Information Technology Blog

What are the significant challenges—and opportunities—for Minnesota IT leaders?
Information Technology Blog

Shawn Lovett

CIO

Dura Supreme Cabinetry, Howard Lake

Manufacturer of custom kitchen and bath cabinetry 

Minnesota employees: 350

IT staffers: 8 

 

We have been able to balance our implementation of new technology with the support of legacy software applications. We are using smartphones to securely access corporate e-mail and calendar information. Our marketing department successfully uses iPads as a “virtual showroom” to showcase our products without the need to lug around a laptop. We have also embraced online training as a means to quickly and inexpensively conduct both live and recorded presentations on our new products and promotions. 

 Our biggest pressure is dealing with the ever-changing, ever-evolving variety of IT systems. Just as Microsoft has evolved from Windows 98 to Windows XP to Windows Vista to Windows 7 at the desktop level, all servers, databases, third-party applications, and development platforms have evolved as well. Our planning includes the migration of legacy applications to newer platforms, taking into consideration the third-party applications we integrate with, as well as taking advantage of the ongoing advancements in the industry. 

We recently implemented a data warehouse. This has allowed us to better utilize the wealth of information we have collected over the years and use it to model future offerings, as well as better track the effectiveness of our advertising, promotions, and new product offerings. There are some excellent tools in the market that support data warehouse management and reporting, such as the SQL Server Business Intelligence tools. 

 For this year, we are looking at server virtualization. It will provide benefits such as reduced power consumption and centralized server management. We implemented virtualization for our development and test environments, and are looking at expanding it to additional environments. 

As a manufacturing company, our focus on optimization and material utilization has allowed us to obtain greater yields and make better use of resources. In addition to being more environmentally friendly, it also reduces our costs. We are constantly on the lookout for additional opportunities for optimization.  

 In terms of projects in our pipeline that look promising, we are moving more of our applications to the cloud and determining how to best take advantage of the emerging technologies including smartphones and tablets. We stay abreast of trends while determining what technologies will provide the most benefit to our company. 

I spend the most time planning, prioritizing, and managing projects. We need to keep all IT systems running at full capacity to support the business, but the projects allow us to develop and implement new solutions that will make our business better. I work very closely with our business leaders to understand and prioritize their business requests, and then work with my team to determine when and how we can best provide IT solutions. It is also the part of the job that I enjoy working on most. 

 

Trevor Farnum

Chief technology officer

Benesyst, Minneapolis

Provider of employee benefit administration services

Minnesota employees: 100

IT staffers: 14 

 

The most significant pressure I see on corporate IT departments is to ensure that the enterprise IT strategy is providing significant value to the business. Any business, no matter the size, needs to have an IT strategy that aligns with the value proposition of the business. It is important, though, to remember that this alignment means focusing on creating systems and processes that provide a competitive advantage. As much as possible, non-strategic components should be outsourced to providers who can supply these services at an optimized cost, while the valuable internal IT resources are leveraged to bring the maximum value to the business. This applies as much to customer relationship management systems as it does to code within our software. I don’t want my software engineers spending time coding a common function such as a calendar when I can source it. My team can focus on the capabilities that matter most to our customers.

Another imperative for leaders in IT is to constantly evaluate new technologies to streamline and improve overall efficiencies of the business. The business will often want to implement the latest and greatest technologies before the full impact on the business is known. This is understandable when you consider the accelerating pace of technology change and a desire to be seen as a company that is on the leading edge. From who owns your data (cloud computing) to what security is required to enable a mobile application, new technologies can enable the business to be more flexible and deliver greater value to its shareholders when implemented thoughtfully and appropriately.

Over the last year, we have introduced new SAN technology using some of the latest enterprise flash disks for some of our higher-end database systems. We will be continuing to evaluate and, where necessary, upgrade key infrastructure components over the course of this year, including an evaluation of our virtual environments, networking components, and storage needs. Additionally, our software engineering teams have been iterating on some of our latest product offerings. Over the next year, we will continue to improve and add capabilities to our product lines, but also focus on upgrades to our core systems. Service-oriented architecture (SOA) has enabled our enterprise to be nimble and not only grow with the changing demands of the business but also allowed for constant improvement with each iteration. 

The greatest benefit to the company has come from driving an integrated enterprise solution for data governance, software architecture, and software delivery. Second to that, on the infrastructure side, our advances in virtualization have enabled us to respond more quickly to market pressures by allowing us to stand up a server in hours rather than days. Over the next year, we will be evaluating desktop virtualization and hope to see similar results. 

