by Stewart Deck

Interview: Allan Ditchfield on a CIO’s Career

Mar 01, 20013 mins

Thirty years after a tour of duty in the U.S. Navy, Allan Ditchfield still stands yardstick straight and speaks with authority. Now an independent systems consultant and director of two Internet startups, he served as acting CEO at Allenbrook, an insurance software company in Lowell, Mass., after seven years as CIO at Cleveland-based Progressive Insurance. Before that he was senior vice president of systems engineering at MCI. Ditchfield recently wrote a speech he calls “What I Wish I Knew Earlier in My CIO Career” and shared some of his thoughts with CIO.

CIO: What are some lessons experience has taught you that you can now pass along?

Ditchfield: First, project management is vital. I didn’t learn this early on, but it is perhaps the most important. In the past, I didn’t plan things well and left out major work elements. I once built a billing system with microfiche output but forgot to include the microfiche readers. If you’ve done a reasonably comprehensive plan from your side and from the user side, something like that will stick out. Be aware that managing change is crucial to good project management. Manage expectations so that people understand something may cost more or that you need to shorten functional lists. Do this for the project group and sometimes for the whole corporation so that people don’t say, “They always make promises, but they never deliver.”

What else have you learned?

People are important, especially the smart ones. Work hard to find employees with the right background, attitude, hunger and energy. Then challenge them while making sure you provide time for R&R too. Give tangible evidence that indicates you believe people are an important resource. When building teams, start small. With the right energy a small team can either solve a problem or get more resources, while too-large teams flounder. Next, some “important” subjects waste disproportionate time. Long discussions about overarching goals or vision statements won’t necessarily give you a lot back. I’ve also learned to be careful with high-tech fads. The press and all of us technologists love fads (like the latest PDA), but they can have real productivity and cost problems.

So, what advice do you give CIOs?

Plan and manage expectations. Initiate and accept business challenges. Think before pioneering with new technology, because pioneering can be expensive. Borrow ideas from anywhere, including competitors. Finally, keep your integrity; be open and fully disclose everything in advance?lunches with vendors, honoraria, trips, everything. Being forthright is always the best way to operate.