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Stress Management for the IT Executive in 2020 and beyond

Stress Management for the IT Executive in 2020 and beyond
Allen Spokane, CTO, Carisk partners


“IT is complicated” is a famous expression that we hear all the time, but what does it really mean and when did it get so complicated?  In order to really understand that, we need to look at the history of our industry.  Putting things in perspective is important here.  To do that, realize that our industry is relatively young. 

IT history

Some interesting and fun facts that can help us understand how quickly things have changed and evolved are outlined below:

  • The 60’s and 70’s were primarily defined as the “mainframe” era of computing.
  • Xerox invented ethernet at Palo Alto Research Center in May 1973.
  • IBM introduced the “PC XT” in October 1983.
  • In March of 1989, Tim Berners-Lee released a document titled “Information Management: A Proposal” which outlined a global hyper text system.

There are so many other landmark dates that we could discuss such as the advent of Microsoft Windows ® and the emergence of LAN/WAN Connectivity.  Then there is the start of businesses taking PC-based apps and databases seriously to replace legacy mainframe apps and databases.  The point is that there has been such significant change in the past 27 years since the “World Wide Web” became a thing and while 27 years is a long time (it’s more than half of my lifetime); there are still some industries that have remained largely the same for the past 50-60 years.  The reality is that there is probably nothing that an IT Executive deals with today that has any similarity to what that same executive dealt with 15 or even maybe 10 years ago.  We are in a rapidly changing industry and the speed of change is exponential so the next 10 to 15 years will be even more dramatic.  Let’s outline where we are today and what makes it so complicated, but also very exciting.


I remember a day not all that long ago where I was involved in one of these planning meetings where we looked at staffing, projects and overall IT responsibilities.  This was done as an attempt to build our IT organization to meet the needs of the business.  We broke it down into three simple areas: 

  • Infrastructure -including networking, communications and back-end servers
  • Development – internal developers writing custom code
  • Support – personnel that supported the day to day needs of the business users

My roots were really in development, as I started my IT career as a coder, but I also had an interest in infrastructure.  I considered myself more of a people person than a back-office developer so I naturally had an interest in support as well.  I was able to really support any aspect of IT in my organization.  This was not because I was so smart but because it was just much simpler then and if you were inclined to help people and you had some development and infrastructure in your background, you could succeed at being an IT Manager.

Roll the tape forward and it reminds me of the old expression “The more things change the more they stay the same.”  If you just change the headings somewhat (and add a few) I would make the argument that you can still break IT down to four or five main headings. The challenge is that there is SO MUCH MORE underneath each heading.  Every organization is different and this is by no means a one size fits all scenario, but most IT Departments are broken down into a similar structure to this:

  • Infrastructure
    • Servers – cloud, local, hybrid
    • Communications – email, telephony, switches, routers, firewalls, telecommunications links
    • Architecture/Engineering
    • Backup and Maintenance
    • “High Availability” Redundancy services
  • Software
    • Internal Development
      • Project Management
      • Scrum Masters/SDLC Management
    • Database Development
      • DBAs (specific to certain databases)
      • Architecture/Engineering
      • Data Science (AI/ML)
    • Commercial Off the Shelf Software (COTS)
      • Selection/Evaluation
      • Configuration
      • Development
      • Deployment
    • Testing/QA
      • Unit and Regression Testing
      • Scalability Testing
      • Automated Testing
      • Validation
    • Release Management
      • Versioning
      • Source Code Management
      • Roll-Back planning/management
    • Vendor Management
      • Selection/Evaluation
      • KPI/SLA Management
      • Integration
    • Support
      • Help Desk
      • Managed Service Providers
      • Automated Ticketing/Self-Service Portal Management
      • Documentation and Training
      • Remote Support
      • Vendor Support
    • Security
      • Vendor Selection, evaluation and Management
      • Customer compliance – Completion of SIGs and external audits
      • Compliance with external regulatory agencies/guidelines (SOC, HIPAA, HITECH, SSAE16, etc.)
      • Anti-Virus, Anti-Malware
      • IPD/IPS
      • DRP/BCP
      • 2FA/MFA
      • Mobile Device Management
      • Penetration and Vulnerability Management
      • User Training and documentation

While this is not meant to be an all-inclusive list and certain organizations break it down differently (for example, in some organizations part of the security functions may exist under Infrastructure); it is clear to see from the above breakdown that each sub-heading could be a whole department with multiple people in it.

So, there you have it, the answer to the question of what is so complicated about IT nowadays.  We went from three main areas to four or five and many, many sub-specialty areas underneath.  Gone are the days where we can be a jack of all trades.  We MUST have a team of people that are Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) in their own area and while we may understand the technology aspects of each area, we rely on the SMEs fully for their expertise. 

