Friday, October 26, 2012

Here Come the Langoliers

Several decades ago an obscure author named Steven King came out with a book called, "The Langoliers".  As a quick summary, the premise of the book is that all of creation is built by hand, minute by minute.  As each minute expires, life moves out of that block of time into the next.  The minute, now used up and stale, cannot be allowed to continue a useless existence.  That's where the Langoliers come in.  I remember them described as being similar to a demonic, metallic Pacman with large gnashing teeth.  The Langoliers sole job was to come along and destroy, or "eat" the minutes that had already been used up and left behind.  In other words, their job was to constantly destroy that portion of creation that no longer had a use.  Of course, being a Steven King story, if you read it you would come to the same conclusion that I did, which is that nobody wants to meet a Langolier firsthand.

If you read the magazines, books, and white papers about leadership you'll likely come across a term again-and-again.  To paraphrase, "If you want to be a great leader then you must have vision!"

So what does that mean?

Having vision means to see how thing could be, not how they are today.  The wisdom imparted to us is that great leaders are that way because they can identify ways to improve and then move the organization from Point A (current state) to Point B (the new, better state).

For the record, I completely agree with the belief that vision is an absolutely critical component found in great leaders.  But having vision comes at a high cost to the individual who has it.  In fact, the price is so high that many people who could display vision never actually do.

"That's crazy!", you might say.  That would just as silly as if Clark Kent never took off his suit and glasses and became Superman.  So why exactly would someone who is blessed with the gift of vision keep it hidden?  The answer may surprise you.

Consider that there are two types of energy: Potential and Kinetic.  Imagine potential energy as a boulder that sits atop the edge of hill, just waiting to roll over the edge.  Now think of kinetic energy as that boulder actually in motion as it gathers speed barreling down the hill.  Vision in and of itself is like potential energy.  It represents what could be but not what "is".  In order to extract value from that boulder sitting on the edge, someone must actually push it on over.  That particular action has huge significance because it turns vision into something dangerous - CREATION.

People who engage in the act of creation encounter what I jokingly refer to as Newton's 3rd Law of (Business) Motion.  Inevitably, a person who creates will always find someone or more than one who will oppose them.  I don't know why it works out this way, but those who create invariably attract others who will want to destroy what it is they build.  There is an interesting way to look at what I just said.  Whenever a person tries to do something new, people around them gather into one of three camps.  About 15% of those people hate the person and/or creation, 70% don't really care unless they are directly affected, and 15% of the people become "true believers".

Several decades ago an obscure author named Steven King came out with a book called, "The Langoliers".  As a quick summary, the premise of the book is that all of creation is built by hand, minute by minute.  As each minute expires, life moves out of that block of time into the next.  The minute, now used up and stale, cannot be allowed to continue a useless existence.  That's where the Langoliers come in.  I remember them described as being similar to a demonic, metallic Pacman with large gnashing teeth.  The Langoliers sole job was to come along and destroy, or "eat" the minutes that had already been eaten and left behind.  In other words, their job was to constantly destroy that portion of creation that no longer had a use.  Of course, being a Steven King story, if you read it you would come to the same conclusion that I did, which is that nobody wants to meet a Langolier firsthand.

Bring Your Back End Forward

Since the late 1990s there has been an explosion of popularity in the United States for the National Football League, or "NFL".  Previous to that time, the game was very popular but people tended to gravitate towards and support only their favorite team.  Then along came Fantasy Football - a concept where a group of 10-12 people could get together to form a "league".  At the beginning of the season each person drafts a team, most usually a squad of players selected from multiple teams.  As an example, I play Fantasy Football, and this year my team looks like this:
  • Quarterback - Tony Romo, Dallas
  • Running Back 1 - Darren McFadden, Oakland
  • Running Back 2 - Ahmad Bradshaw, New York
  • Flex Back - Michael Turner, Atlanta
  • Wide Receiver 1 - DeMaryius Thomas, Denver
  • Wide Receiver 2 - Hakeem Nicks, New York
  • Tight End - Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta
  • Kicker - Sebastian Janikowski, Oakland
  • Defense/Special Teams - Minnesota Vikings
Why bring up Fantasy Football in this blog, you might ask?   It's because the list I show you above reflects just one person in each area when there are at least 10 others on the field at the same time helping them to be successful. 

