Startups Where Necessity Defines IT Best Practices

Architecting and evolving IT infrastructure in high change environments

Imagine you are the head of IT operations at a small startup that makes non-IT products or services. You’re working at a company that designs and builds new products where IT is an integral part of the products but IT is not the product itself.

As head of IT you have to work closely with your colleagues to deliver what the company needs. You work on a tight budget where requirements are hard to pin down and they change all the time. And whatever you build has to go into production quickly and be flexible to grow in any number of directions depending on what happens next. Can you handle this challenge?

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When IT is Just Part of the Mix and Not the Main Course

We hear lots about CIOs and CTOs at social media and mobile app startups and startups that make IT-centric products. In those companies the IT folks are the rock stars. They are the ones that make what the company sells. So they get top priority for whatever money is available and everyone else in those companies plays supporting roles.

But in most startups IT is just part of the mix that goes into creating the product. The CIO/CTO/IT Director needs to work closely with their colleagues and figure things out on the fly. The systems solutions need to be cost effective, stable, scalable and flexible enough to keep evolving as the products evolve and business needs of the company change.

This way of working seems to violate many traditional IT best practices. There’s no time for lengthy needs analysis and requirements definition. There’s no money for IT gear and systems employed by larger established companies. And there is no pity for IT people who only deliver excuses and reasons why things can’t be done.

Here’s an example of this kind of startup. It’s called XCOR Aerospace. Their website says they do rapid development of long-life, reusable rocket engines. At present the company employs about 25 people. One of the products they are working on is the Lynx private spaceship shown below. They are one of a number of startup companies working on development of space flight technologies at an incubator called the Mojave Air and Space Port located on a former military airbase in the Mojave Desert in California.


(courtesy of XCOR Aerospace – RLV Lynx)

Their website describes the way people work at the company: “This well-rounded group brings innovative skills to the complex tasks required in successfully making rocket propulsion-related hardware, systems, materials, and vehicles for commercial space flight. Our company functions as a tight-knit and cohesive group, and is not driven by a select few individuals. Every member plays an important part and typically wears more than a few hats.”

IT Best Practices Now Come from Non-IT Startups

The way the IT function operates in this company and other non-IT startups could be a role model for how IT will operate in lots of established companies in the coming years. These startups operate in business environments that are similar in many ways to what established companies now face. 

As cloud computing and SaaS apps and consumer IT relentlessly change traditional operating models, it is in the non-IT startup companies that we can find valuable lessons for how to organize IT for this new economy. Large corporations still have the resources to buffer themselves from these changes, but this also means that IT practices of large corporations are increasingly less relevant to small and medium sized companies. 

I wonder what kind of background and skill sets the IT people at startups like this have. I wonder what applications they develop in-house and what applications they source from external providers. I wonder what IT hardware they operate inside the company and what use they make of cloud computing. What do you suppose is their policy on use of consumer IT? How do they handle security?

How would you design the IT infrastructure to support a startup like XCOR? What skills do you think are the most important? Would you be a generalist or would you specialize in a specific set of technology? How would you keep up with business needs that are hard to predict and hard to plan for and change so quickly?

*** If you are involved in the IT operation at a startup making any type of manufactured product or offering a service that goes beyond just software, I would like to hear your story and hear about your best practices - you can email me at or leave a comment here. Let's talk. You have important things to say.

[ My newest ebook is Strategically Focused, Tactically Agile CIO ]

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