The Good, The Bad, The Ugly … The Wonderful World of Compliance in IT

Gavel and Law Books - Courtesy"Compliance" is often perceived as such a dirty word to IT professionals that it might as well be censored. The mere mention of "compliance" brings about visions of additional paperwork and processes that slow down everyday tasks and project schedules for many IT pros. With newer regulations, be them federal laws such as Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (SOX or SOX404)[1] or Health Information Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) [2]; association or vendor regulations like Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) [3]; or internal standards created by management, IT teams in both engineering and operations have to work to meet these regulations and standards as a part of their project and daily work. This was a great discussion topic for Denny Cherry and me on his People Talking Tech Podcast. [4]

Want to make an IT team squirm? Create a meeting about "compliance" or introduce an auditor or consultant. Let’s be honest; we’re technical people, and we want to make things work as quickly and efficiently as possible. It’s uncomfortable to have someone looking over your shoulder to verify that you are “doing things right," either through the operations team installing and configuring, or developers writing code that is deployed to users for saving data into the server or the cloud. But get this: it is actually in our best interest to see it from a different angle. Compliance, standards and regulations are the IT professional's friend. Much like all other aspects of IT, with proper planning and execution, complying with standards and regulations ensures that you have "air cover" for everything you do.

Proper planning for compliance is just like any other IT project: the earlier it can be integrated in plans, the easier the execution can occur. This is true with engineered projects by developers or with integrated projects by operation teams. Compliance can range from smaller tasks such as documenting what is built or installed, all the way to deep logging and intricate permissions management systems. In most situations, there is no "silver bullet" solution to comply with regulations or standards, and any vendor offering this to you or your company should be reviewed carefully. These sorts of vendors typically try to engage with non-technical management to sell them on solutions that the IT team has to later "figure out how to integrate them." (If you have good horror stories around this exact situations, feel free to share in the comments below.) To get ahead of those "snake oil salesmen", be ready to show your management how you are currently or will meet your standards and regulations.

Identify the Requirements

First step in creating a good compliance plan is to understand what you need to comply with. This can be fairly straightforward for some, such HIPAA for healthcare, while being much more complicated for others, combining SOX with PCI DSS or US state and federal regulations with other countries. This step is very critical and will require IT professionals to reach out to the business users they support and possibly consultants like lawyers or compliance officers. It may sound simple, but this can be the most difficult step as many regulations are not black-and-white. Each person can read the same words and interpret it differently. Documenting this interpretation as it is being reviewed will only help you in the future if you have to defend that interpretation from regulators or re-interpretation with new staff or consultants.

Create and Socialize the Plan

Second step is creating internal processes, procedures, and standards that meet all of the items you found in the discovery. Many companies have unwritten ways to do things, rules that everyone follows without question, and systems they use to track what is done and how they do it. While some companies do a great job in documenting their processes, procedures and standards, most do not , and getting teams to change this practice can mean a cultural shift.

Where you often see this issue is when smaller companies grow larger. Small companies consider their IT teams agile because they are all generalists, and any member can and does fill all possible roles. As companies and their IT teams grow, specializations occur. The company's business users yearn for those old days when they could call one of the IT team members to get help and the IT team just got it done. The fight to follow processes and procedures while "getting things done" is a constant struggle. Selling the benefits of following processes and procedures internally is one of the toughest things for IT management to do in situations like this.

Document and Organize

The third step is to take all of the documentation and organize it so that it can be reviewed, executed and tracked. This includes processes, procedures and standards, along with how the team is executing against those standards. In many cases, regulators can show up without notice and audit the company's compliance. Without having the information in an easy to access system or storage, it is useless to both the IT team and the auditors. Again, there is no "sliver bullet" solution for this. Every team needs to find their own solution that works for them. For some teams, it could simply be a file share with Word and Excel documents; for others, it might take a self-developed or commercially available software package.

All of this seems easy on paper, but there is no quick solution or answers. IT teams, management and business users need to take their time to understand what needs to be done, and when they need to meet regulations and standards. Sometimes, one group may ask for more than what is required in the regulations. This needs to be tempered with timelines and costs. Lastly, remember that it takes time for people to adopt changes, and anticipate that when creating the project execution plan. By working together with realistic timelines and good communication, a proper compliance plan can be executed.

Plan for Continuous Improvement

Once the compliance plan is pulled together and the users and IT team are following the plan, the best thing to show most regulators and auditors is a continual improvement processes. Regulators, auditors and compliance officers love to see improvement. In some ways, it is better to create your initial plan and then slowly improve that plan over time rather than trying to create the "perfect plan." Improvement around compliance is seen as a good sign of compliance in an organization. This makes the improvement process just as important as the initial compliance.

IT compliance does not need to be a dirty word. Everyone has his or her stories around the good, the bad and the ugly of compliance; the stories of well executed plans, stories of bad or no plans, stories of regulators imposing large fines and sanctions. Take your time to prepare and execute the best compliance plan you can with the resources available. Once that plan is in place, create an environment that makes ongoing improvements as painless as possible, so that compliance is something everyone understands and wants, and not seen as an impediment to their work.

How do you feel about IT compliance? Do you have stories to share, whether good or bad? If so, put them into the comments below.

This was cross-posted by Veronica Wei Sopher on the Born to Learn Blog at MS Learning. You can check this one out specificially at and other great posts over at Special thanks to Veronica for helping with this posting.



1 - More information about Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (SOX or SOX404)

2 - More information about Health Information Portability and Accountability Act of 1996

3 - More information about Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard

4 - Direct link to my appearance on People Talking Tech, January 22nd, 2013