This might be the number one question asked by my clients.  And it makes sense.  In most cases, IT frequently has the largest spend of all the support groups, and IT staff costs always are a significant portion of that.   Tack on the fact that IT salaries often seem disproportionate to other support group salaries, and it stands to reason that Leadership scrutinizes the IT staffing spend pretty closely. So what’s the answer?  If you had asked me that 20 years ago, I would have blurted out the generic “1 IT guy for every 50 computers” line, but the years inbetween have taught me there’s no real easy answer to the question.

This is one of those answer-a-question-with-a-question situations, and these are the questions I ask:

1) How many offices do you have, and what is your user distribution?  This has a huge impact; imagine a firm with 400 users in one office, and another firm with 80 users in 5 offices.  Would your staffing model be identical? Probably not.  The company organization – which office is Corporate, overseas offices, time zone overlap, etc – all play a part in figuring out how to best support your users.

2) What roles are we filling?  Usually, when the question of staff is asked, it is just assumed that we’re talking about PC support.  There are two other levels – Networking and Strategic – that should be addressed in a manner that fits the firm’s needs and profile.  Do you have 100 servers over 8 international offices?  Are you using mid-level technologies such as virtualization or SAN replication?  Is there a colo to manage?  Is IT expected to do first-level CAD/BIM support?  Are many of our services (email, phones, FTP) cloud-based?  Is our level of spend such that we need some strategic management?  How much are we outsourcing? Do we need application development?

3)  What “touch” level does your firm expect?  This is critical.  Let’s take the example of a call center – maybe 200 computers, completely locked down, no internet access, only running the single call center application.  Can I support them well with one PC tech?  Probably.  Can I support 200 Architects with one PC tech?  I can, but the users aren’t going to be happy about it.  Need help?  Open a ticket.  Response time?  1 hour, if you’re lucky.  Resolution time? 2 days? From my experience, Architects and Engineering environments are what I would consider very high-touch environments.  This can be attributed primarily to the deadline-imperative nature of the business, and the rest just to the culture of these firms.  Executives and mobile users (that Venn diagram is almost a normal circle) are very, very high touch.  This is the single biggest factor in terms of staffing the PC support level.

4) How much money do you spend on equipment?  Most firms don’t realize that investing in hardware has a direct impact on IT staff resources.  Of course, the primary benefit is production staff productivity, but good, newer (3 years or less) computers go a long way in creating a stable environment.  Good switches, good servers – investing here not only means you increase your firm’s effectiveness, but it means your IT staff can spend less time fighting fires and more time directly helping users.

5) Are you training your staff?  In most cost-constrained environments (which all A/E firms go through at one point in time or the other) – training is one of the first items to be cut.  And forget about going to Vegas for that conference.  But with training, the staff gain the ability to wear more than one hat.  That PC support guy? He can now do basic network admin.  That BIM manager?  He can now do PC support.  There’s a lot of ways to spread the workload across different employees – provided they get the proper (and ongoing) training.

6) How homogeneous is your environment?  Simplicity, and homogeneity, reduce staff level requirements   If every computer on the floor is a Dell Precision T3500 running Windows 7 and Office 2010, perfect.  Are we all on iPhones, or do we have Android/iPhone/Blackberry/Windows? If I have 3 different manufacturers, 3 different OSes, 3 different versions of Office, every laptop user gets to pick their own make/model of laptop, their own make/model of cell phone – well – IT can do it – but it can’t be done (well) as if everything was the same, or at least close to it.

7) Where are you on the Donahue Pyramid?  If your firm is struggling with basic IT needs – i.e., stability and security – you might not have need for a Strategic IT role in the near future.  You may want to concentrate on front-line support until your needs change.  Alternatively, if you’re at the top of the pyramid – you may not need as many resources in PC support as you did when things were messy and unstable.

These seven questions need to be answered before a *good* response to the “how many IT staff do we need” can be answered.  Everything goes into the Decision Pie o’ Goodness, and out comes a fairly good estimation of what it would take to keep things running smoothly.  There just isn’t a one-size-fits-all rule of thumb for the question. Flying Buttress is an outsourced IT provider.  We’re biased.  I feel very strongly that A/E firms can successfully outsource the Network and Strategic layers of IT.

That said – for Architectural and Engineering firms, PC support needs to be onsite wherever possible.  The “touch” level expected by A/E firms is just too great for pure remote support.  Obviously, for branch offices with 15 users, remote support is mandatory, but for the 40/50/60+ offices, there needs to be an onsite presence.  Now that can be a FB employee, or an internal FTE, based on your preference – but unlike Networks that can be managed well remotely, or Strategic that involves mostly planning and analysis at a distance – PC support requires that human touch.  There is a customer service expectation within A/E that demands a guy sitting down the hall – *especially* when it comes to leadership support. Those are the questions.  If you can answer them, I’d be happy to tell you how many staff I feel your firm requires – based on my experience, what the industry norms are, and most importantly, your answers.