Understanding what you have in front of you can now help you deal with issues when they arise.  Let’s explore the approach next.

What keeps you up at night and how to get some sleep!

This is the question that is almost always asked when senior IT Managers are surveyed and while the answers vary, they are almost always centered around some dramatic event happening that brings their IT systems to its knees.  The past few months have helped us understand this a little better as the COVID-19 global pandemic has forced all of us in some way, shape or form, to deal with our users differently.  It also taught us a lot about the difference between IT organizations that had all the right boxes checked and documents written but they were not able to actually execute.  For many Senior IT Managers, the emergence of COVID-19 was exactly what kept them up at night!

In trying to manage through the issues and stress caused by them, I like to use a four step process which is outlined below:

  1. Identification – while it seems simple, it is often rushed through. For example, you may have an issue where the files are copying very slow to the cloud server so there must be a connectivity issue.  Maybe, maybe not.  Did you try copying them from a different source to a different destination on the same sever?  Did you try it from a different entry point?  Do basic troubleshooting with your teams to determine specifically what your issue is so you know what you are working with.
  1. Root Cause Analysis (RCA) – define what the root cause is and be as specific as you can. For example, the root cause is not the name of a vendor or the fact that a patch needs to be applied.  The root cause in this example may be a software update required from a vendor or a specific device driver that needs to be updated.
  1. Plan ABC – or at least AB! Once you have identified the specific issue and the root cause of it, you can start to make a Plan A, Plan B and maybe even a Plan C, but you must have a Plan A and a Plan B at least.  I know that is way easier said than done considering all of the complications that exist, but remember the plan doesn’t necessarily have to be to solve the problem, it may be to mitigate the issue until the solution comes along and that may be the A and B plan respectively.  Remember to use the resources you have available to you whether it be your own team members or vendor partners.
  1. Post Mortem – evaluate and confirm that the plan worked appropriately and document the success. If you are not so lucky, regroup and look at implementing the Plan B. I strongly recommend using a system to store the resolution and track it by keywords or topics because the issue will happen again and you will almost certainly not remember how you solved it and that team member or vendor that you are relying on to remember may no longer be with you or they may not remember either.

One of the best pieces of advice that I have received in my career on dealing with things like this came from my boss (Thank You Kevin!) who has been heard saying quite often “Control the Controllable.”  It seems like such a simple concept, yet it is often missed in IT. 

As an example, in our organization, when we deployed everyone to work from home during the COVID-19 global pandemic, we of course had users that were limited in their ability to be productive because of bandwidth and performance issues caused by their local Internet Service Provider (ISP).  When you apply Kevin’s theory to this issue, you come to the realization that maybe we can shift the person’s hours, maybe we can provide them an alternate location to work from or even an alternate method of connectivity (HotSpot, MiFi, etc) but we will unlikely be able to fix the issue with their ISP.  We controlled the controllable.  It is a simple, yet marvel concept, try it!


Our jobs are complicated, and everything is interconnected.  Today’s businesses have come to just expect that technology will function properly, emails will flow, documents will move accordingly, and systems will run and support the business and hopefully play a key role in the growth of the business.  When we have issues that prevent this expectation from happening, it can be an awfully stressful time. To help us manage through these inevitable times, I make the following suggestions for you to do in advance of a situation:

  • Know, anticipate and embrace these situations. Document them in advance and apply the four concepts above to them so you have your Plan ABC ready to go!
  • Communicate with senior management your plans and identify your weaknesses but also with a plan to address them (within your means of course).

Of course, all of the planning in the world is not going to prevent an issue from occurring, so when they do occur and you are in the thick of it, remember the following:

  • Follow your four steps with a calm, measurable, methodical approach. You absolutely should have a sense of urgency but work smart!
  • Use what you have – put your best resources on the issue whether that be team members or vendor partners or both.
  • Take the post mortem seriously and document your results with your teams so you can learn from the experience.

It is always easier to give advice than to take it and I know that I have not always done a perfect job in managing my own stress and issues.  However, when the going gets tough, I always try to remember the four steps and plan a logical approach, communicate it, implement it and review it.  The process has never failed me yet!  It will work for you too.  I wish you all the best success with it.k

Allen Spokane

Allen Spokane

Allen Spokane started his career as a developer and worked with various Microsoft-based development and database platforms in a variety of business settings with an emphasis on healthcare technology. He has extensive experience in database design and architecture in CRM, direct marketing and home-grown ERP Systems. After holding several VP positions in IT, he gained extensive experience in infrastructure and operations. He considers himself a “hands-on” executive and has always maintained close ties back to his roots in development and infrastructure.