope, some chance of avoiding continuous re-prioritization of requests, inefficient multi-tasking and context switching.

In larger organizations there is also a separation of duties between administration or support job roles and engineering job roles.  One job is event driven, sitting “idle” waiting for a customer request and then reacting as quickly as possible. The other focused on projects and working towards overall efficiency.  Two very different aspects of IT that are nearly impossible for a single person to tackle simultaneously.  With a three person shop these roles can exist in many cases even if the roles are temporarily assigned as needed and not permanent aspects of title or function.

With only three people an IT department still lacks the size and scale necessary to provide a healthy, professional growth and training environment internally.  There are not enough rungs on the ladder for IT employees to move up and only turnover, unlikely to happen in the top slot, allows for any upward mobility forcing good candidates to leave rapidly for the sake of their careers leaving good shops with continuous turnover and training and lesser shops with dramatically inferior staff.  There is no simple solution for small organizations.  IT is a broad field with a great many steps on the ladder from helpdesk to CIO.  Top IT organizations have thousands or, in the most extreme cases, hundreds of thousands of IT professionals in a single organization.  These environments naturally have a great degree or both upward and lateral mobility, peer interaction and review, vendor resources, mentoring, lead oversight, career guidance and development and opportunities to explore new ideas and paths often that don’t exist in SMBs of any size.

To maintain a truly healthy IT department takes a much larger pool of resources.  Likely one hundred, or more, IT professionals would be required to provide adequate internal peerage, growth and opportunity to begin to provide for career needs, rather than “job needs.”  Realistically, the SMB market cannot bear this at an individual business scale and must accept that the nature of SMB IT is to have high turnover of the best resources and to work with other businesses, typically ones that are not directly competitive, to share or exchange resources.  In the enterprise space, even in the largest businesses, this is often very common – friendly exchanges of IT staff to allow for career advancement often with no penalties for returning later in their career for different positions at the original company.

Given this bleak picture of SMB IT staff scaling needs, what is the answer?  The reality is is that there is no easy one.  SMB IT sits at a serious disadvantage to its enterprise counterparts and at some scale, especially falling below three dedicated IT staff members, the scale becomes too low to allow for a sustainable work environment in all but the most extreme cases.

In smaller organizations, one answer is turning to consulting, outsourcing and/or managed service providers who are willing and able to work either in the role of internal staff or as a hybrid with existing internal staff to provide for an effectively larger IT organization shared between many businesses.   Another is simply investing more heavily in IT resources or using other departments as part time IT to handle helpdesk or other high demand roles, but this tends to be very ineffective as IT duties tend to overwhelm any other job role.  A more theoretical approach is to form a partnership with another one or two businesses to share in house IT in a closed environment.  This last approach is very difficult and problematic and generally works only when technology is heavily shared as is geographic location between the businesses in question.

More important than providing a simple answer is the realization that IT professionals need a team on which to work in order to thrive and will perform far better on a healthy team than they will alone.  How this is accomplished depends on the unique needs of any given business.  But the efficacy and viability of the one or two “man” IT shop, for even the smallest businesses, is questionable.  Some businesses are lucky enough to find themselves in a situation where this can work for a few years but often live day to day at a high degree of risk and almost always face high turnover with their entire IT department, a key underpinning of the workings of their entire business, leaving at once with the benefits of staggered turnover that a three person and larger shop at least have an opportunity to provide.  With a single person shop there is no handover of knowledge from predecessors, no training and often no opportunity to seek an adequate replacement before the original IT professional is gone leaving at best an abrupt handover and at worst a long period of time with no IT support at all and no in house skills necessary to interview and locate a successor.

5 thoughts on “The Smallest IT Department”

  1. Nice article. I work in a one man IT shop and for the last three years have forgone a decent vacation and sick leave to get this SMB off the ground. Somethings going to have to happen soon. Maybe I’ll slip this article into the GM’s intray and see what happens.

  2. I read your article with great interest. I am a one person IT shop for a large non-profit in Northern CA. Your observations certainly apply in my case, in terms of trying to divide my time between support, maintenance, and engineering. Weekends, as you say often involve server maintenance that can’t be performed at any other time, and vacations are not strictly “time off”… much to the chagrin of my wife!

    In spite of all that I love this job. I have a great boss, very competitive pay for a NPO position, and very flexible work hours. I work from home 4 out of 5 days a week at this point, which is only possible because I “engineered” a comprehensive remote access and support infrastructure. I have managed to cobble together a pretty solid IT kingdom from what was a patchwork of fiefdoms 6 and a half years ago when I started here. Being a Lone IT Ranger ain’t easy, but I would not trade it for a higher paying, higher stress job for any amount of money.

    I shared this article on my LinkedIn profile. Looking forward to browsing more of your content!

  3. Good Article. This applies to our company. We are only 3 heads on my Team. But being dedicated to our work, we can do all the jobs. More Power Scott!

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