ITBusiness.ca’s inside story: Former staffers tell all!

Geoffrey Downey was ITBusiness.ca’s first staff writer, having moved over from Computing Canada before the site even had a name. He’s since moved to Fredericton, where he is a news editor at the Daily Gleaner.

Going in I had no idea what to expect as an IT reporter. I was into the latest gadgets, had done some very rudimentary programming and was part of a failed software company, so the job at Computing Canada seemed like a natural choice. I guess there were two big surprises. One, the stories aren’t about the technology. The stories are about how the technology  impacts those who must use it. It’s all fine and good if the latest X, Y or Z has all the bells, whistles and a cup holder, but why does that matter to the IT manager? Will it send a company down a path of compatibility hell? Will it (fill in your favourite horror story here)?

The second surprise was how my professional life rendered me a useless party guest. The job entails learning an alien language of terms and  acronyms. Most outside the IT community have a very limited grasp of what happens behind the curtain. Whether it was explaining dark fibre isn’t what dark suits are made of, or how it was unlikely the Internet was turned off when someone couldn’t log in, people’s eye would glaze over as I described back-end technology. If you’re ever in a conversation you desperately want to escape, explain the difference between SAN and NAS.

My timing to jump into IT reporting couldn’t have been better. Y2K fears (remember those?) were peaking, the bubble was about to burst and I was around long enough after that to see the light at the end of tunnel. And to top it all off, I would become part of the ITBusiness.ca experiment. Not only were we left to plot our own course, but we were doing so in for the most part uncharted water. There were no hard and fast rules. The pool of writers was staffed with young reporters eager to find out were this ride would take us.

I’ll never forget the first time I was left in charge of the updating the news on the site. Despite HTML and programming experience, I somehow managed to delete all the ads on the site. I fiddled around with the coding for hours before giving up. I was forced to leave Shane a shame-soaked letter on his desk explaining what had happened.

While I no longer work as an IT report, I have recently watched a significant IT changeover up close. My current employer changed the way we put the newspaper together and where it is printed. It dawned on me as the process went on that nothing had changed since I left ITBusiness.ca. While the vendor touted the pure genius of the new system, it mattered little to people who struggled to learn it and those  who had to deploy it.

This changeover reinforced my belief that the role and responsibilities of the IT manager will be no different in five years or 25 years. It goes without saying those in charge must know technology inside and out, but their people skills need to be just as good. What’s the best IT infrastucture worth if you can’t get the troops behind it? 

— Geoffrey Downey

Jennifer Brown spent a short stint as a staff writer, but continued to be among our most prolific contributors as assistant editor of EDGE and later Computing Canada. She is now the editor of Canadian Security magazine.

I joined ITBusiness just before the tech bubble burst. This was going to be a sexy field to cover — world travel and dot-com launch parties, not mention the endless parade of gadgets to test drive. My husband was a reseller so I knew a bit about this business. Or did I?

OK, so there was some world travel — the South of France in September shouldn’t be missed, especially if you can stay at the Unisys compound and travel from Nice to Monaco by boat. But travel also involved whirlwind trips to New York City to figure out why a particular Sun server launch was so monumental, or how a Network Operation Centre was going to deliver Internet, local and long distance service to downtown Vancouver (my first trip). Incidentally, I managed to outlast that company.

There were the parties, but the unprecedented global IT spend was over soon after I arrived on the scene. That, however, provided a whole new angle to almost every story. Organizations started looking at IT projects more intelligently and were asking questions driven more by the business case than by the bells and whistles the vendors so loved to pitch. Return on investment became the first and last question asked, and companies learned to start small and roll out projects that would deliver clear, measurable results. Vendors could no longer sell the big bang approach.

The highlights, for me, include covering the City of Toronto/MFP computer leasing inquiry. Who knew bureaucrats at Canada’s largest city had so much time to golf during that critical period leading up to Y2K? Another fun story was the Sobeys debacle that saw the Canadian grocer dump SAP so very publicly in early 2001. Bill McEwan, Sobeys’ chief executive, said the problem created a five-week backlog just before the holiday shopping period. He explained the problem was one of: “Insufficient core functionality in the SAP software component of our enterprise-wide systems to effectively deal with the extremely high number of transactions in our retail operating environment.” Ouch!

Of course the really rewarding stories were the ones that were not just about business applications but actually helping people. In the fall of 2000 I travelled to Humboldt, Sask. to learn how a vendor was assisting First Nations people to investigate the possibilities of remote health care, allowing them to communicate with physicians across the border. That was one example of how technology really was making life better for people and proof it was not just for the benefit of corporate Canada. Software would enable the communities in and around Humboldt to access the expertise of a podiatrist and foot surgeon from Sioux City, Iowa, who worked extensively with native people throughout North America. As the No. 1 killer of First Nations people, and the cause of a high rate of amputation, diabetes often progresses so fast the patient may not be able to see a specialist fast enough. This service would allow for remote examination.

 

In the future, I think the role of the IT director will become more of business problem solver rather than a person whose responsibility it is to implement and maintain technology. Business units are increasingly consulting their IT directors and managers to figure out how they can answer the needs of the business. In the industry I cover now, it is the IT department that is increasingly consulted to determine how systems can best be rolled out to benefit the business. Almost all departments rely, to varying degree, on the IT department to enable their daily tasks. If they aren’t already, IT directors will eventually be as influential as the traditional C-suite team.

 

— Jennifer Brown

Fawzia Sheikh came to ITBusiness.ca with an impressive resume, including a stint as editor of Silicon Valley North and contributions to several of the dot-com sector’s hottest magazines. Never afraid of a challenge, her career since then has been even more adventurous.  

I worked as a staff writer at ITBusiness for just over a year, from 2003 to 2005. I’m now in the Middle East reporting on war and terrorism – a far cry from those days. I had a lot of experience writing business stories related to IT before I started at the company, but working at ITBusiness.ca soon plunged me into the sometimes incomprehensible, hard-core world of technology. I think if you can write about technology, you can write about anything.

The most fascinating issue I covered was a series on the fast changing industry of military technology, including building robotic soldiers and gaining access to computerized battlefields at the click of a mouse. When allied forces captured Baghdad three years ago, in fact, troops rolled into Iraq’s capital viewing the battlefield on computerized screens in their tanks.

IT managers will face several challenges over the next five years. Two of the most significant ones will be trying to weigh the value of acquiring the latest technologies against the impact they will have on the company’s budget, and recruiting the right candidates from university technology programs — people with technical know-how to match solid social and team-oriented skills.

— Fawzia Sheikh

Paul Fruitman came to ITBusiness.ca straight out of journalism school, but after writing countless stories about PIPEDA and various telecom regulation, he left the company to pursue a law degree. Four years later, he’s now working at Toronto-based McCarthy Tetrault. 

I joined ITBusiness just before its launch in March of 2001. It was spring, the perfect time to start something new. However, for the IT industry, it felt more like cresting into autumn — the summer of riches brought by a bloated stock market was coming to an end.

I could not help thinking, in those first few weeks and months, that I had gotten in a little late. IT Publications were shrinking in size, or shutting down altogether. The industry parties were scaling down. Instead of Aerosmith, it was the B-52s. All of which makes the success of ITBusiness quite impressive. If memory serves, we were profitable even in those early, leaner years.

What I learned from my 16 months at ITBusiness was that the Canadian IT industry is full of believers. People like me can take things like our corporate networks and Internet connections for granted because of their dedication.

— Paul Fruitman

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