Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Layer 8

There once was a time when C-level users in a company didn't really want a lot to do with technology. If they wanted a new laptop or phone or whatever, they put in a request and let IT determine the specs based on the laptop's intended purpose. Things are different now. Gone are the days when you would get a blank look when asking them how much memory they needed in their new desktop. What with the plethora of ads and the infusion of tech news into business magazines, they're now coming in with exact specifications for what they want. Or, as is unfortunately more often the case, just going out and buying whatever they want. 

How many times has a CEO or President or (insert title here) come in to the office with their new MacBook Pro|iPhone|X61s|other-nonstandard equipment asking for it to be configured with email, or joined to the domain, or set up with VPN? And how many times after that do those devices need to be looked at because they're not exactly "working"? And what, as the Systems Administrator/IT/General Fix-It Person do you do when asked to support a device you wouldn't have purchased in the first place? 

I won't lie; some of this is about having control issues.IT people have control issues. It's kind of necessary, and also kind of annoying to the people we support. It's like hosting a dinner party and preparing a pot roast for the main dish, and someone brings a casserole and you're like, "How dare you bring an alternate main dish? I have a main dish. Everyone eats this dish!"

One of our C-level folks okay'd a D-level person for a new laptop. Mr. C likes small, portable laptops a lot. He's gone through three laptops during my two years looking for the Right One. He recommended to Mr. D that he get a Toshiba, and specified three in particular that he thought were good bargains. 

The Toshibas are great little machines. I personally like Toshiba a lot. Their price point (at under $1000) is also very attractive for some pretty good specs: 64-bit OS, i5 or i3, built-in webcam and mic, HDMI output, and light. They're not without their flaws though:
  • They are not customizable however unless you build one from scratch, which obviously negates the low price point. 
  • They come with Windows 7 Home since these are consumer-grade laptops and not business class.
  • They use those annoying USB-based port replicators/docks that in my experience don't work reliably well. 
  • Some of the smaller ones, like the Z835-ST8305, don't come with an optical drive
  • They also come with 1 year hardware warranty as standard. 
In other words, these are great laptops...for the home. 

Compare that with a Dell Latitude, which is what we typically buy. For $290 more than a mid-range price for a Portege, you get:
  • 3 years basic hardware
  • Office 2010
  •  internal DVDRW
  • docking station
  • Windows 7 Pro x64
Understood that Latitudes are going to be heavier and we're looking at a 14" vs. 13" machine. Still, I think for a business class machine that you're going to be using as your primary workstation, this is pretty good. These are both 4GB DDR3, both i3 processors (though the Toshiba uses the i3-2367 and Dell uses the i3-2350). The $290 price difference is about the cost of adding Office 2010 alone to the Toshiba model. For $100 or so less you could get something similar in the Vostro line. 

The details of the different laptops are not the important piece here. What's important is the need to remind people that there is a reason that you're the one responsible for making suggestions and forming standards on technical purchases. The Toshiba looks good from a cost perspective. Mr C. is using his and loving it. Mr. C also doesn't need a docking station (he doesn't mind hooking up manually or just working right off of his laptop) and he's not currently connected to the domain (so he doesn't care about Pro vs Home). Mr. D does need a docking station; one of the explicit reasons he wants a new laptop is because his current one (also a non-standard HP) has a weird proprietary USB-based docking station that doesn't work all the time. You see where I'm going with this?

There is a good side to this challenge though. I think we all know that in any position there's a tendency towards stagnation that's bred from comfort. The old "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" adage. In this you stick with what you know, what's familiar, what's been working, and don't feel compelled to test it or verify that it's still the right solution. In being asked to buy this non-standard laptop I took a moment to check the specs and compare what we normally get with what he was proposing. It was a good exercise in confirming that the standard I'd set was still a good one. I had to prove it. It also helps that each time a request comes in for a new machine I start from scratch and don't simply hit re-order, so I'm forced to review anew. Also worth noting is having a C-level person with whom I can actually have a dialogue about the request, versus someone who lays down the law without room for discussion. 

In the end I will of course purchase whatever Mr. D wants; he got approval from Mr. C to make the final call. I'll discuss the pros and cons of both with him and give him the information I have so that he can make an informed decision. And the world keeps on turnin'. 






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