Jim, a design engineer in the distribution department, was not happy. He collared me in the hall and shared his tale of woe.

Listen, Matt. I just can't deal with these information technology (IT) people. I love this new system and I'm getting twice the work done, but I keep having erratic problems that are quite frustrating. When I call the IT Help Desk, they have me try various things, almost always requiring that I restart my PC. Half the time, I'm left waiting for someone to follow up the next day. Sometimes, I'll go down the hall and repeat the entries on another PC and it works. What gives?

The problems Jim and many other utility engineers face are the natural consequences of tying disparate pieces together without a robust system of rules, checks and balances.

In Jim's case, the system has four parts: Work Management is a software package from a vendor; Materials Management is a second package from a different vendor; Compatible Units (standard construction models) is an application written internally; and Construction Sketches are performed on a CAD (computer-aided design/drafting) package from a third vendor.

IT people have glued the four parts together so they can exchange certain data with each other; this is called integration. Jim doesn't realize that there are at least five systems involved, including the software that integrates the four. However, Jim shouldn't have to care, because he needs them all to work together as a single system in order to do his job.

Unfortunately, it's far more complicated than that. Jim is directly entering data and queries on a browser-based program on his PC. The interface is similar in look and feel to being on the Internet, which made learning this new system easier. The PC has an operating system — which means even more software — and has hardware, which includes a network card that provides access to the company's Intranet (its internal network) via the wire that plugs into the wall jack like a phone. The network card contains software, too.

The Dragon Behind The Wall

Behind that wall, the network begins. In addition to all the hardware (routers, bridges and switches) are the copper and fiber-optic cables that transmit the data between the boxes, all of which have software in them. The IT Computer Center houses the application servers and database servers — very large, fast PCs — and massive storage devices, where the software for the systems and their data actually reside. Each server has an operating system and lots of internal hardware.

In a nutshell, the “computer” isn't the PC on Jim's desk, it's the whole corporate network, which probably involves 10,000 components. Jim is experiencing ITs worst nightmare: the intermittent problem. Which component is failing and why? The four (or five) software packages may be error free, or maybe not. Maybe it's too much computing load on a router or switch or server, but only occasionally.

In the olden days there was only a mainframe, connected to a dumb terminal. The terminal was “dumb” because it did nothing but pass every keystroke to the mainframe, then displayed exactly what the mainframe told it to. What we can accomplish on the integrated systems of today wasn't possible on a mainframe. At best, data was sent to one program, which generated a file of data, then kicked off a second program, which read the data file from the first program and processed it. Of course computing times were outrageously long. If you were lucky, you might have some good answers the next day! But the up side was that when a problem occurred, IT had only a few components to examine.

My Recommendations to Jim

Talk to several of your fellow users and get an estimate of how much productive time each is losing each week due to these intermittent problems. Multiply the average time lost by the number of users, which is several hundred, and then by their average hourly rate. Then go to the IT manager responsible for providing your division with services and show him the numbers. You need to show him how much money is involved. Why? Because to solve an “IT's worst nightmare” problem, he's going to have to put 7 to 12 of his brightest people, each an expert in a different IT discipline, in one room and give them this problem to solve. With those 10,000 components in the picture, no single person can possibly solve this problem alone. Your challenge will be to be patient and to assist this team when they ask for information. This will take at least two weeks to solve, probably twice that.

Would I advocate going back to those mainframe days when life was simple for the IT people? Never! Productivity for the users has increased orders of magnitude and that fact goes directly to the corporate bottom line. But for all you clients out there, remember that your IT folks have to manage their modern-day dragon daily. They're really on your side.

Matt Tani can be reached at (417) 455-1772 or via e-mail at mattELUTCONS@aol.com.