Startup lessons for traditional IT shops

Fast-growing companies like Square and MongoDB are driving IT innovation with leaner staffs, cloud-first computing, self-service everything and CTOs rather than CIOs.

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Idea No. 2: Self-service rules

At Square, the hot e-payment company started by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, cloud apps play a key role in an IT philosophy centered around customer experience, internal and external.

At Square, employees can frequent an IT bar, modeled after Apple's Genius bars, for day-to-day support.

Much like at MongoDB, Square production engineers in the early days pitched in on IT chores like configuring servers. But once the company hit 30 people, the firm hired an IT contractor to handle routine IT tasks like imaging, setting up new machines and maintaining file servers, Wi-Fi and automatic backups.

"We needed to build out an IT organisation so production engineers could devote 100% of their time to building products for merchants as opposed to troubleshooting systems or finding a power cord," explains Bob Lee, Square's CTO, who is also responsible for internal IT.

In addition to the outside contractor, Square maintains an IT staff that works closely with Lee and the engineering team -- a synergy Lee says make sense because it promotes collaboration while aiding in scalability. "Rather than the IT team performing the same rote task over and over again, they engineer [internal] solutions. Coupling them with the rest of production engineers aids in collaboration," he explains.

The combined team has been charged with building a self-service IT infrastructure that Lee says makes it easy for Square employees to get their jobs done. For example, an internally developed iOS-based central tracking tool helps employees keep tabs on everything from upcoming Square product enhancements to lost-and-found items.

One of the keys to easy collaboration is providing [employees] all the information needed to do the job. Bob Lee, Square

In the same vein, the team developed an internal app that delivers shortcuts to hundreds of pieces of documentation or websites that can help employees do their jobs better, from signing guests into the building to finding out who's working on what product or getting the scoop on the best local pizza delivery.

What's not self-service is designed to be as easily accessed as possible: when workers need help, they can frequent a new IT bar, modeled after the Genius Bar in Apple stores, to get day-to-day support and handholding.

"It's all about making things fast and frictionless for internal people," Lee says. "One of the keys to easy collaboration is providing all the information needed to do the job."

Idea No. 3: Simplify the org chart

Building out IT with an eye toward a leaner and more compact organisational structure is another common characteristic of adolescent technology operations. Plum Organics, a maker of baby foods, worked with an outsourcing partner early on to handle the heavy lifting of setting up servers, managing email and establishing connectivity to external partners.

When the company entered its fiscal 2012 year expecting to hit the $60 million mark, it realised it was time to retire the spreadsheets and QuickBooks system in favor of companywide ERP. Still, Plum didn't staff up internally, according to Mike Meyer, the company's COO/CFO, who oversees responsibility for IT.

We will continue to leverage cloud capabilities to grow and be competitive in the market. Mike Meyer, Plum Organics

Instead, Meyer and a business team spent eight to 10 months planning and mapping out business processes and then working hand-in-hand with an external implementation partner (Meyer declines to name it) that got an SAP cloud-based ERP system up and running in a scant two months. Today, Meyer and other senior operations and finance leaders continue to set direction for IT, though the company is about to hire a full-time IT manager to help with implementation, Meyer says.

In addition to serving as the point person working with the third-party outsourcing partner, the new hire will play another critical role given the latest chapter in Plum Organics' growth -- the now 90-person company was bought in June by Campbell Soup Co. "The IT manager will be the person on the ground working with our teams to figure out how to best leverage the technology and existing infrastructure Campbell has," Meyer describes. For example, Campbell has a data center packed with file and email servers that Plum Organics can use as well as a fully staffed help desk.

"This gives us the opportunity to have someone with technical skills on site who can help us leverage [Campbell's] larger and established infrastructure," Meyer explains. "At the same time, we can remain nimble and continue to leverage cloud capabilities to grow and be competitive in the market."

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