Novels of IT, Part 3: Adventures of an IT Leader

My long quest for an insightful, broad, and practically applicable “novel of IT” finally met with resounding success, once I got my hands on the outstanding book that is the subject of this post: Adventures of an IT Leader, by Robert D. Austin, Richard L. Nolan, and Shannon O’Donnell.

To recap: I was looking for a book that was both reasonably engaging as a novel and one that accurately portrayed a broad swath of the inner workings, nuances, and personality types that are typically part of the landscape of IT in today’s world. Reading the book should provide a window into common dilemmas and disagreements regarding IT issues, lending perspective and insight into all parties’ motivations and interests. See my earlier posts on Chris Potts’ FruITion and John Hughes’ Haunting the CEO.  Again, my views aside, I should emphasize that all three of these “novels of IT” are worth reading and forming your own opinion.

Adventures of an IT Leader comes by far the closest to meeting the criteria I had outlined for a “novel of IT.”  It opens with an executive, Jim Barton, being unexpectedly tapped as CIO by the new CEO of his firm, after long and successful stints managing other areas of the company.  In short, Barton isn’t an IT person by training or experience. In fact, one reason for his selection as the new CIO is that he has long been the foremost critic of the IT function at his company. And now, unexpectedly, he has to walk a few miles in IT’s moccasins, so to speak. The novel then follows Barton and his numerous IT challenges and crises for about a year.

Note that it doesn’t make sense for a novel (any novel, but especially a “novel of IT”) to be a how-to manual or a set of detailed instructions. It’s meant to be fiction, after all, not an O’Reilly cookbook. As a novel rather than a cookbook, the book should provide enhanced, realistic insight into personality types, situations, common dilemmas, trade-offs, etc. A great outcome of such a book, to my mind, is for it to portray common IT scenarios evenly enough so that the reader comes away thinking, “wow, that issue is not as clearcut as I’d always assumed; I’ll have to think about those nuances some more.”

This book excelled in that respect: without falling into the trap of loftily providing the “right answer”, the book depicts realistic situations and conversations (among well-drawn and not stereotypical characters in the novel) that surface the important nuances without pointing fingers of blame. As Barton struggles to understand his new milieu and ponders what actions he should take at the helm of IT, we see balanced, careful discussions of key IT concerns such as the following:

  • Why important IT infrastructure investment is often neglected;
  • How and why projects fall prey to scope creep and become “runaway”;
  • Why IT resources’ views and recommendations are often ignored, in favor of promises made by external vendors;
  • How technical complexity tends to increase over time, resulting in risks growing ever higher;
  • Why depending on ROI alone as a project selection criterion results in limitations for the business;
  • How issues can arise with developers working on their personal side projects even while major project deadlines loom, and why the answer on what to do about this isn’t obvious.

Readers see quickly that the authors’ goal isn’t to provide definitive answers on what precisely to do on any of these; instead, the lines of the pro and con arguments emerge naturally in each case as Barton wrestles with it, and the reader comes away realizing that the answer, any answer, will necessarily involve trade-offs, risks, downsides. Running IT often consists of placing bets, as it were, not determining the “one true path” that is the right answer. Even the chapter-ending “Reflection” sections provide genuine and thoughtful open-ended discussion questions, not framed with a predetermined agenda. The book would work well as a set of case studies for group discussion, in fact.

The reader comes away realizing that the answer, any answer, will necessarily involve trade-offs, risks, downsides.

As with any CIO, not all of the decisions that Barton makes (or the ones that he inherits) turn out to be successful bets as events transpire. In fact, the company is thrown into crisis when a production outage occurs, due in part to a security update that had been de-prioritized. How Barton deals with that crisis and the ensuing fallout is one of the most compelling aspects of the novel.

The epilogue of the book, looking back on its incidents, provides an especially cogent summary of a truth often missed by people who haven’t themselves worn the shoes of IT management: essentially, that much of the devil is in managing the nuances, the day-to-day seemingly trivial details.  The authors observe, “The lack of effective IT management decision-making on the mundane issues will eventually lead to spectacular and seriously negative consequences.” Note how that’s a far cry from (and a much wiser perspective than) the stance taken in FruITion, which argues that the IT function has become so trivial as to not need an executive at all.

This book isn’t perfect of course, and I have a few quibbles with it: the patchwork nature of its organization at times, for example, or the ease with which Barton generally succeeds despite his rookie nature; however, more than any other “novel of IT” I’ve encountered, it is extraordinarily even-keeled and insightful on the key issues surrounding IT and IT’s role within companies. It explodes stereotypes rather than reinforcing them; it serves up genuine insight and understanding rather than pat solutions. As such, of the three novels I set out to review, it best fulfills one of my criteria: I’d be eager to recommend it to my CEO, or to anyone who works closely with IT.

Lagniappe: 

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  1. […] Next time, I’ll talk about the last of the three novels of IT on my initial list, Adventures of an IT Leader, by Robert D. Austin, Richard L. Nolan, and Shannon O’Donnell. […]

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