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How to prevent IT department overload

Minda Zetlin | May 21, 2013
Managing the flow of an infinite supply of worthwhile projects through a finite IT operation takes finesse. Here's how to avoid the backlog and the chaos.

Measuring IT Capacity
How do you know how much you can take on in the first place? How many projects are too many?

The only way to find out for sure is to track IT capacity -- the number of working hours available in your department. "You have a mixture of both projects that create some kind of improvement and 'keep the lights on' activities," Coombes says. "That's the demand. We have to make sure we have enough capacity to handle those lights-on jobs, and then figure out how to provide capacity for the new projects."

Coombes uses what he calls the "capacity model" to plan IT employees' workloads. "We actually plan for the period before a release what we expect for individual people working on a project, based on their availability," he says. "We plan for a full eight-hour day, but we're not going to book eight hours of development time for a developer. We may need to set aside two hours for administrative tasks and answering questions that come up. So there might be six hours available for software development."

In that case, he says, the developer may be booked to work two hours on one project, two hours on a second and two hours on a third. And that's it. His capacity for the day is used up. "That's the only way to do it," Coombes says. "Otherwise, we tend to overbook people."

"There's often this perception that people who are working eight hours a day have another eight hours available," Handler notes dryly.

The Challenge of Key Employees
Measuring capacity alone isn't good enough, since not all IT employee hours are created equal. "You need to think about it in granular terms," Coombes says. "Not only hours of work but development hours, testing, architecture, project management."

Indeed, the need to find people with both the right skills and enough free time often stops projects in their tracks. And since technical work can often be outsourced, the missing resource is usually project management and/or business expertise.

"Are you comfortable outsourcing the project management function?" asks Bruce Myers, managing director at consulting firm AlixPartners. "Some companies are fine doing that, but others aren't. That is most often the limiting factor."

"You really are constrained not only by hours and functions, but also by the expertise you have in the business context," Coombes says. "That really is the key to understanding what a subject-matter expert is. You may have a developer who's good at development work and an architect who really understands how a system is put together. But to meet the demands of the business, you have to have people who really understand the needs of the business. Those are the people who are hard to find and to hang on to."


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