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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Simple, more practical approaches to actual resource allocation

Anyone ever tell you that a simpler approach can often work better than a more complex one? Whoever it was, it probably wasn’t a project management software vendor.  But simplicity has its merits, and I’d like to point out a few of these when it comes to resource allocation.

Project management, at its core, is largely about resource allocation, and this gets tricky when you have multiple projects going on, as most organizations do. Almost as much as I’ve seen organizations drop the ball entirely on cross-project resource allocation (essentially, simply pretending that there will be no contention issues), I’ve seen organizations go to the other extreme: they dive into the depths of intense Project Management, in capital letters: taken too far too fast, this approach can spin up to a high level of rigor and overhead, involving often-expensive software packages, precise low-level estimates, diligent collection of actuals, and ornate project calculations of hours burned and hours earned.  At the end, there you stand, like Goethe’s Faust, “no wiser than before.”

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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 supposedly 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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No silver bullets. Really!

Fred Brooks wrote a seminal essay in 1986, “No Silver Bullet — Essence and Accidents of Software Engineering“, a model of clear and cogent thinking that I consider to be required regular reading for anyone involved in information technology.  Despite the essay’s brilliance, and despite its wide promulgation and deserved fame, the phenomenon it describes seems to have only broadened in the last twenty-three years.  Brooks argues as follows (with bolding added):

The familiar software project, at least as seen by the nontechnical manager, has something of this character; it is usually innocent and straightforward, but is capable of becoming a monster of missed schedules, blown budgets, and flawed products. So we hear desperate cries for a silver bullet—something to make software costs drop as rapidly as computer hardware costs do.

There is no single development, in either technology or in management technique, that by itself promises even one order of- magnitude improvement in productivity, in reliability, in simplicity.”

So this basic tenet has been convincingly articulated by a leading IT thinker for almost a quarter century. Yet, the trend continues: new technologies pop up every couple of years and the hype cycle begins. Evidently, hope springs eternal.
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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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IT transparency is good. But how transparent should you be?

A few years back, I had an extremely surprising and unpleasant experience as CTO. The director of my Program Management Office ran a weekly status meeting for project stakeholders, where we’d all methodically go through the current project portfolio, in order to communicate on issues, gather necessary feedback, and align everyone’s expectations. I typically attended in order to provide input and executive-level decision participation, but left it to the director to actually run the meeting and present the topics.

Unfortunately, immediately before one of these weekly meetings, that director was given bad news (in a brief hallway conversation, no less) about a major bug that had just been discovered in the software for our highest profile project, which was currently in testing and due to launch in just a couple of weeks.  This project, with its strategic and revenue-enhancing potential, was foremost in the minds of everyone in the company.  Stakes were high, in other words.

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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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