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Remote control: Outsourcing for SMBs

Washington, D.C., law firm wins with virtual IT services and homegrown help desk.

For some small and medium-sized businesses, the idea of an information technology "department of one" may soon become a reality. Or at least that's what mindShift Technologies, a Fairfax, Va. provider of information technology services to SMBs is betting on. Started in 1999, the fast-growing company provides technical expertise and a host of IT services remotely.

When Washington, D.C. law firm Collier Shannon Scott PLLC learned it was losing its long-time director of information technology two years ago, the firm's IT operations were due for an overhaul, said David Carns, the firm's current IT director.

But the system was a hodgepodge of different products, and the person who knew how it was all interconnected was leaving. Indeed, the parting comment from the last IT director was this: outsource IT and the firm won't be in this boat again.

Collier Shannon Scott opted to do business with mindShift Technologies, which targets companies with 20 to 500 employees. The company uses Microsoft utilities only. For a set monthly fee, mindShift will run the show, from procuring equipment to maintenance.

The market for IT outsourcing is potentially huge, especially among professional services companies. Forrester Research analyst Andrew Bartels calls professional services firms the "hidden giant" of IT spending, accounting for 22% of all IT spending in the US in 2004. A fragmented sector ranging from real estate and law firms to administrative services -- professional services far outweigh any other single industry in IT spending, Forrester said, and should only increase in clout as a dominant part of the US economy.

mindShift's way of tapping into this lucrative market and other small businesses is to provide any or all IT requirements for its customers, but from a distance.

"We take care of all the day-to-day care and feeding of the core systems," said Rob DiRocco, general manager for mindShift's Mid-Atlantic region. Rather than put a person or people on site, as many local IT service providers do, clients' IT services are provided remotely through a team of specialists.

"Once we get a client, we can support them anywhere. We have a client with branch offices in 17 states, said DeRocco. "When you send a guy out to the site, as most of our competitors in this space do, you're still relying on the expertise of that one person or people. Our contention is if you have a team of people who have deep knowledge in specialized areas, you have better service."

Collier's Carns agrees. "They have lots of resources and manpower. The migration of the entire system to Microsoft was done over one weekend."

The company offered 20 distinct areas of services to Collier, one of which was the help desk. After a year and a half, Carns has opted to bring the help desk in house, except on weekends.

"We still have a technology staff of six people, and we are very good at managing the desktop. We're going to take over as much as we can."

mindShift has brought enormous value to Collier's network operations as Carns' six-person staff does not have the expertise. The law firm recently decided to roll out a secure wireless environment for clients and vendors in the conference rooms. Carns had $30,000 to do it and could have gone to a consulting firm in the area. "But mindShift knows our topography intimately, so we talked to them."

The contract with mindShift now represents about 30% of Collier's IT budget. The law firm has opted to use its own equipment, partly because the lawyers like to have that control, and because the firm was already leasing equipment. "It didn't make sense to pay rent on our stuff and lease from mindShift," Carns said.

One of the costs of outsourcing is "working the relationship," Carns said. "I have to make sure I am getting everything I want from this relationship, and that takes effort."

When Carns decided to roll back the help desk service from mindShift, for example, he did a detailed analysis showing when the service was useful and when it was not. "I didn't want to pay for the full service help desk when we are not getting the full benefit," he said.

What does Carns value most? "The firm gets a lot of consistency. If I were to depart, at least mindShift is knee-deep in the firm and they can support it." Just as his predecessor said.

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