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 One True Way syndrome exemplified: the overstated case against code comments

I write frequently, and not without some exasperation, about the perennial search for the “silver bullet” in IT: the holy grail, the end-all, be-all solution to preventing IT failure.

The silver bullet has a very close and similarly pernicious internal twin cousin: the One True Way. That’s a technique or practice that is (usually) adopted by its IT aficionados as the key to overall success, with the important insistence that it will work as long as you follow it to the letter, in all cases, no matter what.

So this post will seemingly be about a specific (and low-level) development issue, but it’s only to serve as an example to illustrate this One True Way syndrome that is so prevalent in IT. At core, my takeaway boils down to the same old message I usually have when it comes to IT matters: be wary of something promising to fix all your problems. Be wary of absolutes. And be especially wary of the combination.

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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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A CIO’s skeptical look at the QR code phenomenon

I had the good fortune last month to be invited to participate as a guest CIO on ITSM Weekly, a great IT-related podcast with the amusing ongoing tagline, “What happens when a CIO, a Service Desk Manager and an industry junkie chat weekly?!”

Amidst the discussion and banter, Chris Dancy of ITSM Weekly gave me a bit of a ribbing about what he perceived as my all-too-common anti-QR-code rants on Twitter. And yes, I have tweeted more than once with outright skepticism about the usefulness and likely impact of QR codes.  Chris’ good-natured needling made me step back and think about why: what exactly makes me so resistant to the notion of QR codes?

And the answer runs deeper than just QR codes per se.  It turns out, as I thought about it, that the story surrounding QR codes represents, for the modern CIO or CTO, kind of a horrible blend: the worst aspects of technology advocacy, combined with the worst aspects of marketing.  This post is an attempt to explain those broader implications.

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One CIO’s “lessons learned” in managing others

Here’s a shocker: none of us has failed to fail at times.

We’ve all screwed things up on occasion, and I’m no exception. And that’s especially true when it comes to managing others, which I believe is very much a learned skill. In that spirit, there are a number of things about people management (call them reminders, admonitions, lessons) that I’d especially want to tell my younger self if I had a time machine. Each one arises from a situation where I’ve learned a lesson the hard way over the years, either from mishandling something myself, or from watching a peer, colleague, or my own manager mishandle it.  As the saying goes, “Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment.”

So here are a few things to keep in mind when managing others.  These lessons have arisen from (largely) IT situations, but their scope and impact is hardly limited to IT.  They’ve become a capsule summary of how I want to manage, and how I like to see people around me manage others.  In fact, when I encounter an instance of “bad management”, or think back on my own missteps, I can almost always point to a deficiency in one or more of these specific areas as the underlying root cause.In no particular order:

Bears, hedgehogs, and Gladys Knight: parables of IT leadership

For years, I’ve had two framed items hung on my office wall throughout my various stints as CIO, CTO, etc.  I like to think of them, both individually and together, as reflecting certain truths or ironies I encounter as a technology executive, particularly in the realm of leading others.  They serve as cautions to me of leadership potentially gone awry.  So let’s talk about what they show.

The bear and the hedgehogThe bear and the hedgehog: “Vielleicht kannst du auch mal was machen”

The first is a decades-old cartoon taken from a German calendar, preserved from the years I lived in Berlin.
Two animals are playing on a seesaw. One is huge and bear-like, the other a small critter like a hedgehog.  As you’d expect, the bear outweighs the hedgehog, who dangles on the high end of the seesaw. The large one says to the small one, “Now make yourself heavy.”  The little one says “OK”, and voilà: the next panel shows the seesaw reversed, contrary to gravity and logic, where the hedgehog is now outweighing the bear.

The bear says, “You see? It really does work.  Now make yourself light again.” Whereupon the hedgehog quietly retorts, “How about you doing something once in a while?”

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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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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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