by Christopher C. Barron

Why every CIO needs to be a hands-on leader to succeed

Dec 20, 2016
CIOIT Leadership

In previous years, a hands-on designation meant practitioner, not leader. In not understanding how to embrace more direct participation, CIOs fear being branded as tactical. Yet hands-on IT executives are now getting the choice career opportunities.

For CIOs, the struggle to gain organizational respect and parity with other CXOs has always been real. In the past, one way that IT executives knew they had “made the grade” was to be considered strategic. In other words, the transition from working on computers, banging out code, and answering tickets to sitting as a member of the senior leadership team showed the outside world that a person had achieved the ultimate career success.

But just as CIOs started to settle into the corner office, the world changed. Computers were no longer mysterious devices that took specially trained experts to use. Beginning in about 2011, technology of all types started to rapidly migrate into all aspects of companies and into the hands of every employee.

The consumerization of IT

Most Baby Boomers and even some Gen X’ers can remember when computers were nowhere to be found in a corporate office. In the early 1990s, the first ubiquitous Internet access brought email and web services into the business environment. Next came enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and other large scale software applications. Still, these systems were hardly user friendly, and the backend data centers stuffed with blinking boxes were, to most, just huge money pits.

It wasn’t until IT started to become personal and accessible that the role of IT started to change. Although hard to believe, it was video game consoles like the Xbox and Playstation models that first introduced the public to the science of IT. Although focused on entertainment, to make them work people had to learn about networking, hardware installation and support, application maintenance, and helpdesk principles. Shortly thereafter in the corporate environment, the advent of first smartphones, followed by tablets, and finally computer virtualization allowed non-IT workers to become completely comfortable with using and managing technology.

With the lines blurred between personal and professional use of IT, companies of all types could see how IT was directly applicable to business performance.

Today, examples such as the way Uber has completely upended the global market for cabs and how Netflix has helped destroy the traditional model for cinematic and small screen entertainment shows just how quickly IT can enable change on a massive scale.

As the tools change, so must the leaders

As a CIO, try to imagine conducting a survey of all the ways your business customers use technology today. No matter the actual answers, you would find that almost all of the respondents are very capable in the use of IT in ways they couldn’t have imagined 15 years ago. With that being the case, how then could you as the senior-most technology leader in your company justify being 100 percent strategic? The CIO who has no practical experience with the technologies she manages is actually less technically capable than her customers. If this is the true, the customers will know and the CIO’s credibility will suffer.

So, if the CIO must be hands-on, where is the best place to start? The answer brings us to the first area of opportunity.

Start with the basics

It is natural to overlook desktop infrastructure because for over 10 years, few people in business have consider it strategic. Yet, the desktop environment, now referred to as the “user experience”, has been changing drastically. Vendors like Citrix, VMWare, and MobileIron have been creating virtual desktops for over five years. Unlike the past where a physical computer was required to power an employee’s desktop, these solutions emulate it to the point that it appears to be local, although it is actually on a server someplace distant from the user. These new technologies have made managing the desktop an exercise in application provisioning. Now, Amazon Web Services has gone even farther by creating a wholly cloud-based approach to providing desktops, going so far as to coin a new term – Desktop as a Service (DaaS).

Establishing and managing the user experience has completely changed in just a few years. A senior IT leader would be well-served to become an expert in these new technologies. It’s a great way to show a dedication to hands-on expertise without the need to become a helpdesk technician.

Deconstruct the past to build the future

If you looked at the job descriptions and expectations for CIOs of the past, almost all of them required the incumbent to be a master builder. A person had to know how build and manage data centers, buy hardware – large and small, and be a virtuoso of disaster and business continuity plans. Today, the cost savings, let alone the flexibility, of utilizing cloud resources for almost everything is just too hard to ignore. While vexing to consider for veteran CIOs, the epic of building physical empires within IT has passed. But this change represents a tremendous opportunity for even the most strategic IT leader to get into the trenches in a meaningful way. By going through data centers, CIOs can be on the frontlines of shutting them down. Who better to lead, firsthand, the migration into the cloud of an entire physical data center than the very person that was responsible for building it? Not only is the decommissioning of a data center a great way for a CIO to provide tactical value, it is also a shining example of the ability to cut costs in a major way without sacrificing service.

Win the game before it starts

There is another way for a CIO to create big, tactical wins without ever laying hands on a single piece of equipment. The advent of the cloud era offers so much, but only if you know how to use it. Whether the goal is to virtualize storage, move on premise systems to a SaaS model, or reduce the size and scope of infrastructure, it all begins with a contract. All the major cloud vendors already have their systems in place. This means that they have committed their own investment dollars to hardware and software hoping that you, the customer, will choose to spend with them. When you come to the bargaining table, this fact gives you tremendous leverage. The vendor is already committed; you are not. Knowing that the person sitting across from you at the negotiation table is being pressured to sell a “good” already manufactured gives you an advantage. That is, if you can recognize the situation and your position in it.

A CIO, by becoming a master negotiator, can take a first-hand approach in assuring that his company is successful by securing the best possible deals before any action ever takes place. Ensuring that all contracts executed have the most favorable terms possible in this new era of cloud computing is an incredibly valuable avenue for a CIO to provide hands-on value.

The most successful CIOs of the next 10 years will be those people who can provide true, hands-on value to their companies. There will be many ways to achieve this success and these three approaches will help you get off to a great start.