Novels of IT, Part 2: Haunting the CEO

Last time, I introduced this series by pointing out that reading what I call “novels of IT” could serve a few very useful purposes for those of us who work in and around information technology.  In fact, I presented a number of criteria that come to mind when answering the implicit question of why anyone should bother to read a novel of IT.

Ideally, it’s because such novels, at their best, can do the following:

  • provide a degree of engagement and entertainment in making their points
  • provide a realistic insight, in a “show not tell” kind of way, into what motivates the typical players in these business scenarios,
  • help all factions (inside and outside IT) come to see the other side’s perspective and arrive at deeper understandings of common problems and disagreements.
  • allow the CIO to hand the novel to his or her CEO or CFO and trust that everyone’s reading of it will help reach common ground in how to collectively and collaboratively approach the company’s goals.
There are, of course, pitfalls involved in constructing such a novel, the foremost of which is falling into blatant stereotypes: most notably, the nerdy CIO who clings to technology and can’t see a larger role for himself or herself. The book I covered in my first post on IT novels, Chris Potts’ FruITion, not only fell into this trap in spades, but took it to a whole new dimension, painting IT in general as basically no longer needed as a separate discipline, and as having become so trivial as to not need an executive at all.
This time, I’ll discuss John Hughes’ recent and excellent contribution to this genre, Haunting the CEO.

Novels of IT, Part 1: Turtles All The Way Down

Novels are harder than most technology-oriented people typically realize. The backbone of a good novel is character development, meaning that the character learns and grows — which makes it easy for especially amateur novelists to start off with a character who is, frankly, little more than a one-dimensional dolt. This is an even more dangerous pitfall when it’s a “novel of IT”: the temptation is almost unavoidable for the author to create as protagonist a stereotypical technology leader, clueless as to what is really important or how to be effective, who is then gradually enlightened by wiser individuals as the novel progresses.

There are three IT-related novels I’m aware of, all relatively recent, that fall essentially along those lines.

All of them are worth reading, but I had majorly different reactions to each. While I’d intended to cover all three in one blog post, the complexities involved in discussing the first, very problematic example have led me to divide this discussion into more than one post.

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Mending Wall: Matches and mismatches in IT stakeholder expectations

Oil and water? Some days, the disconnect between stakeholder expectations and IT capabilities (and sensibilities) seems staggering.

Case in point: I was shown an astounding list of generic stakeholder expectations a while back, drawn up by an obviously frustrated group and titled “USER REQUIREMENTS FOR IT”.  The list is most interesting in what the items reveal between the lines. Let’s examine what probably caused this group to write down these specific but very abstract needs.

User requirements for IT

  • Must be adaptable to business situation
  • Must be able to employ multiple SDLC (Software Development Lifecycle) techniques as the situation dictates
  • Must be able to work in a highly parallized (sic!) environment
  • Must be able to accept and adapt to last minute scope
  • Should have multiple channels for functionality development both in terms of large releases and off cycle enhancements that occur in parallel.
  • Must provide the ability to externalize functionality to external teams to quickly develop new functionality
To most IT professionals, these come off as “unreasonable” demands at first examination. But they’re both understandable and revealing, if you take the stakeholder point of view, and if you remember the oft-cited adage that all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Countering a disturbing bandwagon: rich vs. poor IT organizations

It’s time for me to speak up.  Not that I haven’t before, here and here. But sometimes I just have to shake my head. I read certain IT-related articles on the web, or tweets by some colleagues, and they’re so out of sync with IT reality that I feel like it’s Opposite Day.

Here’s what I mean.  Let’s look closely at the latest item of this ilk that has spurred my head to swivel: this rather stunning recent Forbes interview with Mark McDonald, group vice president and head of research at Gartner Executive Programs. At core, McDonald is touting and praising, and with much reasonable-sounding eloquence and assurance, an abandonment of common long-standing lessons in IT.  In fact, such an abandonment is being presented as the only path to goodness, success, and truth; traditional areas of focus for IT are deprecated as being either of lesser importance, or even as the veritable hallmark of a clearly backward CIO who just doesn’t get the new order.

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Uncommonly followed common sense tips on CIO communication

I recently had the privilege of being interviewed, along with other experienced senior technology executives, by CIO magazine for my thoughts on communication mistakes still made by CIOs. Some great ideas came out in the article, but when it comes to communication (see tip #1 below), there’s always more to say. So here goes.

  • Communication can always be worked on and improved. I was at one company where we did a semiannual employee satisfaction survey. Even better, the company was admirably dogged about implementing specific measures to address areas of dissatisfaction that emerged from the survey results. But in every single survey, the number one vote-getter was the need to improve intracompany communications, no matter what initiatives were spawned to improve them. Communication is an ongoing challenge and necessity.

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IT tall tales and why they’re told, or, why I stopped going to conferences

Most senior technology executives have a good sense of the huge value that comes from comparing notes and impressions with one’s peers about industry trends, techniques, project approaches, even vendors. Networking, appropriately handled, can enable you to find out all sorts of “lessons learned” without having to go through the pain of learning them the hard way.

But as with most things, there are effective and less effective ways of going about that sort of networking. For a long time, I looked to industry conferences to provide this sort of connection and exposure to a wider and wiser set of peers. But despite a few positive experiences, I’ve changed my mind in general about the utility of conferences.

Aside from technical exposition and tutorials, most industry conference sessions revolve around case studies. And oh, what cases they are, according to the presenters. Quite typically, everything is golden, nothing has ever gone awry or possibly could. Their own approach is the only one conceivable for success. “This one goes to 11” seems to be their slogan. The presenters seem to think that the more enticingly they portray their project and approach, the greater value they’ll provide to their audience.
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Yes we can, yes we must: the ongoing case for IT/Business alignment

How do we (IT executives) get away from being typecast as technologists, unconsulted on core business issues and approaches? Face it, that’s a common situation and dilemma that we all encounter, early and often, and it’s the grist for a constant mill of articles and blog posts and books on business/IT alignment.

Lately, though, a part of that mill has started insisting that focus on technology should be avoided altogether by what they usually cast as the “next generation” of CIO.  So I’m going to (again) be a bit of a contrarian here: it’s possible for the pendulum to swing too far in the wrong direction. I think that we can at times go overboard in our desire to avoid being seen as the geek with the pocket protector.  Examples: some preach outright denial that there might be such a perception problem: don’t even think of using the terms “IT” and “business”, they urge, and they recommend against ever discussing “alignment” as a goal.  Stop referring to the “business” as something separate, they recommend; IT is just as much part of the business as anything else! Similarly, their advice is “avoid discussing the technology itself.” As if a mere shift in language could solve the perception problem and automatically propel the CIO into the inner circle of decision-makers.

Here’s the gist of how I see it, though: in many (I daresay most) companies, the path of IT from high priesthood to strategic key playerdom has not really been fully traversed: in other words, greater alignment IS still needed of IT with “the business.”

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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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