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COVID-19 – A report from the trenches

COVID-19 … Something we were not prepared for…

My company is a Manufacturer and Services company, work at home was not encouraged, and we had a very limited crisis plan.  Still, we went from 10 to full speed in a very short period of time.  In this post, I am going to discuss the situation, what we did to overcome, and how successful it has been to date.  I’m not going to pretend I am the hero of the story, but I was certainly part of the leadership team that made it all happen.

First a little background

The entire IT management team was replaced about 2 years ago.  The CIO was a fantastic (Stacey Fedorka), and she brought on great talent, including my peer on the Infrastructure side, Jeff Gill.  Still, we are still early in our transformation as the company needs an evolutionary transformation.  Current technology includes multiple (many) ERPs including Oracle EBS, cloud applications (including SFDC), and a recent more to Office 365 Microsoft and Azure.

Since our Fiscal Year ended on March 31st, the real test was Year/Quarter and End close, as well as continuing to keep the operations running.  Our company is an Essential Service, so manufacturing was continuing.

Main Challenges and resolutions

  • Communication.  Work at home requires a much higher communication level, both throughout the business and within IT.   Within IT, the Leadership team met on Teams quickly twice a day.  Each leader met with their direct reports at least daily, and those managers met with their teams daily.  As a whole, IT was meeting bi-weekly in a town hall format.  This was very successful, obstacles and challenges were addressed quickly and everyone felt good they knew what was going on.
  • VPN.  Since work at home was not encouraged, it was not designed to handle all employees hitting it, so people were getting slow response and difficulty connecting early on.   With the increased use of cloud applications, including Microsoft 365 and Teams, many employees really didn’t need to use VPN (even if they thought they did).  A quick education (via an e-mailed presentation), and Split-tunnel reduced the load and by Day 4, people were mainly happy.
  • Employee Bandwidth.  This was one of the bigger challenges.  We could control our environment, but how do you handle people with little to no bandwidth at the home?  Our limited supply of Mobile Hotspots went to critical employees right away (and more ordered), but one saving grace was our VDI solution (Citrix, and no I’m not going to get into an argument on Citrix not being a real VDI solution).

    I started using Citrix back when I was supporting Poughkeepsie Day School.  I wanted to allow Javastations and variants to be used instead of workstations (they were much cheaper at the time) since my IT budget back then was small and donated computers were often … Ummm … were slow.  It was a great solution then, and for my company now, even better.  It was already in use for some of the users, but we were able to expand it for certain internal applications.  A surprising use was some SFDC deployed applications for Manufacturing (working on eliminating) which was designed for only in-house use.  Externally it was SLOW since there is a great deal of communication with internal servers.  By adding this application to the Citrix solution meant that even for the cloud applications, the speed at the home site had a limited impact.

  • Focus.  The business solutions team is responsible for Project and Operational/Support work.  Under normal circumstances this is fine, but with COVID-19, focus needed to switch to the Operations.  Most teams created Chat rooms to specifically communicate with each other in a timely fashion, Tickets (in our case Service Now) were being checked constantly to ensure the highest level of support.   This was critical as you consider our Year/Quarter and Monthly close process.  The finance people were so used to doing things in person it was a culture change for them to do it remotely.  Still, with a great deal of hand-holding, it worked great!

These were not all the challenges, but a good sampling.  As we speak the operation is running well, people are very happy with the support and productivity is very high.  Close occurred on time and well, with Executive leadership happy with all that was done.  For more information on the business aspects of COVID-19 and the needed transformation, see my article on COVID-19 Why Your Business Needs to Transform Now.

Recommendations

  • We all need to do a better job at crisis planning.  Though most companies have a Business Continuity Plan, many were designed for physical disasters (my old company assumed a tornado).  In this case, interruptions with the supply chain were not considered, so single vendors were still in use.  We need to challenge these assumptions as we look at pandemics, and we need to consider items that were never covered in our old Disaster Recovery Plans.
  • Digital Transformation is becoming more important.  Forget the hype, and the promises on productivity, think of the benefits for crisis management.  Technologies like Cloud (example: Office 365), and VDI (Citrix) can significantly improve collaboration and reduce the need for people to physically meet to get work done.
  • Your IT organization is important.  By aligning the IT organization to how the business operations (and not based on technology), gives business users faces they can trust and give IT people visibility to the big picture for their supported team. In some cases, we were able to proactively address situations before they become issues.
  • Communicate, Communicate Communicate.  Having all your teams communicating is the best way to ensure continued operations.  Just because everyone is at home, doesn’t mean everyone has to feel alone!

 

Once COVID-19 is behind us, I’ll revisit to discuss any additional challenges that came up!

Good luck and stay safe!

 

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