I make a point of spending the largest percentage of my time on strategic tasks. In order to get to that point, you have to have an amazing team of people and excellent managers supporting you. It is extremely difficult not to be overtaken by e-mails, meetings, or phone calls, so a conscious effort must be made to stay focused on long-term strategic objectives. For the time I spend managing people, I put focus on spending significant time with my star players, making sure they are engaged, motivated, and able to spread support for the strategy throughout the organization.
David Mason

Vice president and CIO

Wings Financial Credit Union, 

Apple Valley

Banking and financial services company

Minnesota employees: 384

IT staffers: 22

 

The ever-increasing pace of technological change creates challenges for Wings Financial, but even more challenging is the pace at which consumer expectations are changing. The mobile revolution has raised the bar even higher for 24/7 access to financial services. Using smartphones and tablets, our members can check account balances, transfer funds, and pay bills quickly and conveniently whenever and wherever they choose. This level of availability increases the pressure on IT to ensure backend systems are up and running with minimal, if any, downtime. Maintenance windows get compressed, upgrade cycles shorten, and redundancy requirements increase. Thankfully, technologies such as virtualization, cloud-based services, and dramatically improved Internet speeds have helped us meet our members’ expectations.

The credit union is committed to safeguarding our members’ data, and we devote considerable resources to information security. Over the past two or three years, the threat landscape has shifted dramatically and now includes not only organized crime syndicates, but also cyber-vigilantes or “hacktivists” utilizing increasingly more sophisticated attack methods. The discipline required to maintain a good security posture places a great deal of pressure on IT staff at most companies these days.

The top priority during 2011 was the successful merger with City-County Federal Credit Union. This initiative represented a true “win-win” scenario for members of both organizations. We were able to migrate 60,000 members and more than 200,000 individual accounts from one core system to another with minimal member disruption. In addition, the information systems team also rolled out Windows 7 to all workstations at all branch locations. The Windows 7 upgrade has been very popular with staff.

In 2012, we plan to focus on improving our e-commerce offerings. While Wings Financial currently offers a broad range of Internet-enabled services, including mobile apps for iPhone, iPad, and Android devices, we feel the breadth of functionality can be improved. Due to our national scope, the Internet channel is extremely important. Only half of our members live near a branch. The rest rely on robust electronic services functionality. To this end, we are working on modernizing and integrating the member experience. The goal is to make available the same rich feature set regardless of the channel or device used.  

We will also be spending some time improving our foundational technologies such as Exchange 2010, SharePoint 2010, and Link Server. I am particularly excited about the advanced features and functionality available on the Cisco Nexus platform. New technology, such as the unified switching fabric for voice, data, and storage, has the potential to increase our network performance by an order of magnitude.

Server virtualization has reduced our capital expenses for hardware and software, improved our uptime, reduced our project implementation timelines, and dramatically improved our disaster recovery posture. We have been somewhat behind the curve in implementing enterprise virtualization due to the fact that we have long leveraged terminal services to provide centralized support and management of our desktop environment, including branch offices. This “thin client” environment provided some of the same benefits as virtualization. Once we really committed to our enterprise virtualization project, we quickly learned that the two technologies were actually very complementary in some ways. We were able to continue to realize the bandwidth and administrative cost savings enabled by the terminal services environment but also take advantage of scalability provided by virtualization.

A number of security-related projects have also provided significant cost savings to the credit union. Most folks tend to view security as an unavoidable expense, but we have found the improved network visibility afforded by internal segmentation, IDS systems, and security event management systems has allowed us to identify and clean up a number of server, workstation, and network configuration issues. This has resulted in less downtime and administrative overhead.

 

Steve Burns

Vice president, direct marketing 

and information technology

Nahan, St. Cloud

Printing and direct marketing company

Minnesota employees: 400

IT staffers: 18

 

We have several teams that have strong appetites for the latest and greatest. Our sales department wants to have information they need at their fingertips. Our customer service department wants to be immediately accessible and highly responsive. In fact, who am I kidding? We all want to get at what we need more quickly and easily. 

However, it is our job to make sure that it is being done securely. So the compromise we make is to grant our highly mobile employees the new tools they need, but then lock them down as tightly as possible by sandboxing company data from other applications and programs. In order to do this, we have drawn a hard line: If you want to access our network, you will need to use our IT assets. It has made the process of administration more controllable. The IT team has driven the selection of preferred technology based on our company’s need to remain secure. Most of the old has been replaced with the new. Legacy systems that created data silos and a significant amount of pain regarding database mining have been replaced by today’s more business intelligence–friendly ERP software.

Recent projects include ERP implementation, security compliance and remediation, VOIP, unified messaging, WAN upgrade, smartphone rollout, expansion of virtualization, an IT roadmap, and an IT strategic plan. 

In the pipeline, we are planning to expand DMI to more equipment, a storage expansion and redesign, virtualization of Macs, security certifications and compliance, .Net application development related to the ERP system, and CDR improvements.

The greatest cost savings has come from the ERP implementation. It caused us to review our processes and to eliminate non value-add steps and reduce staffing. From an IT standpoint, virtualization has been our most productive and efficient project. The most promise in the pipeline is a reconfiguration of the virtualization cluster. I think we’ll see productivity gains in a number of areas.

As a member of the senior leadership team, the majority of my job is managing people. I no longer directly manage the largest projects. Rather, I spend time with my direct reports who are leading those projects and their own departments. I enjoy what I’m doing, but I wish I could spend more time on my golf game!