Days ago I came across this interesting article on Forbes: The Emergence of the CIO-plus.

The topic is gaining momentum as of lately: IT needs a broader scope in the business, IT must become a profit center, IT must lead innovation, become the true business enabler, etc.

My personal additions to the list would be two:

  1. IT needs to be once and for all a staff function (i.e. reporting only to the CEO)
  2. and it must be the sole owner of all company data, regardless of who uses or produces them

(Point 2 above also implies that IT must be accountable for data quality and all business intelligence, either on externally- or internally-generated data).

I have been preaching these concepts for years, so I will not repeat myself here.

But one clarification seems necessary: if CIO-plus are emerging why were they underwater in the first place?

After all, the IT department is where you’ll find the finest analytical minds in the company. The CIO surely would be no exception.

Well, if they are so smart, analytical minds how come CIOs are slowly and painfully working out the surprisingly obvious?

What Keeps CIOs underwater

And the answer is: because they are such smart, analytical minds.

What I mean to say is this: the very same qualities needed to excel (or even survive) in IT are not those needed to promote one’s career past “Great White Programmer/SysAdmin” level.

An IT person:

  • needs the ability to concentrate at obsessive, near autistic levels
  • must pay attention to the tiniest details
  • must possess a drive and determination to overcome mind-numbing complexity (aka “bloody-minded stubbornness” outside of IT circles)
  • must strive for perfection (see previous point)
  • must be extremely conservative towards new ways of doing old things (see two above).
You may suspect that all this helps develop a peculiarly narrow vision of the world, and you would be right. All these requested qualities tend to select a “problem-oriented person”: a very intelligent, analytical, self-centered individual totally dedicated to solving the problem at hand, who disregards both the bottom line and his work’s externalities, and who additionally cares very little for outsiders, or for people in general.

If you are such a person, and most CIOs are, it is very easy to see the rest of the company as a bunch of sub-optimal resources with little if any analytical capabilities, pathologically unable to see the “right” solution and and with the unnerving habit to bicker on pointless details.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that it is impeccable, which explains why most attempt to convince IT people of the opposite (or “to bang some sense into those s**theads”, as is normally called among non-IT departments) fail.

As is often the case with IT people, the reasoning is impeccable. It’s the assumptions regarding the rest of the world that are wrong.

Managers outside of IT, (or “real people”, as they call themselves):

  • rarely enjoy the luxury of concentrating on the task at hand
  • are primarily evaluated according to their respect of time, cost and resource constraints
  • must balance conflicting demands from diverse actors
  • have to deal with people, not things or processes
  • have to make do with good enough today and leave have to leave the better for a next release
  • are constantly looking for more cost-effective new ways of doing old things.

The rest of the world sees IT people as a necessary evil simply because they are: necessary (no one has any idea how all that technology works) and, well, evil: autistic selfish nerds living on their own personal planet, happily oblivious of anything else in the universe than themselves, their machines, their just-as-nerd friends, and their videogames.

And now some good news

Despite the strong selective pressure towards autistic behaviour, autism in IT professional is a habit, not a clinical condition. Like all habits it can be quit or, which is more productive, tamed.

There are moments when it’s ok to be a keen-eyed, sharp-answered, analytical, obsessive, one-man-band perfectionist. In those moments, you are paid to be like that. In those moments, you usually are alone (or with your team) before a problem that must be solved, no matter what.

There are other moments when it’s necessary to be an understanding, empathic, diplomatic, patient, restrained, part of the team determined to find a good-enough, typically non-technological solution that balances everybody’s needs and works now, within the allowed time and budget.

The presence of non-IT people is a strong indicator that you are in a moment of the second kind. Reminding yourself that their problems, not yours, are what justifies your paycheck is a smart way to develop a new attitude. And I said you’re the smart one, remember?

So, basically, nothing prevents you from behaving better (for the rest of the company and for your career), other than your ingrained habit to do otherwise.

Remember, your boss will invariably be a person who masters moments of the second kind. He may, as a bonus, master moments of the first kind, too, but that will never be part of his job description.

next: Floating Tips for Emerging CIOs


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