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IT Bonanza Budget: What if Money Were No Object?
By Patrick Hubbard, Head Geek, SolarWinds 

Back in the heady days of the first enterprise mainframe computers, IT budgets worked a lot differently. Primarily, there was no such thing as "IT." Computers were high-tech business differentiators, well-supported by the handful of very large companies that could wield them. They were, in short, high-profile, special projects that received whatever resources they needed to succeed. But eventually, computers became commodity business tools and were condemned as the cost center budget, where the only win is efficiency. That was the birth of IT-keeping the lights on, but always with an eye to cost over innovation.

Today, with "Digital Transformation" buzzing in CXO's ears, organizations are once again looking to IT to drive innovation and adopt a rash of new cloud-native technologies, while simultaneously scraping by on the same tight budgets of the last two decades. Somehow, we understand as we watch Tesla, NASA, or Google spend billions to innovate, yet won't accept that math as universal. 

Let's suppose for a moment you won the budget lottery. Imagine your management just said, "We know you have some great ideas-just let us know how much you need to get them off the ground." Without office politics and with realistic expectations, what would your budget look like? Perhaps not far out of line from current budgets. After all, we're engineers-rational and good at knowing what we need. 

So if dream budgets are larger but still relatively close to current allocations, would it be possible for enlightened organizations to create real budgets that don't break the bank but can achieve real transformation goals? Would the COO's office reward pilot project success with broader investment next time? More likely than not, with a little planning, you could experiment with the following six approaches when laying out your IT budget and help pitch investment to your boss.

1. Be upfront: Your core budget was designed to keep the lights on

IT budgets weren't made for innovation. Repeat that quietly out loud, then slowly exhale. Accept that for any cost center, innovation is a second-level priority, and we should be clear about that. Realize anytime you have a budget blip or need to innovate, your road may be hard and long, unless you work with upper management on their terms.

2. Roll up your numbers before delivering your budget to management

Granular-level budgets are TMI. Especially for technology managers who've been AFK for years, encrusting budgets with line item details for the sake of completeness can be fuel for debate. And when every item in your itemized lights-on budget is fought over, someone will win-it just might not be you. State the business problem to be solved, roll up the big-ticket related costs, and recommend the success metrics of your choosing prior to the conversation.

3. Align your department with the business

Your budget is a document of intent, not measurement. Consider what it will take to keep the lights on as usual, but also tie the new budget to goals that affect the whole organization. First, it's a reminder that IT is a business-critical shared service, and second, it makes increased or at least specific IT spending part of the business conversation. Set new KPIs around overall business goals. Don't call out line items for "Mailbox migration resources for Office 365" or "Increase bandwidth for VPN." Instead, speak in terms of the business itself.

Imagine operations reading your budget plan to find "Support Marketing's Project Embiggen-increasing subscribers 50% this year" or "Empower Everywhere-O365 access for 100% of employees." By speaking in those terms, the business knows you're serious about their goals. Better, they realize you understand the business itself. It also helps you be smarter about spending. Questions like "150,000 new subscribers... Can our infrastructure scale to that?" are helpful well in advance of the go-live date. Like you, management plays budget Tetris, but they're considering your budget against the physical plant budget or transportation costs. If you can be a part of strategic conversations early, you're more likely to get better consideration.

4. Earmark certain projects

Earmark budget numbers as coming out of operations, marketing, or sales-the other departments aided by your innovation. Whatever the driver for that tech is, earmarking it is fantastic even if you can't back-bill or charge back. It allows you to set the dollars aside and clarify where money is headed. It also means you won't tie up your money in the wrong places.

5. Be able to report against spend

Of course, nail down your numbers and do your cost and benefits analysis for a proposed project. But also seek ways to also provide measurement of project success, not just SLAs or ROIs. We often forget measurement can mitigate risk for your team. Businesses' risk-aversion sensors are tuned to teams relying on gut instinct or flaky details. Each budget is an opportunity to renegotiate assessments of success, ditch the crystal ball, and adopt objective, real-world numbers based on desired business outcomes. And muting risk-o-meter warnings eliminates a set of easy objections.

In the proposal stage, being able to promise active, objective measurement will also help you with the C-suite. They'll have a framework to work with and metrics they can trust. They'll know when the project is working or not.

6. Move security to the left of the board

Chances are, you'd put security near the top of your budget spend and on the planning cards of your Kanban board. But management emphasizes new tech acquisition, OpEx, R&D, skills development, innovation, and eventually security, in that order. They seem to focus on applications first, then infrastructure, and then maybe monitoring. Dead-last for them is security.

Traditional statements like, "We'll build new thing X, and of course secure it" result in traditional outcomes like having no budget left for security. Instead, make security a key enabling technology for new projects. You'd know the "Empower Everywhere" project will drive firewall and VPN security changes, but a meeting subject like "Securing Empower Everywhere" is more likely to drive management attendance, productive conversation, and focus on security budget from the outset.

Lessons from Dinosaurs

All these approaches share an echo of how organizations achieved initial success before computers lived in the cost center-that transformation requires business to understand the value of technology and the relationship between new investment and innovation. Earmarking budgets, explanatory project titles in line items, rethinking success metrics, and remembering innovation isn't a core principle of cost centers won't bring racks of new gear and dozens of vendor engineers on-site or into the cloud. But it can go a long way toward helping the business remember that every now and then, technology has been the key to huge strides by businesses. Or at least key for businesses that chose to invest in technology when innovation would set them apart. And when they remember that, budget may actually follow.



Patrick Hubbard 

An accomplished technologist with over 20 years of experience, Hubbard's career includes software development, operations, product management and marketing, technology strategy, and advocacy. An unapologetic market-hype deconstructionist, Hubbard is passionate about arming technology professionals with the tools and skills to deliver services that delight, not just satisfy, users. Hubbard's current focus is helping enterprises adopt cloud-native and DevOps techniques that deliver the business transformation CIOs increasingly demand.

Since joining SolarWinds in 2007, Hubbard has combined his technical expertise with an IT customer perspective to drive product strategy, launch the Head Geeks, develop and manage the SolarWinds Certified Professional (SCP) and SolarWinds Academy Training Classes programs, and create the SolarWinds online demo platform. Today, most admins recognize Hubbard as the executive producer of the Telly award-winning SolarWinds Lab, and SolarWinds THWACKcamp.
Published Friday, September 20, 2019 7:38 AM by David Marshall
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