Tuesday, April 14, 2009

How to Manage a Team During the Adoption of Virtualization

Virtualization is one of those disruptive technologies that will no doubt change the long term look and feel of all corporate datacenters. So it is no wonder that when you start to explore implementing virtualization you will find a plethora of technical best practices from your network vendor, your storage vendor and your application providers. The one area in which you may find a paucity of information however is in the arena of ensuring your internal IT team is prepared for the shift in datacenter philosophy virtualization will bring. It is easy to confuse being prepared for the philosophy shift with being technically trained on virtualization technology. While training is paramount for ensuring your team buys into the virtualization philosophy, in and of itself it does not ensure team commitment. Often, virtualization will impact so many dimensions of your datacenter operations that even trained team members may find the change in operational strategy daunting. Below are three points I have had to manage as a result of adopting the virtualization philosophy in my organization.

1. Why do we need to make so much change as a result of this? Things where working fine before virtualization…..

You will find that adopting the virtualization philosophy in your datacenter affords you a fantastic opportunity to rethink nearly every dimension of your technical landscape. Be sure to understand your organizations business strategy and where you may need to go in terms of technical infrastructure to support that strategy. Use this opportunity to align your datacenter strategy with your organizations goals and to create a scalable technology infrastructure. Be aware however that doing this will surely upset some folk’s apple carts and cause them to question the need for all the change. Common arguments will include things like “It works like it is” and “We are introducing more complexity”. The reality is both of these arguments may very well be true. Your team has probably dome a good job building the current environment. As you build additional scalability into your infrastructure in areas such as datacenter network design, storage design and standard server configurations, operational management may in deed become slightly more complex. Don’t hide from this; acknowledge your teams concerns as valid.
Marshal Goldsmith published a book in 2007 titled “What Got you Here Won’t Get you There: How Successful People Become even more Successful” The high level gist of this book is that folks often mistakenly believe that by continuing to do the things they have always done, they will continue to excel. And why not, it has worked to this point? The reality is however that the needs at the next level are often different. Circumstances change and require flexibility. This is true in terms of both business acumen as well as your technical infrastructure. Sure it has worked to date but in order to continue to be successful you have to adapt to the changing needs of your organization. Be proud of what you have done; be excited about the opportunity to do better in the future.

2. A silent indifference to best practices…..

There is a saying that goes ‘Standards are great because there are so many to choose from”. The same can be said about best practices. As you start your virtualization project you will find that every vendor at every point in your infrastructure will likely have best practice guidelines. There is absolutely no paucity of information here much of which will be very detailed. It is likely that as you start adopting the virtualization philosophy many of these Best Practices will initially seem irrelevant. Following detailed steps such as ensuring disk partition alignment or setting a plethora of detailed advanced parameters on your storage device will likely engender, at best, audible groans from your team and at worst a silent indifference. You will need to reiterate to your technical team that you are building a foundation for the future. The tweaks being made now may not likely impact performance for two or more years; however, getting it right now will be easier than fixing it once your entire datacenter is live. A good methodology here is to assign certain Best Practice readings to specific team members. Hold them accountable for presenting these practices to their peers and soliciting constructive debate on the best way to proceed. By instilling a sense of ownership in the solution being architected you will help solidify the buy in of your team and ultimately ensure the overall architecture is built around established Best Practices.

3. The end goal seems unreachable and we have many competing priorities…..

Gartner has established a well documented trend for new technology adoption they refer to as the technology adoption curve. The principal is that new technologies get hyped to the point of inflated expectations. The peak of inflated expectations leads to a rush to implement without a clear vision. This hurried adoption leads to the trough of disillusionment. Once early adopters begin to make real use of the technology in a tangible way the adoption curve will start to level off and real value will be gleamed from the technology. In some ways you can expect to see a similar pattern among your team with respect to the adoption of virtualization technology. Initially, as your team is getting trained and setting up your first sandbox environment you may see a lot of excitement about the potential of virtualization. Your team may embrace the classes and spend a good deal of time learning, reading and discussing virtualization. Many lofty ideas will be debated and a general buzz may exist around the project. As you move into your first phase of actually converting certain servers you may see this enthusiasm continue as you start picking off the low hanging fruit in the datacenter. The tricky part comes when all the low hanging fruit has been picked and now you have to start climbing some ladders to get the prize. Maybe the next round of servers can’t be taken down during production hours or there is debate on whether systems should be rebuilt or P2V’d. The team may likely start posing a lot of questions about how to move forward and may even get discouraged about how to actually plot the road ahead. Competing priorities may begin to take on more weight in the mind of team members as the initial euphoria of virtualization turns into a practical work effort. This is where you have to emphasize the importance of eating an elephant one bite at a time. Sit with your team and help to plot out a detailed road map for conversion. Set practical, incremental goals that can be reached in reasonable time frames. This will help keep the momentum going while alleviating the discouragement surrounding the seemingly overwhelming task ahead. Emphasize key areas that will demonstrate practical value to the business and make sure you publicize your team’s success regarding each critical milestone.

In summary, the adoption of a virtualization philosophy has the potential to deliver enormous value to your business. In order to realize the value of virtualization you, as a manger, will have to manage many team issues that can be harder to solve than the pure technical issues. Listen to your teams concerns, help them see the opportunity that virtualization affords them and help plot a pragmatic path that keeps them engaged and excited. Remember, once all the technology is in house and the lights are blinking, it is ultimately your team who will determine the true success of your virtualization efforts.

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