In an IT organization, like a football team, there are a number of individuals who are almost completely invisible that are always contributing to solution.  The label within IT for these types of individuals is usually "back office" or "back-end" staff.

Perhaps the most significant strategic administrative task a CIO has is to create an organizational structure that is aligned to the needs of the company.  In almost every case there are positions in the org that are "no-brainers".  You always need heads of infrastructure, applications, and project management.  You usually need heads of customer support, security, and web support.  What I find most interesting is that most organizations that I have seen have back-end data management buried within either Infrastructure or Applications.  What is back-end data management, you might ask?  This area and the people within it are highly technical individuals who deal with the basic structure of data (database admins), reports, SQL developers, and application-specific data architects like BASIS admins in the SAP world.

There is nothing inherently wrong with putting these resources within more "strategic" functions like Applications or Infrastructure.  Most CIOs are comfortable with this arrangement because they see back-end data management as just "bits and bytes" and not worthy of the strategic input of a senior executive.  The problem with this approach, if there is one (and I think there is), lies in what the CIO misses by not having (or naming) an overall back-end data management leader AND elevating that position as a direct report. 

If you've seen any of the "Matrix" movies, the protagonist Neo, could see the world as it truely was.  Where others saw normal reality, Neo saw existence as a computer program that he could manipulate.  Of course, this gave him what appeared to others as super powers. The back-end data personnel have the same view of what is happening within the IT systems they support.  Problems that manifest within applications, email, or desktops are visible to the "tekkies" in ways that others don't or can't see.  I don't know how many times I have seen a technical person solve a problem in minutes where a functional counterpart may have floundered for hours before reaching resolution.

By having a direct linkage to my most technical personnel I can pick up on problems often before they manifest to the user community.  I also gain a perspective on how to manage IT that incorporates a more pure form of reality.  In a way it's how I stay ahead of the game - it's how I become the proactive CIO and not just a break-fix specialist.  Another way to put it is that I can manage like a *vaccine* rather than an *antibiotic*.

Like Fantasy Football, you can manage with and through the people who score the touchdowns, or in the case of IT the people who act and speak to the user community in the mainstream.  But unless you build and strengthen your relationships in the "bowels" of your shop, it's not likely that you will be that elite CIO who can handle an IT shop with complete aplomb.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The CIO Paradox

I've written quite a bit about various topics related to the role and function of the CIO.  Recently, a good friend of mine named Martha Heller brought a marvelous book to market called, aptly, "The CIO Paradox".  If ever there was an expert on the CIO role it would be Martha.  She has worked with CIO magazine in a number of senior positions for over a decade and has written extensively on technology trends and applications.  She also runs her own search firm, "Heller Search Associates, LLC", where she recruits senior technologists into key positions.

The "CIO Paradox" is a beautiful piece of literature and combines Martha's many years of work with CIOs across just about every industry.  She combines information gleaned from interviews,  case studies, and insider information to discuss what it is really like to be a CIO.

When I say in my blogs that the CIO position is one of the most influential, yet difficult positions to hold within a company her book tells you specifically why.  Martha combines her knowledge with research conducted over 10 years to give what I believe is one of the most insightful looks into the CIO role ever written.

It is a must read not only for what it can teach you about the CIO but because its style will draw you in and engage your heart AND mind.  Please do like me and check it out.

CIO Paradox book cover 3D.png     http://www.hellersearch.com/thought-leadership/cio-paradox.php

Martha Heller Headshot1.jpg

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A career in IT is not Sexy

I've read a number of articles about the role of the CIO and IT leadership, some of them dating back to the early 2000s.  I actually remember one article in the Harvard Business Review by Nicholas Carr titled, "IT Doesn't Matter".  The points of Carr's article and many others could be loosely distilled down into one theme.  Basically, technology is becoming so ubiquitous that "everyone" is using it and consequently everyone has become an IT expert.  Carr predicted that the role of CIO was overblown and that IT would cease to become a separate function as it migrated out into "the business".  Of course, the business is always defined as the important part of company to which IT is just a necessary evil.

