Ramsay’s IT Nightmares Revisited

Way, way back I talked about the parallels between running a restaurant and running an IT infrastructure/business.  I’d been watching Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and everything Gordon Ramsay was saying rang true to me.

In my original post I pointed out the following as being keys for a successful IT implementation or business:

  • Ingredients: Use the best products that are suitable for your business.  Don’t just look for what is cheap or what you’ve been comfortable with in the past.  Anticipate your future growth and requirements.  Engineer flexibility.  Learn from your mistakes.  And don’t accept mediocrity or down right awful software.  You’ve also got to find the correct blend of ingredients.  Find solutions that work together as easily as possible.  In my college software engineering classes we learned that sometimes buying in the more expensive off-the-shelf solution that did the job was often cheaper over the long term than developing internally or reconfiguring something cheaper.  Be open to those alternatives.
  • Good communication: This is a 3 way process including the owner/management, staff and the customer.  The business needs to listen to the customer to know what service to provide.  Don’t just expect the mountain to come to you.  It doesn’t work like that for us mere mortals.  The owner/management must communicate their vision to the staff.  And the owner/management needs to listen to the staff because they are the eyes and ears of the business.  If the business has recruited well, then they have hired experts.  Use that internal expertise and develop the business using well founded knowledge instead of pipe dreams founded on misinterpretations of breakfast seminar.
  • Keep it simple: I’m all for being creative.  That little script here or a scheduled job there can be the difference between being OK and looking like a genius to your customer.  Building an enterprise out of a cobweb of that is pure nuts.  Imagine an administrator planning on managing many hundreds of mission critical Windows servers via scripts?!?!?  Talk about a nightmare.  I can install SCOM to do that in 3 days and have a 100% completely managed infrastructure with reporting, in-depth control and trust in the solution.  Sometimes doing the MacGuyver thing is cool.  Sometimes you’ve got to step back and thing bigger and simpler.  It’s almost like a state of mind where you let your focus drift back from the detail while keeping it in vision.
  • The customer: There is no business if there is no customer.  That customer might be the business you work for – they can "leave you" by outsourcing your job if you don’t cut the mustard.  And they still might just do that if management has a brainfart to cut costs, e.g. a company laying off 15 staff and replacing them with 77 consultants :-).  It might be a traditional customer who will leave you or never sign a contract if what you provide isn’t what they want or need.

I’m going to add a couple of more bullet points to this:

  • The owner/management: The latest series of Kitchen Nightmares showed how a restaurant can fail if the owner is not up to the job.  This applies equally in IT.  I’ve worked for a few companies in the last few years and I’ve seen how the owner/management can steer a boat towards the inevitable fall over a waterfall.  Whether it was those who locked themselves away in an office and surfing the web and chatting with friends about pipe dreams, those who think they know everything there is to know and put their fates in the hands of a consulting firm that’s being screwing up and ripping them off for years while ignoring advice to the contrary or those companies that split IT into competing factions where work is not done because it falls between the cracks.  One thing that was common was that their IT infrastructures were 100% s***.  I was brought in and either given nothing to do or they didn’t want to listen.  Unless the captain wants to work, the boat will never reverse course.  It’s more than just talking.  You’ve got to get down and get your hands dirty.  Decisions need to be made.  Work must be done.  Changes need to start at the top.  Sorry!  I’ve also had the opposite experience where the owner/management are completely committed and passionate about the success of the enterprise.  I’m lucky to be there right now.  I enjoy starting work in the morning for the first time since 2005.  That energy feeds from the top through the staff.
  • Staff: You must recruit well.  I guess I see three types of administrator/engineer.  There’s the 10:00-16:00 person who comes in to to a job.  They don’t care about the job.  They have no passion.  They don’t learn.  Anything new is work for consultants or contractors.  Anyway, "I just want to be doing XYSTSJ instead of this.  This is just to pay the bills".  Those folks are in the vast majority in the business.  They produce s*** and the infrastructure is s***.  There is the hard slogger.  This is the person who comes in 100% committed to working their best.  They want to learn and they are good, honest people.  There only downfall is that despite their great work ethic, things can be done a little bit more efficiently.  Then there is the lazy admin.  Lazy; isn’t that bad?  Not necessarily.  I class myself as a lazy admin.  I’d rather have someone or something else do the hard work for me.  Such as?  Why not let the network look after itself?  It is possible, you know.  It’s not just marketing.  I’ve done the Dynamic Systems Initiative and Optimised Infrastructure thing before.  A team of 3 of us ran 170+ globally located servers and were doing 3 hours a day of troubleshooting.  We could focus the rest of the time on more interesting work and on projects that added value to the competitiveness of the business.  In this case, being "lazy" was a good thing.
  • Passion/Commitment: Being in this business mean spending more time than just 7.5 hours a day a the office.  To be the best you’ve got to be flexible and work that little bit more.  All of the alpha geeks I know read IT blogs, books, etc after work.  They go to evening seminars.  The best owners/managers I’ve worked for make personal sacrifices for the sake of the business and their staff, e.g. coming in on that evening to help out an engineer who is working on a severity 1 issue or being in the office when there is a maintenance weekend, even if they have nothing to do.  This is a key to success.

So that’s what I’ve learned from the restaurant business over the last series of Ramsays’ show and how it applies to our business.  I just found a YouTube video where he gives 5 keys to success.  They seem to apply to our business from what I’ve seen over the last few years:

  1. Passion: Everything you do as a leader influences the staff.
  2. Commitment: Don’t get into business if you’re seeing it as a hobby.  This isn’t a way to get yourself away playing golf, cruising around town in a fast car or playing Playstation all day long.  This is work, not just for your employees but also for yourself.
  3. Competition: Know them.  Strengths, weaknesses opportunities and threats – good old SWOT analysis from the marketing classes back in college.  Knowing your competition means you can beat them.  The best American Football players spend more time studying their competition in film rooms probably more than they’ll be in the gym or on the practice field.  Be able to offer something more, better or different.
  4. Creative Input: Don’t just rest on your laurels.  Always look for something new.  Invest time and money in R&D.  If you don’t, you will stagnate and your competition will leap ahead of you.
  5. The Customer is king: I’ve seen a company in a dominant position become the most hated company in their industry.  Awful sales ("sell them everything and we’ll break the bad news to them once the contract is signed"), atrocious support, failing operations and a laissez faire attitude from management turned off the market from them.  Their name became synonymous with everything that you could do wrong.  Ramsay makes an intersting point.  Some chefs cook for other chefs.  That’s wrong because you’re forgetting to cook for taste.  In our business, don’t do something because it’s cool or it’s geeky.  Do something because it makes your job easier or because it adds something of value for the customer.

Those who know me will find it a little funny that I find so much in common with a chef who’s famous for having a bad temper.  I don’t see any similarities at all 🙂

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