Wednesday, January 30, 2008

CIOs? Relevancy?

I was sitting in the San Francisco airport Red Carpet lounge, late last week, looking forward to getting back to Simi Valley. I was unwinding after spending a few days in London followed by a bit of fun at GoldenGate’s annual sales kick-off event. The photo I’m including here is of me overlooking planes moving around the gates and whether it was the cold temperature, or watching an Air Canada flight taxi to the runway, I was reminded of the years I spent living in Edmonton, Alberta. As Gordon Lightfoot used to sing:

"Oh the prairie lights are burnin bright. The chinook wind is a-movin in Tomorrow night Ill be Alberta bound!"

I had left Sydney in the mid '70s and moved to London but after a little less than a year, I took the plunge and migrated to Alberta, Canada. I had accepted a job as a data base administrator with the local Caterpillar distributor – R. Angus (Alberta) Limited (RAAL) – running CICS/VSAM on dual IBM 370/145s but with plans to roll-in a new data base management system.

The company had spun-off their data center as a service bureau, R. Angus Computer Services (RACS). RAAL remained the major customer of RACS, with the data center manager promoted to an executive position that closely resembled what we now call the Chief Information Officer (CIO). After little more than a year, RACS was sold to Advanced Computer Techniques (ACT) of New York, a service and consulting company founded by Charles Lecht and shortly after that, I left RACS.

And so today, watching the plane’s taxi, recalling the words to Gordon Lightfoot’s songs, and thinking back to those times at the data center, made me think back to one of the sessions at the kick-off I had just left. We had a panel of CIOs give us a pep talk about pitching to them, to better prepare sales teams for the types of dialogues they should anticipate when they do get their “fifteen minutes with the CIO”! We found out that the CIO’s wanted to know the relevance of a product or service and how it would help solve a particular business problem, the value proposition of that product or service, and any business knowledge we could bring to the table.

Surprise! Surprise! CIOs talk to each other, we heard, and the sales teams need to build accountability and integrity with CIOs as this really is the starting point for any business relationship. Even though they may not answer your phone call, so I learnt, CIOs do want to form relationships with good suppliers as it is crucial for their own success. CIOs make the big dollars, and that’s fortunate because they end up spending a lot of time sitting on the beach, between jobs – they really are extremely anxious to work with the right mix of credible partners! Successful partnerships allow CIOs to “live to fight another day”.

Where a strong partnership with a CIO develops, then the value proposition flows both ways. Later that same day, the CEO of GoldenGate, Ali Kutay, recalled how shortly after taking up the position of CEO, he visited a number of big customers to listen to their views on the company’s products. During a visit with the CIO of a major hospital, Ali asked him where he saw the most value from using GoldenGate and was surprised when the CIO told him that it was in mitigating server downtime during planned upgrades and migrations.

“From their perspective, the ability to migrate servers, infrastructure, and even applications with zero downtime gave them a comfort level that they would not otherwise have had,” Ali told us. He then added “they were able to introduce new technologies knowing that they had a fall-back position, and that critical patient history wouldn’t be lost!”

In good times and in bad, CIOs will always have a list of strategic initiatives being pursued. The only difference will be the depth of the list – in bad times, the list will be a lot shorter with perhaps only three of four projects making the cut. And it should come as no surprise to any vendor that the tendency, in bad times, is to stay with the incumbents and avoid all risk-taking. When money becomes scarce, it’s not a good time to become adventurous – as those working for a CIO will often recall, that’s the time the CEO or the CFO drop by to ask a few questions!

There has been a lot of debate recently about the role of the CIO and their relevance as a C-Level executive. Early last year, InformationWeek published a report “Defining the CIO” where they observed that the role of the CIO had come “under the microscope over the past year or so” adding that “the past five years revealed an up-tick in the number of CIOs reporting to CFOs – a sign … that IT was still being viewed as a cost center, not an innovation machine …” As the CIO panel wrapped up their presentation and called for questions from the audience, I decided to ask them whether they viewed their roles as still being relevant? And whether their position as a C-Level executive was still warranted?

“Good question”, came back the response, “and to some extent, our success has led to our own undoing”! The focus CIOs gave to open architectures, and the passion they showed pursuing this, made it happen. Today, so much has become open, and we see this especially with the HP NonStop platform. There wouldn’t be any support for OSS, Java and Application Servers if it wasn’t for the emphasis CIOs gave it. As you talk to the NonStop community, it can all become a little confusing and I have read reports referring to Unix on NonStop as the open support was misconstrued to be a Unix implementation! This focus on open architectures brought in other C-Level executives, as CIOs developed strong arguments in support of open, and now many of these C-Level executives feel comfortable talking about technology and want to remain involved.

In a related blog that I posted a few months back, I looked at the role of the CTO. I asked the question “will we see the role of the CTO within the user community simply fade away being replaced by a Technology Leader” and suggested that, for many users, the team approach headed by such a leader may be preferable. I have also begun to view some of the more gifted IT folks as artists, as they do sweet the details just as any other artist does, and covered that in a blog posting as well. And to develop the good artists, you need to have a pool of them so that simple competition helps the artists to hone their craft. I have even suggested that we have to allocate more support in developing architects as good architects are sorely needed at many user installations.

But does any of this insight equally apply to the CIO? And in light of the rush to relocate many of them under their CFOs, are we seeing another high-level team approach develop? When it comes to technical issues, I do tend to favor a team approach. And the same applies to anyone setting architectural directions as errors made here can be catastrophic in the long term. However, when it comes to CIOs, a team approach doesn’t cut it; the leadership demanded of them requires a pretty special person in order to be successful.

One of the CIO panel participants recalled that the only time he ever over-ruled one of his staff was when his CTO pushed for adopting a “custom” frame relay network rather than deploying a more generic TCP/IP backbone. He then went on to add “it just didn’t feel right, and when the CTO said he would quit before supporting any move to TCP/ IP, I let him!”

I recall with fondness the days I spent in Edmonton; the climate created a special camaraderie, but the days in that data center were the last I spent as an end user. As I step out of the Red Carpet lounge and head for my flight home, I recall another line from Gordon Lightfoot’s song:

“No one-eyed man could e’er forget The rocky mountain sunset Its a pleasure just to be Alberta bound!”

Yes, the attrition rate for CIOs is very high and yes, you can find many of them sitting on the beach between jobs. But no, none of them that I have talked to would want it any other way as they force themselves to adapt to doing more, of more, with less! It’s a position that I respect so very much, yet it is one of the very few positions that I have absolutely no desire whatsoever to pursue.

No comments: