Don Jones

Tech | Career | Musings

How much of your work life is spent on overhead?

That is, for any given task you perform at work, how much of your time is spent actually performing the task, and how much is spent on associated overhead processes?

For example, helping a user solve an IT problem is productive work; the associated help desk ticket paperwork stuff is overhead. Reconfiguring a domain controller is work; the change management meetings leading up to the work are overhead.

Overhead isn’t inherently bad; a certain amount of overhead helps keep everything running smoothly, helps people coordinate with each other, and helps prevent unwanted change in the environment. But you do need to become skilled at measuring the overhead with some accuracy. That way, you can look at the costs of not having the overhead, look at the cost of the overhead, and decide if the overhead is worth it.

For example, when I was with Bell Atlantic, our help desk handled the usual number of “forgotten password” and “account lockout” calls. It literally took them three times longer to fill out the help desk ticket than to solve the problem – and so in many cases they wouldn’t complete the ticket. I didn’t blame them, but it meant we lacked crucial metrics on a common problem. So I modified our ticketing software to include “quick tickets,” which essentially only required the help desk to enter the user’s name. The ticket would open, resolve, and close itself using boilerplate. The overhead became smaller, and was worth the metrics we gained on the problem category.

Knowing your overhead can also help justify better management tools. “Generating this report takes 10 hours a week” can have a specific amount of currency associated with it, and that amount might well be more than it would cost to implement a more efficient way of performing that overhead task. “We spend 8 hours executing change management processes for a specific change that, even if it went wrong, would impact only 2 people for 5 minutes.” OK, the overhead is probably costing more than the problem it’s meant to prevent – so reconsideration is in order.

The difference between “business people” and most “tech people” is that tech people don’t tend to consider these kinds of metrics, like the cost/benefit analysis of overhead processes. You can do a lot for your career by becoming a little more business-y!



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