Why IT is not a department anymore

In an interview, longtime IT leader Julius Tomei tells how IT has moved beyond crunching numbers, spitting out reports and building applications to become embedded in the business.
Written by Jeff Cerny, Contributor

Julius Tomei has more than 26 years in IT, working his way up through a single Fortune 100 company. He has a wealth of experience in every possible area, including service delivery, automation, batch-process management and operations strategy.

Before there was such a thing as a PC or client-server technology, he started his career as a COBOL and Assembler programmer, became a programmer analyst, then a systems analyst, project manager, applications manager, director of infrastructure, and CIO. His responsibilities these days include global infrastructure strategy for planning and management, overseeing more than 200 locations in 45 countries and more than 50,000 end users.

In an interview, Tomei discusses the acceleration of change he has seen in the IT department and how un-departmental it has become.

Q: For any CIO, mobility continues to be an important issue in terms of what employees can and should be able to do on mobile phones and PDAs. What has been the effect of the power and prevalence of mobile applications on your business?
Tomei: We've been able to standardize our mobile platform around smartphones, but we haven't put a lot of emphasis on developing our own custom mobile applications yet. Most of the heavy applications we use are back-office systems and CRM systems, so the applications that are appropriate for smartphones right now are at the departmental level.

People are excited, and rightfully so, about each new generation of devices and what they can do. But securing both the application and the data is still a primary concern for us. For example, any data that gets transmitted in or out on a mobile device is going to have to be encrypted. It's not that we're unaware of the value of smartapps. I just came back to Chicago on a flight and checked in by scanning the electronic boarding pass with a bar code on my phone into the console, which worked very well. So it's not something we won't be pursuing. But the concern to protect the data in transmission and the ability for people to take data with them are still the sticking points when you’re talking about taking it to the enterprise level.

What about the new enterprise apps like Google's? Have you been able to take advantage of any of those tools?
I see small and midsize businesses (SMBs) using Google Enterprise Apps very effectively to customize their unique business situations and creating competitive advantage with them. But it's a different situation for a larger company. If you remember, applications like C++ and Visual Basic as the back-end SQL server were very big in their heyday, and people started building their first client-server, multi-tier, N-tier infrastructures and applications. That allowed people to build applications that weren't available off the shelf at the time.

Today those applications you need are pre-built. Coming right out of the box they are beefed up with a broad selection of enhancements, so we've been able to focus our energies more on developing business process than on building custom applications. The ones you find with Google or in the Apple and Droid environments are making headway in SMB organizations, but at the enterprise level, the emphasis is still going to be on the large-scale, blocking-and-tackling apps.

One of the priorities General Motors' new CIO Terry Kline pointed to recently is creating a consolidated, common view for employees, particularly the view of their customers. Is that an important area for you?
It absolutely is. One of the key advantages I've seen in having a common framework is that you can shift the thinking in the organization from reactive to proactive. You see that most dramatically in companies that spend a lot of time in break-fix, where they are constantly in the firefighting mode. When you have a common perspective, it enables people to change from firefighters into business managers. They see the bigger picture, and they can begin to work with the business on process improvement and adding value.

Getting to a single view of our customers and our employees was important, but we had to have buy-in and agreement on a lot of cross-functional data. We had to migrate the data, the ownership, and the processes. We inventoried thousands of applications across our business, many of which were redundant or overlapping. It was more than just a convergence of the applications, but also a consolidation of the processes that support them. Once you bring all those independent internal data applications together, you have things in place for implementing single sign-on, which is a major step toward getting the house in order.

What have been the biggest changes in the role of IT and its effect on the business over the course of your career?
From where I sit, IT doesn't look like it once did at all. Over the last 30 years, IT has come from being a back-office, data processing organization to a center of information management and influencer of the overall decision-making process. IT plays a role in the services that are brought to the company, the infrastructure and applications, where to make investments, and its perception and understanding of the marketplace. The role we are playing now is much more as an ally and partnership with the business in a more consultative function.

The other transformation is that we're getting thinned out; fat IT organizations are becoming very rare. The question now is what goes in the cost bucket and what goes in the commodity bucket in ways that make the most of our technology investments.

