Fits and starts: staying “tech savvy” as a CIO

Just a quick, personal post this time: I was recently interviewed by CIO Magazine on the topic of “How CIOs Can Stay Tech-Savvy“.  Since (as is normal) only a portion of my conversation with the reporter actually made it into the article, I thought I’d expand briefly on the topic here.

My remarks were two-fold, consistent with what I’ve written before on this all-important topic:

  • It’s critical for the IT executive to “keep his or her hand in” by doing some hands-on work and experimentation with new technologies
  • Your purpose in doing this hands-on work is not to become a viable technical resource in the area, but rather to get some deeper understanding than you’d obtain by just reading an article or two.

As mentioned in the article, I estimate that I spend 5-10 hours a month doing this kind of hands-on dabbling, sometimes with more success than others.  Let’s look at the kinds of things I do, large and small:

  • Obviously, I administer my home network (four machines running three different operating systems, plus other home networking devices) and provide advice to neighbors and friends.
  • I administer my blog, including configuration, changing WordPress templates, and even custom-coding PHP callbacks at times.
  • I also actively seek out “early adopter” opportunities with new technologies, or technologies that are simply new to me.  I currently have four virtual machines that are launchable on my Mac: Ubuntu, Fedora 11, Windows 7, and Windows Vista.
  • I have an ongoing Javascript dev project I work on that analyzes my iTunes music library and helps me identify gaps in metadata and lyrics, so that these can be corrected. That Javascript also dumps all the lyrics in my music library out into XML, to get them out of the proprietary world of iTunes.
  • At the beginning of each year, I list out the technologies I’d like to delve into more deeply that year, in terms of reading and experimenting.  This list is based purely on what has intrigued me as I’ve scanned blogs, feeds, and Twitter. For 2009, my list included Amazon EC2 and S3, Ruby, Heroku, and CouchDB.  I’ve not gone as far as I’d hoped with a couple of these, but hey, 2010 will have a list too.
  • In a given year, I might do some coding (as of this writing) in Javascript, Perl, PHP, and Ruby. Admittedly, I usually need to look quite a bit of stuff up as I go, but that’s mostly a factor of doing this only an hour or two a week.

As I emphasized in my remarks for the article, the point here is not to become a player on the field. I’ll never be as skilled in any of these technologies as the people I’d hope to hire with that expertise, should the need arise.  And that’s a good thing: the temptation is always there, particularly for someone who rose up through the developer ranks, to micromanage.  But at the senior executive level, it’s far more important that you stay focused on process improvement and strategy than on nuts-and-bolts techniques. Any of the experimenting I describe above should be viewed as self-education and a hobby, not a serious endeavor.

But you can bet that my self-education practice lends me a deeper insight into any of these technologies than if I’d sat back and simply read magazine articles on them. And oddly, I’m one of the few senior IT executives I know who still do this sort of thing. Granted, it will always feel to me like it’s too little, but not doing it at all is, well, not an option.


  1. I completely agree. We once had a programming contest and the then CIO and several of his staff joined in the effort. One of the rules was that you had to use a programming language you had never used before. That was great fun.

  2. My first reaction there was that I’ve about run out of major languages that I’ve never programmed in! But then I thought for just a bit, and realized that’s far from being true. Just off the top of my head, I still have Python, C#, Scala, and even Erlang as possibilities. And new ones do keep coming along. Thanks for commenting, Mark.

  3. I share a similar perpective and spend a lot of energy trying to operationalize those “hands-on” opportunities in a way that maximizes value and minimizes the time I need to spend. My value proposition as a senior IT leader is not that of a “doer” but one to best “enable” my team of “doers” to do what they do best. To be the best that I can at doing that, I need just enough “in the trenches” experience as context. From activity with my blog to volunteer work as “webmaster” and technology denizen, staying relevant is non negotiable.

  4. Perspective much appreciated … it gave me pause to look at my approach to this topic and I must say, I’ve really reduced my “hands-on” to my blog and at home putterings and have neglected more work related challenges. I’ll need to improve my balance and challenge myself more at work to dip into things a little deeper. Thanks for the post!

  5. Well, I didn’t say so directly in my post, but I do basically ALL this “dabbling” at home. If it starts to bleed over into work, then I’ve usually gone too far, and my belief is that I can’t be an effective “worker bee” while also wrestling with the management concerns of strategy, approach, administrivia, etc. Thanks for commenting.

  6. I do agree with your recommendations Peter. Practice and doing some field discovery is certainly a way to get back to reality. In my case, as a CIO, I must admit that I digged more, these past two years, in the user/collective experiences of technology. I spent roughly 5 to 10 hours per month on making me more fluent on how this social media things makes the workingplace a little bit different. Everyday I’m finding out new insights that I can experiment with my team, internally.
    Goof luck Peter and Happy new year.

  7. Hello Peter- Kudos for staying hands-on. I wish more CIO/CTOs did. Unfortunately software is definitely a “contact sport”…

    Enjoy your posts,

  8. I am happy to hear that some CIO’s are prepared to get involved in the real mechanics of their departments. It is something that I have always advocated, but unfortunately, most senior managers pretend they are too busy to get involved. Fortunately, for me I have been working overseas for the past 8 years and had the opportunity to advise CIO’s and senior IT managers on how important it is to be able to have a basic understanding of the work within all their departments and to be able to understand what their engineers/technicians/analysts are telling them. It is amazing how well recieved these CIO’s are by their subordinates when they are able to join in the conversation in a meaningful manner. If more senior managers adopted this approach I am sure that it would have a very positive impact on the success of their companies.

  9. Agreed, Tony, and thanks for commenting. In my observation, CIOs tend to not do this at all (most often), or when they do, they overdo it, extending their involvement into micromanagement. Tough to strike a balance, without a doubt.

  10. Peter, I agree with your comment, and as with everything else in life CIOs need to be coached in how to manage their balance of involvement. Having said that I do agree whole-heartedly with your comments and I think, if CIOs can afford it, it is a good idea as was in my case, to employ a management advisor, in all the posts I held in the Middle East as an advisor it worked extremely well. It is vital though that the advisor maintains an excellent working relationship with the CIO in order for this to work, and from experience I can tell you this is no easy task.


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