Do I need an IT expert?

Most specialists will tell you that you badly need their services, but “experts” can sometimes be the quickest path to disaster – and the field of IT is no exception.  The most common pitfall is not understanding the problem to be solved.

A characteristic I have observed in the CEOs of many business failures is their attitude that there is some business skill that they either cannot or will not understand. This is often what separates the entrepreneurs from the highly successful corporate employees.  Once a company gets beyond a certain size, it can afford to have specialists. These can slot into the corporate infrastructure so that there are other people around to do the stuff they don’t like doing.

Now I am not suggesting you need to learn how to program in Python, but to treat IT as if it were brain surgery can be almost as damaging to your business as sticking pins in your head.

This doesn’t apply to just IT. It applies to accounting, recruitment, sales, marketing, indeed any aspect of running and growing a business.

Do you need an IT expert?

IT can be complicated, but not so complicated that you can afford to leave it entirely to someone else. You need to specify the problem to be solved before you think of looking for someone to solve it. Defining any problem goes a long way to fixing it. This gives clarity and you may discover that you need different expertise to that you originally thought, or that you don’t have a problem after all.

If you are prepared to roll your sleeves up, and not to make decisions through convenience, then let’s talk about what you need to know.

Understanding the flow of information

I have seen people reach meltdown with two or more remote controls. I am not condoning the generally awful human factors of TV remote controls, but if you want to watch TV, you must understand what each control is doing and the flow of information.

So too with computers. We now have personal computers; the local or wifi networks that connects them in offices and homes; the Internet which connects offices together across the world; the Cloud which is a generalised term to provide services to users via the Internet; websites are just one particular type of service collectively known as the World Wide Web.

Now this article is not intended to be a 10 minute tutorial on computer science, but it is meant to make you think about what all these buzzwords mean.

The basics of IT

Start to think about what is actually happening when you open your web browser and log on to a website. What is happening on your computer and where is the website?

Think about the difference between running Excel or Word on your workstation and using a web application like Office365 to do similar things.How do you share information and how several people may need to work on one document? Think about email and phone calls and what is happening here. Do you want to run your applications in your home/office or hosted somewhere in the Cloud?

You don’t need to know anything about programming to understand any of the above. None of this is rocket science. In a couple of weeks you can get a good basic understanding of IT.

When is an IT expert not an IT expert?

But having defined the problem, finding an appropriate help is the next hurdle. I have operated a software business for many years, and the single biggest problem is finding good staff.

We tend to see an “expert” as anyone that appears to know more about a subject than we do. An expert is someone with industry-recognised qualifications and many years’ experience. You may not need one.

All specialists comes with baggage. There are complete swathes of IT I know little about, so would not consider myself qualified to advise on them. Although I may know more than the enquirer, that does not necessarily qualify me to advise on the use of IT in their business.

The fundamental aim of any business is to make a profit. Had I simply passed everything to do with finance over to my accountant, I would have long since gone out of business. Not because my accountant was ripping me off, but because he/she didn’t understand my business as I did.

So it is with fixing your car, marketing your great product, recruiting your first employee or choosing your IT requirements.

Project management and methodology

If you have defined the problem, and  found the expertise to solve it, there remains the issue of keeping the project on track. This is especially difficult if you are not sure what you actually want until you see what you don’t want!

The only way to overcome this, is to get involved at every stage of the project and strike up an arrangement where, if things don’t turn out as planned, you can abort the project without incurring massive costs.

There is a formal project methodology called DSDM, which is designed to minimise these risks. It applies to projects of any size. But you don’t need to study DSDM. It’s key element is to break the project into chunks (say a week’s work) and at every stage review the progress and have the option to terminate the project after any chunk of work has been finished. Ideally, you make each chunk have some stand-alone value to the business.

Many companies – and government departments too – think that defining every aspect of the project down to the last nut and bolt is a sure-fire way to avoid overrun. In something like IT, little could be further from the truth. Many IT providers know that the customer will always change their minds, and so make a large proportion of their profits from work that was not in the specification.

Free v paid solutions

Providing IT services is a business like any other, and the companies that provide them must make a profit. They all do this in different ways. Many small businesses and startups can create a very good IT infrastructure using free software services. For the providers to fund the provision of free services, they must make money from something else. And the way they usually do it is by using your data.

When you are small, you don’t really care but as you get larger, it may matter. Should the provider remove the service from you at any point, it can wreck your business – and you cannot complain if you are not paying them anything.

Keeping your data safe

Many businesses are so focussed on the IT solution for their workflow, that they completely ignore the whole area of data security. This ranges from who might use your data to who might lose your data and so requires as much attention as the application itself.

What happens if the Internet fails or your building burns down?  Is everything regularly backed-up?


So in summary:

  • Get a basic understanding of IT
  • Define the IT problem you want to solve
  • Find the appropriate expertise if you need to
  • Manage the project
  • Secure your data

Steve Jobs understood every aspect of his businesses even though he didn’t do everything.  Like all successful people, he had very good people around him.  So the best solution for an SME is often a combination of your own IT knowledge, and of your company’s IT needs, with good external specialists brought in as and when required.

This article was previously published in SME Technology Guide