Yahoo's new IT approach: less heroism, fewer burnouts

Company uses IT service management to boost performance, reduce recurring problems

IT heroes -- those workers who are willing to get up at 2 a.m. and drive into work to fix a problem, or spend a weekend in a data center setting up a new system -- are a key part of many organizations, including Yahoo's corporate IT department.

But if someone is fixing the same problem night after night, that isn't heroism: it's the movie Groundhog Day come to life. And that's the kind of problem that Stephen Carn, Yahoo's manager of data center services, is trying to avoid.

"We do perform heroics all the time -- you might not realize it, but it might be just par for the course for the career that you choose," Carn said. He added, though, that there's a price to pay "in terms of turnover and burnout."

Like many large companies, Yahoo is incorporating new service management practices, such as the ones detailed in the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) guidelines, into its IT operations. Carn, who started in his current job about 18 months ago, quickly found a way to illustrate to higher-level IT executives how the service management concept works, thanks to an application that kept crashing.

Carn said he asked the IT staff to fill out incident management forms detailing what happened after each crash. He then created a timeline and put the data from the 17 reported incidents into a spreadsheet, with the goal of finding their root causes -- one of the steps that service management processes recommend as a means of improving IT services.

Nine of the crashes were caused by an outdated Dynamic Link Library file, Carn discovered. He said he showed the results of his investigation to senior IT managers and demonstrated the methods he used to track down the application problem, and it "really resonated" with them.

Carn, who outlined the steps that Yahoo is taking to implement its service management program at the IT Service Management Forum USA's Fusion 07 conference here, is working with an IT staff of 400 people that handles about 200,000 help desk requests annually.

Senior executives might have been enthusiastic about adopting service management concepts and incorporating ITIL recommended practices, but selling the idea to IT staffers required some internal marketing, Carn said. Yahoo dubbed its service management effort ITopia and created handouts, cartoons, T-shirts and even Frisbees to help explain the program and get people interested in it.

In a workplace culture that thrives on e-mail and instant messages, Carn opted for the printed handouts because it created the opportunity for face-to-face interaction. "I wanted to build a relationship with people," he said.

Carn also worked to set realistic expectations with end users about what was possible from IT, in order to help mitigate the need for unnecessary heroism on the part of his staffers. An internal conference was held at the company's headquarters in Sunnyvale, Calif., and one of the key messages delivered there was that IT is "a service provider for our customers," Carn said.

The service management program was launched one year ago next month, and many of the new processes are in place, according to Carn. The next hurdle, he said, is to add supporting tools that increase productivity by further automating data center operations.

The need to internally market service management programs and then train workers on new processes was cited by many other attendees at the conference as the key challenge to getting the concept adopted within companies. But some technologies designed to ease the cultural shift are becoming available.

For instance, G2G3 Propulsion, in Edinburgh, Scotland, has developed a game-like system for teaching service management approaches to IT workers. The system, called Polestar ITSM, displays interactive models of service management processes, such has how internal teams should interact in handling server failures. "We model the whole life cycle of a service," said Henry Strouts, who heads business development at G2G3.

Christian Diotte, a senior manager for systems integration at T-Systems North America, watched a demonstration of Polestar ITSM at G2G3's booth on the conference's trade show floor. Diotte said that getting IT staffer to accept service management methodologies is critical. If people don't buy into the process, he warned, it will never work.

Want to read more? Check out Get a life: 10 tips for achieving a better work/life balance.

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