IT Infrastructure Projects and the “Net Gener” Resource

By Michael J. Casey, PMP

Staffing IT infrastructure projects is getting more and more problematic. Demands between system support and specialized technical undertakings have increased, while the pool of talent itself evolves before our eyes. “Infrastructure” efforts – a new data center, upgraded network, installation of servers, and desktops, e-mail and voice systems – require trained staff, pulled between providing ongoing service and episodic – though critical – input to technology efforts. This situation will be more complicated as the talent pool changes and the younger technology savvy worker emerges. Writers in recent years have suggested that – in the digital age – the talent geared to work on these technical projects is maturing in a manner not conducive to effective project planning and tracking.

Development roles generally operate within an adopted System Development Lifecycle – Agile, Waterfall, etc. – for a new software product or release. Companies invest heavily in metrics that are continually refined, in part, to protect investment in talent. This practice reinforces the importance of the software engineer in product development. The infrastructure resource, however, roams in the realm of support (ITIL or company custom version) and is periodically assigned to program management (PMO or variation). Specific skills are required for a short time, with tight interdependencies.  For example, the upgrade to web or database servers is often on the critical path of many enterprise wide initiatives, corporate or commercial.  Product an program managers cast a nervous eye at the Dev or QA “environment” build schedule– an amalgam of expensive network switches, racks, storage devices, and servers that have to be nestled,  IP’d and ready to go to meet a strategic schedule.

But, senior stakeholders, the project manager (PM) and the shared resource, the IT infrastructure engineer, are too often reminded that “production is king” and a key milestone may pass if an engineer is delayed in completing a task in order to address a problem affecting services. Most companies – even in good times – do not devote IT staff specifically to capital projects, observing the adage to “not build a church for Easter Sunday.”

The network engineer or system administrator, consequently, is perceived to be “on loan” for specific tasks on a “best effort” basis. The project is just another form of short term work authorization. The engineer may never even look at the plan; the PM is left to gauge the impact of a build or configuration, if missed, with little or no mitigating options. Many have emphasized the multi-tasking – gaming, internet mastering– capabilities of the Net Gen resource. This adaptability could work to the benefit – or the detriment – of the IT infrastructure project.  With a generally short horizon to realizing the product or service, the resource could embrace the repetitive service based tasks… or reject them entirely.

In managing technical project resources in the coming years, we can make some qualified observations to see if they become trends, with the maturity of Net Gen (aka, Gen Y) talent:

–          The Net Gen resource of “Growing Up Digital” (Tapscot) may embrace the episodic nature of IT project work – multiple projects with different stakeholders – but not the repetitive service oriented tasks themselves. (e.g., Build Server, Test circuit.)

 –  Value expressed through core Systems Assurance and Service Delivery disciplines will likely shift as Net Gen staff rises to prominence in IT and resists traditional adherence to standards.

 –  This value shift – and the need to incorporate Net Gen tendencies in the formulation of IT project tasks and the service catalogue may tax companies, led by traditionalists and boomers, in the coming years.

In “Growing Up Digital,” Daniel Tapscott focused on “bathed in bits” children – those between 2 and 22 in 2000. He favorably characterized them as “tolerant of diversity, self-confident, curious, assertive, self-reliant, contrarian and flexible”. These traits, he points out, are a result of this generation’s exposure to the Net, the fluid interchange of information and interactive modes of communication. In cyberspace, he says, there are no hierarchies and the readily available access to information has created in its young “netizens” the quest to search for and be critical of information.

This portrait, no doubt, is a celebration of emerging individuality, the profile of an engaging, sophisticated generation. However, it does not suggest the discipline and sublimation of self needed to build, for example, a required set of 20 Windows 2008 servers in a three day period. Such work is specialized, repetitive and often tedious. It does not allow for diversity, curiosity and a contrarian spirit.

In his follow-up book, “Grown Up Digital,” Tapscott dedicates a chapter to the “The Net Generation Brain.” Exploring “multi-tasking,” he cites an Oxford Future of the Mind Institute study. Net Geners, 18 -21 years of age performed 10% better than a group aged 35 – 39 (a range which includes many current IT engineers.)  Factoring in interruptions from communication based messages (phone call, call text message, or IM), Net Geners lost their competitive advantage. “The thirtysomethings caught up in speed and accuracy.” Despite thinking quicker (spurred by games and internet paging), the Net Geners are “less effective at recovering from disruption when faced with a complex cognitive task.” This is but one study but the author doesn’t really attempt to refute it expect with references of Net Geners’ focus with games and electronic matters that interest them. Attention deficit traits are not a concern but a choice.

In “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30),” Mark Baurlein presents s different picture. While IQ scores have gone up consistently – 3 points a decade since WWII – he contends that Net Geners are “culturally ignorant” while being “mentally agile.” He feels that they don’t read the great works of literature. The digital age, he feels, is fostering ignorance.

Whether or not one agrees with Tapscott or Baurlien, the underlying concern here is the need to evaluate how the talent in this emerging generation may behave differently in an already underemphasized sphere of work, the IT Infrastructure. The nature of the work, while technical in nature, may not appeal to the curious Net Gener described by Tapscott.

Infrastructure generally isn’t sexy; it’s, at best, reliable. It’s not that infrastructure isn’t noticed – if we were to walk into a room, flip a switch and see that a bulb is out, we might consider Edison. We just don’t consider that his invention is now successfully indivisible, that “light,” is easy enough to engineer and provide, regardless of the function of the room it sheds on.  

Infrastructure staff enjoys a flexible though often secondary role in the business hierarchy. They are often tempered professionals who, after years of repetition and observation, are likely to shake their heads in deference… after completing the task. They would agree, of course, that emphasis should remain with the products and commercial services the company presents.  Studies in recent years suggest that a PM’s ability to effectively manage less compelling or product oriented projects with the “Net Gen” resources may replace rumblings with indifference. 

International organizations such as the Project Management Institute (PMI) have taken devoted bodies of knowledge to the fieldof Resource Management.  This orientation includes discussions on functional vs. cross-functional resource allocation; resource management is a key element to activity resource estimating and project human resource management. These components of a comprehensive project plan are recognized and practiced by PMs worldwide. The PMI has promoted “resource leveling,” a technique aimed at smoothing available resources, reducing excesses and shortages. With a goal of 100% utilization, the underlying principle is to invest in resources as stored capabilities, and then unleash the capabilities as demanded.

To the qualified observations, expressed earlier, and whether or not they may lead to trends, one could conclude that the future “stored capability” known as the Net Gener, poised at the technology gate, may not easily lend it to “leveling” or other techniques that promote standardization and uniformity. The IT Project Manager will need to appreciate that the diversity of the stakeholders and interests served may entice interest while the repetitive nature of the tasks may dispel the future worker described by Tapscott.

To maintain the gains in quality and service oriented disciplines of recent decades, senior managers will need to invest effort and skill in evaluating program management options with respect to diversity – and age – of talent in project resource management. The values and inclinations of the Net Gener may not favorably cast them for IT Infrastructure projects.