Five expectations for hiring staff in a modern media company IT department
I suppose most people my age in the IT industry have a favorite character from the original Star Trek. When I was 12, I wanted to be the chief engineering officer for the Starship Enterprise. I love watching Montgomery Scott push his ship to the limit, often at the last moment, to save the day. I must admit I did find it somewhat disturbing that Scott seldomly got the girl.
Some years later I found myself sitting in the engineering control center for the real USS Enterprise standing watch as the Chief Load Dispatcher in charge of all shipboard electrical systems. Had I stayed in the Navy, I was on a track that could have led to becoming Chief Engineering Officer for the USS Enterprise, but other sirens beckoned. After leaving the Navy, I pursued a career in media. In 1982, I became the Lead Instructor for Computer Craft Learning Centers. In 1983, at the young age of 27, I was offered the position of Chief Technology Officer for the Houston City School District. Instead, I started a software company that produced modeling and analytical programs for the publishing industry, thus marrying my two loves.
Chief Technology Officer for hire
Almost 30 years have gone by and I still find myself at the intersection of media and technology. Today I run a 20 person IT services company that provides a full array of outsourced IT services to small and midsize publishers. Most of the CEOs and CMOs who are my clients don’t have their own CTO, so I fill that role for them on a part-time basis. On occasion, I think about becoming the CTO for a large media company. But after being able to pick and choose my clients for some 30 years, I suspect that would not work out well for me. And it certainly wouldn’t provide me with the diversity of clients I now have as an outsourced IT service provider.
IT Departmental roles and responsibilities
We currently provide turnkey online IT services to six media companies, strategy and analytics only for 14 more, and training for more than 100 independent publishers in any given year. If you’re a CEO wondering what to expect from your IT department, let me share how I’ve organized and think about our services. I think you’ll find it reflective of what any IT services department looks like at a twenty-first century, multi-platform media company.
As a contract CTO, it’s my job to understand business goals and options, and then build and support IT solutions that will empower those goals. At the highest level, I have a role in identifying opportunities, strengths, threats, and weaknesses to our core business and advising my CEOs on what I believe to be the best course of action. This part of the job requires an interesting mix of constant research, educated guessing, and ongoing trial and error. The advent of tablet computing, for example, has expanded my thinking from primarily using the Internet as a marketing channel to contemplating a point in time where the Internet will be both our primary marketing and distribution channel.
After establishing our strategy, I work with our system architects, designers, and project managers to choose platforms that support our strategy. Each development job starts with gathering both user and operator requirements, designing functional mockups, heuristic usability testing, and documenting project scope in detail. This process is made more complicated by the required interaction of different system components. For example, we need to make sure that our e-mail marketing systems and audience development blogs pass proper tracking codes to all e-commerce modules so that our operators can optimize their web and e-mail marketing inventory appropriately. With the advent of digital magazines, we must now implement solutions that allow customers who buy through Apple and Amazon to access our subscription websites and vice versa.
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I learned pretty quickly that system development is an ongoing activity. In any given fiscal year, we have the need for more development time than we can afford. Hence, long-term planning and prioritization are key to maximizing our development resources. To keep costs down, we rely heavily on modularized open source software and application service providers. To keep the subsystems communicating properly, we must keep them current. Thus, we must allocate a base level of development services to maintenance and upgrades. Beyond that, you work with operators to prioritize their need for new functionality to meet their business goals. Not surprisingly, the operators think that system maintenance happens magically, and are totally focused on getting the new system functionality that will help them do their jobs more effectively.
Virtually all of our web, e-mail, social, and tablet publishing systems produce a myriad of data that can help operators use their time and resources more efficiently. Digital publishing and marketing has so much data that the key to success is often in developing simple reports that are designed around operational decision-making. For example, the Google Visibility Report helps audience development bloggers and all online editors use phrases that will generate more website traffic from the target audience. A properly designed E-mail Performance Report helps the audience development department optimized e-mails for revenue generation or their ability to drive website traffic. A simple Key Metrics Dashboard alerts the management team to both problems and opportunities. At Mequoda Group and other in-house IT departments I’ve helped organize, analytics is a separate department reporting directly to either the CTO or CFO.
Operators must be kept up-to-date on both the technical capabilities of their software applications, and the best business practices for optimizing performance towards enterprise goals. To stay fresh, operators require 10 to 20 days of training annually. This number can be higher in periods of system overhaul or new system deployment. An operator who has been properly trained on WordPress and all its system plug-ins, can post content correctly and effectively in about half the time required by an inexperienced and poorly trained operator. I’ve help train more than 100 audience development bloggers. In each case, we’ve managed to increase their work output by 200 to 300 percent when we compare their productivity during their first six months on the job, to their productivity after 12 to 18 months. Continuous training in both software operation and business best practices is essential to ongoing success.
Keeping a sophisticated digital publishing and marketing system functional is a large and thankless endeavor. As the old saying goes, no one ever notices when the system is up, but everyone seems to notice when the system goes down.
Operational success leads to the need for greater hardware and bandwidth to keep pace with the growing online audience. Every system upgrade requires that internal settings and external connections be checked and verified for proper system operation. System administrators never sleep. We maintain two levels of 24/7 system monitoring. When done properly, most system malfunctions are caught in the staging environment before they can ever take a live system down. When a problem does occur with your live system, contingency planning can dramatically minimize downtime. For each of our online systems, we must know the revenue being generated per hour so we can know how much to spend on contingency planning and backup. The bigger the system, the more we spend to make sure that it doesn’t go down, and that when it does, the outage is brief.
All in a days work
On the USS Enterprise, we planned, trained, drilled, and managed our systems for every likely contingency that could face a US naval warship. When bad things did happen, we were ready. From equipment failures to engine room fires, we kept our heads and did our jobs. Little did I know what great training I was getting for my future career in digital publishing.
I hope this list is helpful in setting and evaluating the success metrics for your IT department.