IT conferences for the CIO: microcosms of industry trends

I’m back from attending ServiceNow’s Knowledge13 conference last month in Las Vegas, and have a grab bag of random thoughts and reactions to share as a result. As usual, these thoughts reach beyond any particular vendor or product niche.

For anyone not familiar with this company, ServiceNow is slowly and steadily developing a generalized platform (“ERP for IT”) for enterprise IT management, all the way from IT service management (ITSM) to (now, in a new offering) cloud orchestration and management of instances.

My attendance last year at this same conference broke a personal streak of almost 8 years of avoiding conferences altogether. My recap post from last year discusses how I discovered what I’d been missing: exposure to new approaches, new energy, and new perspectives that, like it or not, don’t just come from online.

In fact, it reminds me of the classic Woody Allen line about “I need the eggs”. Conferences are messy, chaotic, overwhelming, sipping from a firehose, and so on. But we keep going, because we need those eggs.

Here are some “eggs,” large and small, that I took away from this year’s experience.

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The value of DOING for the CIO: test-driven development

“How technical are you?” This common challenge, almost playground-aggressive in nature, can turn into a sore spot for the CIO today. It’s inevitable (and actually desirable), you see: as you move up to executive rank, you lose your day-to-day involvement in the actual nuts-and-bolts implementation of technical details. Many executives respond by essentially abandoning all direct personal engagement with technology. But to do so across the board is a mistake.

Here, I seldom post directly about technologies or techniques, because, quite frankly, I’ve found in business situations that technology in and of itself is very rarely either the real problem or the real solution. Despite this, I still see technology as an ongoing crucial area of expertise for the CTO/CIO (contrary to the claims of some pundits that I’ve written about before). To maintain this vital expertise, the CIO’s dilemma is as follows: you have to keep your hand in, but you won’t ever have the time or focus to try out every technique, tool, or approach. You’re going to be, at best, a dilettante.

However, just because you’re doomed, as an executive, to be a dilettante doesn’t mean you should give up all efforts to stay current, or that such efforts won’t provide you with useful CIO-level insights. Even a little goes a long way. This post describes one example of that, as a case study.

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IT entropy in reverse: ITSM and integrated software

Why am I an IT professional? Here’s one major compelling reason: you simply can’t rest on your laurels. You can’t stop learning and growing and examining and improving, in all aspects, or you stagnate and die. The best IT professionals, I’m convinced, work energetically and on an ongoing basis, actively striving to push the scales from their own eyes at every juncture. It’s part of the job.

Last week I had the opportunity to attend what was my first industry conference in almost 8 years, Knowledge12, put on by ServiceNow, a software-as-a-service (SaaS) provider of IT service management (ITSM) software. (See my post explaining why I’ve tended to avoid industry conferences in recent years). And to my surprise and delight, I discovered that it was well worth the time. Let me share my thoughts on why.

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Must-read books on the human factors of IT — part 1, the 70s

What is it that sets apart a top-notch IT executive from others of his calling? To my mind, one mark of today’s true professional, especially at the senior executive level, is to be deeply familiar with the seminal books in his or her field. The dilemma for an IT professional, though, comes from the ongoing and increasing flood of books to choose from, and trying to figure out how to walk the fine line between focus on the intensely tactical and focus on higher-level concepts and ideas.

The tactical books do have their place on your shelf, actually, and it would be a mistake to ignore them simply because you’ve moved beyond daily application of your development, configuration, and technical trouble-shooting skills: judicious selection and absorbing of nuts-and-bolts techniques and new approaches will keep your insight into technology and its possibilities fresh.

I started in IT as a developer, and I remain fascinated by the endless possibilities and techniques of the world of software. In the last decade or two, though, I’ve become even more intrigued by a metalayer above the more tactical concerns. True to my ongoing insistence that the biggest challenges in IT aren’t purely technical, I am ever more convinced that the greatest difficulties are presented by “psychology of IT” issues: the human factors in how software and systems are conceived, built, tested, deployed, maintained, and eventually decommissioned.  Here are just a smattering of the eternal, non-technical questions that go far beyond the computer language du jour or the latest hot methodology:

  • How do teams actually create and complete information technology projects? What works, what fails, and why?
  • Why are some software developers ten times as productive as others?
  • Why do some software teams gel and others don’t?
  • Why do small companies with very few resources often beat out large, well-funded efforts in the marketplace?
  • How technical should managers be?

So starting with this post, let’s embark on a multi-part survey of the groundbreaking, timeless books on such issues. I’m going to pick what I consider to be the top three books from each decade, starting with the 70s.  Each of them deserves not only a place on your bookshelf, but to be read and reread every few years. And contrary to what one might think, their insights remain not only valid after all these years, but have become all the stronger by having been confirmed by the history of the industry since their publication.

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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:

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“Getting” Twitter, from the technology executive’s perspective

I don’t want this to be just another post about Twitter, the current hot trend of the Internet.  Rather, I’d like to relate this new Twitter fad to a long-planned important topic here.

Specifically, what can we in technology do to keep current and stay up-to-speed on our various areas of interest and expertise? There’s more out there than any of us can learn, and new technologies come along all the time.  Truly staying current, at a reasonable depth level, would be a more-than-full-time job.

Here’s how I’ve come to grips with that basic reality. These remarks are most relevant to the executive level, but to some extent they apply across the spectrum of roles in IT.
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