Looking Back: The Growth of the CIO Role and IT Value

From green screens to flat screens; from a desk in the basement to a seat in the boardroom. Twenty years in review.

It was the best of times. And then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t.

“We had just gotten over Y2K. And the dotcom boom and bust. And then came...the disillusionment,” recalls John Doucette, CIO of United Technologies. “It was a depressing couple of years to be in IT,” says Doucette, who took over the high-tech and aerospace conglomerate’s IT helm in 2000. “There wasn’t that much innovation in software and hardware. Security wasn’t there. People weren’t focused on the business.” And CIOs, who had surfed so high on the frothy Internet-driven economic waves of the late 1990s, had come crashing back to earth.

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Hard.

In boardrooms across the country, the CIO’s budget, technology investments and basic worth were being questioned. The value of IT had become a topic for debate. Every system, every application, every IT project once labeled mission-critical was put under the microscope and, in many cases, found wanting. And too expensive. Business’s guiding principle—“We can’t do anything without IT”—quickly became “How much can we do without IT?”

It was the end of 2001, and CIOs were facing a backlash.

“At times, it was a very frustrating job,” admits Doucette, who this month was inducted into the CIO Hall of Fame. “You had to be good just to survive.”

Many CIOs did not. The oft-cited (and now outdated) 18- to 24-month “average” tenure for CIOs gained currency during this period and was taken as gospel within the business ranks and in the halls of academia.

According to Laurie Orlov, a VP and principal analyst at Forrester Research who’s followed the IT industry for decades, the deep and widespread dissatisfaction with enterprise IT in the early part of this century was the product of a perfect storm. Y2K turned out to be a nonevent; the dotcom bust and financial recession hit IT hard, and the emergence of outsourcing, and then offshoring, undercut IT’s organizational ability to take advantage of new Web-enabled technologies because it had thinned out the ranks of its programming and application development staffs. If Doucette calls it a time of disillusionment, Orlov refers to it as the “disappointing era.”

For those CIOs and companies who chased IT opportunities that had no clear relation to business value during the dotcom era of irrational IT optimism, says HP CIO Randy Mott, “there was credibility lost.”

CIOs were down but not out. The survivors knew that IT’s promise, the potential for delivering value using new technologies, Web-based applications and services, and faster and cheaper hardware, was not just wishful thinking and baseless enthusiasm. It could and eventually would be a reality.

It just was going to take a little more time to come to fruition. “The hype and expectations of 1999,” Doucette concludes, “is reality today.”

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