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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Can a CIO be successful without IT experience? Define your terms!

Yes, it’s déjà vu: certain topics crop up again and again on IT-related blogs. The age-old question: does a CIO really need to have IT experience?  I’ve touched upon this before, here and here, but it’s time for a full column covering the standard arguments posed in this debate.

I’ve gone through every article I can find on this topic (most of these are listed at the end of this post), read all the associated comments, and culled out the arguments that are typically cited in support of a CIO’s ability to be successful without IT experience. These are:

  • A non-technical CIO can surround himself with a capable team who can support him in all technical matters
  • It’s the ability to lead that’s really needed, whereby the issue of technical capabilities becomes secondary
  • After all, there are some successful business CIOs without technical background
  • Even supremely technical CIOs have been known to fail
  • Considering today’s rapid pace of change, past IT experience can be a hindrance to many CIOs today as often as it is a help: that experience can make a CIO “unduly resistant to the possibilities.”

As I looked at these arguments, though, I found them all strangely uncompelling. I felt truly puzzled: how could anyone argue vehemently in favor of a lack of experience as a job qualifier, for anything? But as I thought about it, I realized it’s a matter of basic definitions. As in so many debates, this topic has been seriously hampered by many parties failing to define clearly the basic terms: what does “IT experience” or “technical” mean, and what does it mean for a CIO to “be successful”? Without a clear and common understanding of what is meant by those phrases, advocates on both sides tend to drift into “straw man” postulates, where they reach a strong and usually quite self-righteous position based on divergent definitions.

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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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The CIO and the fine art of vendor negotiation

“Don’t write about that,” I’ve been told by several colleagues, when I’ve mentioned that I was working on a post about how best, as the senior technology executive, to negotiate with vendors.  “You’ll give away all your tricks!” they’ve said.

Well, actually, no.  Here’s the main trick: this particular CIO doesn’t have any “tricks”, if by tricks you mean ways to outfox the opposition, or anything else that is best kept secret.  In fact, I’m not a natural avid negotiator. I’m not one of those people who looks forward to buying a new car because of the thrill of haggling with the salesperson.  But I’ve learned over the years how negotiations can best be structured for the optimal outcome.  Like cryptography, where greater obscurity isn’t equivalent to greater security, successful negotiation isn’t dependent on tricks or subterfuge.

I’m quite content to tell any vendor or salesman how I go about negotiating, because doing so doesn’t provide them any kind of advantage.  If anything, it’s beneficial to me and my company that all parties in the negotiation understand clearly the basic principles and approach that I’m using; it cuts a lot of the normal gamesmanship out of the equation.

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Complexity isn’t simple: multiple causes of IT failure

Roger Sessions recently published a white paper on IT complexity and its role in IT project failure: “The IT Complexity Crisis: Danger and Opportunity”.  It’s certainly possible to quarrel with bits and pieces of his analysis, and thereby tweak his numbers, but the overall thrust remains undeniable: IT failures are costing the world incredible amounts of real money. Sessions even sums it up under the dire-sounding phrase, “the coming meltdown of IT,” and says, “the out-of-control proliferation of IT failure is a future reality from which no country—or enterprise—is immune.” And he presents “compelling evidence that the proliferation of IT failures is caused by increasing IT complexity.”  He points out that the dollar cost of IT failure in the US alone is close to the cost of the recent US financial meltdown, and cites indications that the rate of failure is also increasing by 15% per year.

Roger’s paper is excellent and thought-provoking, and I recommend it highly. And I do agree with his view that complexity is the chief culprit in IT failure. That said, I think his argument focuses a little too strongly on one cause of complexity (unnecessary overcomplexity of architecture), to the neglect of other important factors.

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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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The title issue revisited: CTO vs. CIO

Key question of the day: given the recognized ascendancy of business/IT alignment and business change management as a vital purview of the effective CIO/CTO, should senior technology executives decrease their emphasis on technology, and focus primarily on corporate strategy and change? Should the company just have one role (call it a CTO, perhaps) do all that technical stuff, and move the CIO role into that of predominantly business strategist?

Let me raise my hand for the Nays. That would be the pendulum swinging way too far in the opposite direction. The problem of business/IT alignment won’t be solved by ghetto-izing technology concerns, and/or pretending that an executive is really only part of the senior team if she/he has a mostly strategic orientation and little responsibility for technology. That’s called a backlash, and it’s bound to lead to trouble. Here’s why.
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