Fast forward about eight years (now) and look at the situation.  The advent of things such as the cloud, virtualization, telemetrics, and mobility have made IT more important than ever.  So important, in fact, that IT professionals have a joblessness rate of less than 2.4%, even lower when they have a degree.  Why is that might you ask?  It's because technology is never static.  What so many people (yes, you too Nicholas) failed to see is that every line of business is thirsty for technology.  It is the one specific thing that we can all count on to help us gain more market share, be more profitable, and more competitive - every time.  Tech will help you accomplish what all the marketing in the world just can't do, which is to be consistently and ever more competitive.

Say that you don't believe what I just said.  Ok.  Now think about everything your business or company does to make money.  Unless you're a total luddite, you'll see IT as your key enabler.  So why would I make the title of this article "...IT is not Sexy"?  The answer is all about power, prestige, and understanding.

In order to appreciate something you have to understand it.  The artists out there who read my column might disagree but I would counter by asking why art is always placed into some type of period - "cubism", "impressionist", "post-impressionist", "abstract", etc.  Artists do that so that others can understand the work.

Back to the point, almost nobody outside of an IT organization understands what happens inside of IT.  In fact, technology has become so specialized that in many cases IT people in disciplines like infrastructure don't always understand what the software developers are doing and vice versa.  Because it's human nature, if you don't understand something you tend to think less highly of it.  I don't know how many times as a CIO I have heard other CIOs or myself referred to as the "IT guy(s)".  None of us ever hear the CFO described as the "Finance dude(tte)" or the COO called the "Ops chick".  This is because their functions have been around for 100 years and our parents, usually Baby Boomers, taught us to respect them.  Since IT wasn't a force until the late 80s, none of us grew up holding CIOs in awe.

My good friend Martha Heller, a senior editor at CIO magazine and president of her own search firm, is about to come out with a book called "The CIO Paradox".  I'll talk more about that in a subsequent blog.  She describes very elegantly the paradox that most CIOs find themselves in.  A CIO is unlike any other executive in a company.  They are responsbile for ensuring both the day-to-day operations of a business (tactical) while also preparing for the future evaluation, adoption, and use of new technologies that are absolutely critical for successful competition (highly strategic).  What other executive finds herself in this position?  And yet, for all the responsibility the CIO rarely gets a seat with the senior leadership team.  Seems kind of odd, doesn't it.  Yes, I have heard the stories about "clueless" CIOs who are too technical or just don't have the leadership skills to act on par with other CXO types.  But when is the last time that you, the reader, heard of a company with a specific CIO development track?  You don't hear about it because these programs rarely occur.  This leads companies to almost always select CIOs from the outside or to put "senior business leaders" out to pasture by giving them a C-Level postion (CIO) as a cookie right before they retire.

So there are two anecdotes that you'll hear about CIOs.  The first is that CIO means "Career Is Over" and the second is that they have an average tenure of about two years.  The first you can laugh at or ignore but the second is not so funny.  Too late, companies realize that the CIO IS important and that a poor one can create long-lasting dysfunction within a business.  But once and if they get one, the cycle of treating them as lesser executives, despite the title, continues.  Two years later the cycle repeats.

If IT people did not make, on average, more money than other employees there wouldn't likely be anyone willing to work as a full-time employee.  Most of them would realize that without respect there is only money.  Have you seen the rates for IT contractors these days?  If not, just know that you're paying between $140-$400/hr for them.  And yes, it's not just CIOs with short tenures, it's *all* of your IT workers.

Here is the point of this blog and a general piece of advice:  If you do not have a CIO and you're making revenues in excess of $250 million, get a good one fast.  If you do have a CIO, give him or her a seat at the senior leadership table. The CIO is not a minor role - it's as strategic as any other function that you have.  It's not your CFOs, attorneys, or Ops executives that are going to determine your success in the new millenium.  It's going to be those "IT guys" who will make or break your company.