Gary Lee, CTO of Carfax, tells Ann All about his plan to convert a program in which the company provides interest-free loans to help employees purchase personal PCs to a program in which employees would be allowed to buy the PCs of their choice for work, with Carfax footing the bill. Employee PC ownership is a favorite topic of IT Business Edge blogger Rob Enderle, who earlier this year wrote about how he thinks the iPad and other non-traditional computing devices may help drive this trend.
All: When and why did Carfax introduce an employee PC ownership model?
Lee: We’re not quite there yet. We haven’t yet conquered desktop virtualization. We don’t feel it’s quite mature enough. We’ve allowed employees to purchase PCs for a while now, essentially providing an interest-free loan so they can update their personal PCs. So we think it’ll be an easy transition. Friday afternoons are personal development time for our developers. They go off and try new things, so they do downloads we wouldn’t let them do on a Carfax PC. They bring their machines into the development center. When it’s a non-Carfax device and they hook into the wireless network, we push them back out onto the Internet so they’re not on the Carfax network.
Virtualization, when we brought it in, it wasn’t about server consolidation, it was about moving faster. It allows us to quickly throw up a test environment or a beta environment. We’ve been doing it pretty heavily for about five years. About half our servers are virtualized. The thinking is evolving. Some of the PCs being used for personal development time have been virtualized. But we’re not nearly there in throwing an image on any type of device. We’d be more comfortable with Windows, but we have people here with Macbooks.
So it’s definitely in our plans, but we’ll have to do probably another quarter or two of R&D on the desktop virtualization before we feel it’s ready for prime time. At that point, we’ll switch over from a PC purchase program where we provide in essence an interest-free loan to one where we give them a stipend to purchase a PC for work.
All: We hear about the high initial cost of desktop virtualization as well as performance issues. What is holding Carfax back?
Lee: It’s really just about being comfortable we can give them the same experience they currently get on an internal machine on whatever machine is there. We have a pretty tech-savvy workforce, so we hope we wouldn’t have someone using a machine that just couldn’t cut it. The program won’t be mandatory. So, if they want to own a machine, we’ll pay for it, but we’ll probably ask them to refresh it within a certain timeframe and return it to the company for eco-friendly disposal when they are through with it.
We do think it will help us move some of the folks in less tech-heavy roles from a standard PC to a thin client. We’ve wanted to do thin clients for a while. But there’s an “it’s my machine” mentality, and we’re careful about our corporate culture. We don’t want to force anything on anybody. But we’re hoping these two things together [desktop virtualization and employee-purchased PCs] will allow us to move to an environment that not only makes people happier to have their own laptops, but for the folks who don’t want to participate we can wean them off a PC and over to a thin client. There will be initial higher costs, but we believe the ROI is there because the long-term support will be so much easier.
All: So the desktop virtualization would largely take care of software support issues. But what about hardware? Would Carfax support all of the different employee-owned PCs?
Lee: Our thinking has been that it is their hardware so they need to get support through the channel where they purchased it. That said, our internal help desk would help diagnose the issues and direct the employee to the appropriate support resources.
Next page: What Are the Limits?
All: How many employees currently participate in your purchase program?
Lee: There are about 500 desktops. About a third of those are laptops. I’d say about 25 percent to 30 percent of the company does the plan now. Basically we provide an interest-free loan for people to buy whatever they want. It’s strictly for their own use. We’ve got about 140 people responsible for external-facing technology. About three quarters of them are developers and the rest are infrastructure engineers. Many of them participate.
We want to make it more of an employee benefit. As opposed to us budgeting and giving you a new machine every three years, we give you the money and it’s yours. One of the pieces we still need to work out is what happens if employment is terminated. It will probably be similar to what we do with the loan. If employment is terminated, the loan is due.
All: Is thee an upper limit on funding?
Lee: Today I think it’s $2,000. For the plan, it will probably be similar. We don’t want to encourage them to get a machine that wouldn’t be powerful enough. But at the same time, there needs to be some kind of an upper limit.
All: Will other devices such as smartphones be included in the program?
Lee: I’ve got a laptop I take home every day. But I hardly use it anymore since I got a smartphone. Occasionally I’ll go on a trip without the laptop. So for certain roles, you could see people using a smaller device.
All: So are guidelines already in place? You mentioned refreshing machines, for instance.
Lee: We’ve got a draft of policies where we’re trying to think things through like what happens when an employee leaves. With the interest-free loan, we don’t push the refreshing. We’ve had to put rules in place to prevent people from replacing too quickly. But we don’t want people to hang on to machines where people are using Windows that is three generations old. I think we’ll end up saying we’ll pay for a machine no more frequently than two-and-a-half years but it must be replaced within four years, or something like that. We’d like to offer a little flexibility.
A concern for me, my developers practice extreme programming. So there are often two developers working at a machine with three monitors, two keyboards, two mice. So again, trying to drive that off something like a Dell laptop isn’t going to be practical. And how will that work? Will the developers work out between them whose laptop they want to use? They may not be the target audience for the program.
So it’s not the desktop virtualization technology issues holding us back. It’s more what I call the social or environmental issues. Change management is where most projects fail. We’ve been thinking about this for a while, and moving down the path. We want to package it so it’s seen as being another employee benefit. We pride ourselves on having a great benefits package, and we want to position this as part of that. It’s about making sure there aren’t any gotchas we haven’t thought about yet.
All: What are the key benefits?
Lee: Initially Carfax faxed reports to car dealers. Then we moved in 1999 to the Web and started advertising to consumers in 2000. So part of the original idea behind the employee purchase program was for employees to be Web savvy. Not only do we give interest-free loans for the machines, we pay for Internet for folks who are on-call.
We justify paying for it because those employees are on 24/7. If they need to get on and fix something, we want them to be able to do it. Do you want to pay for Internet access, or do you want to add another shift or two of employees? For those people in technical support kinds of roles, we cover smartphones too. Because they can get alerts on the phones and oftentimes fix things.
We’ve also got about 100 employees in sales and service roles spread across the country. With them, they work from their car, from their home, from the airport, or wherever. So it’s a slightly different profile, but it’s another one that fits the program well. When they work from home, they want to load iTunes on their laptop. Our standard business image doesn’t include a DVD player, because they don’t need one for business purposes. But you get people who want to watch movies on the plane. So with the desktop virtualization, we could offer them that.