How do you see the transition from enterprise software providers to enterprise service providers affecting your business?
Like most of the companies I am talking to, we are exploring the cloud-services path more and more. Businesses are asking how much they should continue to invest in their own infrastructure and building all that capability in house versus a service level, possibly even a better one, provided externally at a reasonable price. I don't know any large companies that have just jumped into the deep end of the pool, because they need to make sure they get it right. The software side is what the business sees and what it runs on, so the business process requires the service levels to be right. The other factor is that going to SAAS should not only be about improving service and speed, but also agility. That is a critical piece of our investment picture. It's a maturing industry. I don't see it as fully matured at this point.

As you look at outsourcing and cloud services, are there specific things you will always want to keep internal?
The data ownership and the business process optimization still happen inside the four walls. Those are things you can't hand over and say, "We outsourced it; now it's yours." There is a relationship and a process of learning to work in a different way that is more efficient. Someone else can be managing the application and the infrastructure, but no one will ever know the business better than you. The change going on and the improvements as a result of acquisitions of companies with different processes are going to make you better, but it's going to require work only you can do. Those are the things that have financial consequences if they are not done properly. The oversight of all the key processes that lie beneath the services is still what makes things work. Whether it's a ticketing system or a "service bus", there's a cohesive plan that keeps these pieces working together. No one service provider is going to bring all the applications, data center, help desk, desktop services. The gluing together is what IT is going to continue doing; managing that service layer that connects all the pieces that make up IT services.

What kinds of changes have you seen specifically in the data center?
I started out in the days when data centers were running on mainframes. Then we went to the client-server world and became very distributed. Now what I'm seeing is distributed systems that are becoming more centralized. Back in the old days, we didn't call it cloud computing. It was timeshare for the mainframe. You went to the green screen and keyed in a command, and it went out and got the information.

What I think we're seeing are familiar concepts reinventing themselves with more speed, processing power and storage space, but the data requirements are also growing astronomically in most organizations. Our retention policies, for example, how long we are required to keep which data, are coming to the forefront. Most companies have been virtualizing for a while and I see that continuing to be the case. I also see IP telephony playing an increasingly bigger role, and the need for conference bridges from CSP’s declining. I want to be able to use my existing network with any number of subscribers.

You were leading the pack in ITIL adoption and transformation a few years ago. Has that continued to be a part of your strategy?
ITIL remains an integral part of everything we do; it's embedded in our processes. As an IT organization, if you can't establish a framework of best practices, you are destined to become very inefficient. ITIL allows us to be good at what we do and be a better ally to the business. You have to consider all the components of ITIL and apply the ones that make sense for your organization.

It's also still the best tool out there for giving us all a common language and understanding of defined processes. Even as more processes are outsourced, you still need people to facilitate the information management at a higher level across the organization. IT brings the discipline to break down the business silos by using frameworks like Cobit and ITIL.

Have you looked at any other sources of best practices and benchmarks?
SAP has its own set of best practices, so we did use those in the implementation of its solutions and systems. But in terms of infrastructure management, we have continuously stuck with the industry standards of ITIL and COBIT, and in fact, they are embedded in the tools we use off the shelf.

Over the next few years, it sounds like a leaner IT department will become even more central to the business.
For those companies that are really going to transform themselves to the next generation, the IT shop is doing more than just crunching numbers, spitting out reports, and building applications. Particularly as business applications become smarter, they will need to be deployed at the product level in many cases. That's an opportunity for IT to become even more embedded in the business.

The main difference is that IT used to be a department. You could go to the IT floor and find the IT people there. Now information technology is everywhere. It permeates everything the company is doing. Because of that, the IT role has become more of a business role than a technical one. In the 90s and early 2000s, this was happening so fast it looked like the CEOs were going to start coming from the CIO ranks. That level of transformation hasn't happened yet, but we've come a long way from the time when the main reason you talked with the IT guy is to see if he could fix your PC.

Julius Tomei is in his third decade in IT as a Fortune 100 executive. He lives with his family in the western Chicago suburbs. Jeff Cerny has worked in technology and marketing for almost two decades and is the author of "Ten Breakable Habits to Creating a Remarkable Presentation". This article was first published as a blog post in TechRepublic.com.

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