What It's Like To...Bear Witness to IT History

Former CIO for Scott Paper, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and (briefly) the FBI, Darwin A. John is considered one of the first people ever to be called a CIO.

It would be easy for me to trace the 38 years I've spent in the IT industry by talking about technology.

After all, it's been a remarkable four decades of innovation, filled with dozens of revolutions: from punch cards that stored bits of data per inch to 24/7 real-time computing capable of transmitting billions of bits in a second; from a computer that filled a room to an equally powerful one that fits in your shirt pocket; from accurately calculating sums to accurately modeling genes.

But to focus on that would be to admire the frieze that adorns a great room and forget about the room. Far more fascinating to me than the change in technology is the change in us.

We CIOs have evolved. Our job has always been to talk about what's possible. But once upon a time, it was a bottom-up phenomenon, driven by users asking how to use the technology we provided them. Today, that has flipped to a top-down job wherein we counsel the executives above us who need to know, What's possible with technology?

You could argue either that we pushed this change along or that we got dragged. Most of us, I think, were dragged. But we've learned. CIOs have started looking at data in context, and asking, What's the mission of the enterprise? What are the core processes? What's in place to do that mission? And what are the metrics to show I'm successful?

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We are, in short, mostly aligned.

But I see another change coming. For a long time, we thought that more information was inherently better. But some of us have gone too far. We spend too much time in front of the screen. Because a spreadsheet allows us to model a budget a million times before we make a decision, we assume that we should do that.

This approach is flawed, and it will end. We are business executives now, not technologists.

When I look at my 38 years in technology, I think that most of my successes ultimately came from two lessons I learned growing up on a farm: One, you contribute to make a difference in the world; and two, you continually learn and grow. There's no such thing as a steady state with knowledge or with crops or humans. You are always either progressing or regressing.

And then I think about IT. There is no profession in the last 40 years that has provided more opportunity to make a difference. No discipline that would have allowed me to learn more.

It's been a real ride.

—As told to Scott Berinato

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Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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