Confessions of an IT Manager: why I say “no” when you ask me for something new

A little while ago, I was a local councillor. During one of the meetings it was decided to put a bollard up to protect the road verge, as there was no kerb. We were informed that whilst we, the local council, would pay for the work, we had to get the work done by the county council.

The county council helpfully had a brochure that we could look through to pick our bollard from the approved choices. The council road team would come along and put it in place. Then I saw the price. A bollard cost £5,000 in this brochure’s price list, when a quick online search said that I could buy it personally for about £500. Price gouging at its worst!

I raised this and was told that, yes, the bollard did indeed cost about £500, but the county council was also going to charge for its installation. However, the majority of the balance would actually be down to lifetime costs: replacing the bollard after being hit, not to mention the cost of cleaning and maintaining it over a likely lifetime of ten years.

Get to the point, Dear

Why have I started with this parochial tale of local politics when I was asked to write an article about why IT always say “no” to staff? Because I was thinking short-term and physical, but the council’s long experience tells them to think about the shadowy extra costs.

I really should have known better, because that’s what I face every day at work. People want shiny metaphorical bollards (well, some bollards are shinier than others), but don’t think about all the support costs and ramifications.

So, for much of the rest of this article I’m going to sound like a curmudgeon who you would hate to deal with. There is some light at the end, but first we need to address the shadows.

Read Michael’s first confessional: how to sell to me

Shadow IT

There was a fashionable term a while back called Shadow IT, where things would be procured in the cloud via a corporate card. This would then “get around” us annoying IT people, who are always finding ways to slow or stop things.

Shadow IT still exists, but arguably on a grander scale.

In my long experience working for SMEs, if a division within the company has its own IT budget then they become a law unto themselves. For example, this Christmas at my present employer, I discovered that HR had decided it was going to use a different platform; the first I heard about it was at the staff meeting when they told everyone. 

This was approved within HR’s own budget and a done deal. Only once I knew about it could I ask questions and make suggestions. For example, rather than creating a new bunch of usernames and passwords, maybe it would be better to use Single Sign On (SSO)? It turns out HR didn’t opt for it because it doubled the price. 

HR saw this as another case of IT sticking in the oar and costing money when it wasn’t an IT issue. My counter-argument is that by forcing people to use yet another password (which will likely be weak or re-used), it has weakened the security of the whole company. And made life more annoying for staff.

Accounting for taste

Accounts also have a budget and need somewhere to keep the books. My experience of such departments is that they will normally sign the agreement and then come back and say, “we’ve ordered a new accounts package and now it’s your job to install and get it working”. At which point they may or may not then go to lunch, but not without slipping in, “oh and by the way, can you work with the new firm on migrating the data from the old accounts system to this new one?”

The most recent time this happened, they were aghast when I came back with a list of things that were needed. Rather important things such as a Windows Server and SQL server licence. They were not happy that their budget had been blown apart, but if there had been engagement before sign-off then we could have offered some advice.

For a far better approach, read TechFinitive’s advice on how to convince your IT department to buy the software you need to do your job!

Shiny new laptop

If you don’t already think I sound like a curmudgeon then brace yourself. If you come asking for a new, shiny, non-standard laptop (and it’s outside the budget) then you’ll get a straight nope from me.

I have an agreed budget and I’ve told the firm that laptops costs £800 per person and have a lifetime of around three years. Straightaway, then, you’re not going to get the £2,000 laptop you would like. But it isn’t just about the budget: I will have to support this non-standard laptop, keep it secure, update drivers etc, which generates more work for me and my team.

So, unless you can get a doctor’s note and provide that to HR who in turn tell me that item X is required, only then I will say okay. Followed by “where is the budget coming from, as I have £800 a laptop budget and this one is £2,000?” Before I order it and then spend the time adding the drivers and software to the gold image, this needs sorting. 

You should have heard the user complaints when we went from Lenovo Carbon X1’s to Dell Latitudes. “I can’t carry the extra 400g” was said more than once. I just pointed them at the CEO and said you have to argue for the £1,200 uplift and get him to agree. Then I’ll be delighted to order it.

Credit card bypass

Finally, buying something on a credit card and then saying this is going on the IT budget as it’s cloud or software, does not mean that IT will accept the line in the budget. Or that we will “support” it. If you decide to buy it without consulting me, surely you can do the work required to understand it? 

I have implemented security that stops most installations of programs to our estate and a happy by-product is that it has stopped items such as Adobe Creative Suite being put on a card and installed.

There is a better way

Remember when I said there would be light at the end? Well, this is it.

Should a staff member want a product and come to IT to request it, I will tend to be a pushover. So long as they can make a business case for the purchase, I will put it in the budget for the next year.

As with any budget, I will face challenges from those who ultimately pay. I make a priority list for myself, for things I believe the company “needs”, “wants” and “would like” for the next year. 

During negotiations I have to be ruthless. While I will have to cut some from the “would like” and “wants” piles, I will always keep the “needs”. Of course, I would like to argue for everything, but the nature of the budget process means that isn’t possible. 

Afterwards, I will encourage those people who didn’t get the items they asked for to mention in in their appraisal. This means it is documented and gives me a better position to argue for it in the next budget process.

Complete bollards

I realise the above seems negative. That I’m saying “no” a lot! But there are reasons, and it comes from the same issue that my bollard suffered. When it comes to buying and supporting equipment and software, there are more than the up-front costs of buying the item: the support and running costs add up and up and up.

For example, we need to make sure your laptop is secure, and than means up-to-date patches just for a start. Your data must be backed up in a secure manner, and although I would love this process to be wholly automated it’s almost always additional work for my team. That means either other things are delayed or that someone in IT must do extra work outside of hours.

With anything in life, and IT in particular, there are hidden costs to doing an activity. If those costs are known and put upfront like my £5,000 bollard, it forces you to think: is this a good idea, a worthwhile investment? However, if I can just buy my bollard at £500 and then make the lifetime costs appear in someone else’s budget or workload then £500 seems a great deal!

So, when I say “no”, it’s not me being a grumpy refusenik. I’m using my experience to uncover the hidden longer term costs of the investment you’re requesting. If you want something, you should be thinking about those costs as well.

Read next: Tempted to simply bring in your own device? Davey Winder reveals the three biggest risks of BYOD… and why you can’t ignore them.

michael dear
Michael Dear

Michael has worked for more than 20 years running IT departments, mainly for small to medium insurance firms. His primary interest is focused on security and compliance.