by Jerry Gregoire

CIO OBSERVER – Life Among the Seriously Bored

Jun 01, 20027 mins

I’M A MEMBER IN GOOD STANDING of the Rolodex Club. Here’s how you can tell if you are a member. The phone rings, and there’s a recruiter on the line. You know how the call goes.

Some “forward-thinking” company headquartered in the coldest, grayest city in the continental United States is hell-bent on dominating the world market in edible oils and is convinced (at long last) that technology is the answer. Top management wants a world-class, high-profile CIO, and though the position won’t report to the CEO, there’ll be plenty of direct contact. The compensation package is “competitive” but varies depending on the candidate, and there is the possibility of an IPO some time in the future, should the owner and all his heirs suddenly die at the same time. They are wondering if you have any suggestions for candidates for a position like this.

You know this is championship twaddle, of course. No one is interested in your suggestions; they already know far more CIOs than you do. They want to know if you are interested, if you are feeling insecure or restless or bored enough to apply your estimable talents to the sweet science of deep-fat frying.

Are you bored? Be honest. Most of the CIOs I’ve talked to in the past year (some of the best in the profession) tell me they’re terribly bored right now. I’ve listened to a few theories on why that is; most have to do with reduced budgets or Y2K being finished or the e-commerce slowdown. But I think the problem actually runs deeper than that. First of all, after the first three to five years, any CIO worth his salt will have blown through most of the meaningful systems issues and problems, and will be thrashing around looking for bigger challenges. And if there aren’t any where he is, surely big challenges can be found elsewhere.

To digress a moment, this is where the old adage “never be the replacement for a successful CIO” really comes from. Sure, it’s hard to follow a great act, but who wants to inherit a department or systems environment with no big problems?

I used to think there was something wrong with CIOs who changed jobs every few years. I imagined they must be incompetent, impossible to get along with or worse. To be sure, this is absolutely true in a small percentage of cases, but it’s not true most of the time.

CIOs, like many other creative types, come in two very different yet equally valuable flavors. The methodical plodder/caretaker type is happy to operate over the long haul, building slowly, improving incrementally and maintaining a stable base for the company to operate on. The more common type might best be described as the change agent/risk taker?that fearless, high-energy character with a mild case of attention deficit disorder who is brought in to incite action or rescue a department or project. This second type will show up in a new job, fix the problems (or hit the brick wall that was specially erected to make sure that nobody could fix the problems) and immediately get restless when the job shifts to maintenance. The same attributes that make this type of CIO effective fixing big problems also tend to make them short-timers and, incidentally, an inevitable source of irritation to the company they work for.

If you’ve been in the same CIO job for 10 or so years and you’re not bored, you’re either an extraordinary person or lucky enough to be in extraordinary circumstances. Either way, you’ve successfully conquered one of the most daunting challenges of any successful career. If, on the other hand, you find that you’re bored, not only are you in good company, but it probably says some very positive things about you personally.

The Laws of Entropy

The second cause of epidemic boredom is clearly more destructive and intractable. There was a time when a new technology or tool could break down into thousands of new processes, products, services and applications. The advent of PCs and DOS and networks forced us to rethink applications, architectures and development methodologies. The Internet challenged us to break through the walls of our companies and reach directly into the frontal lobes of our customers. While chaos has no place in the application of IT, it’s a necessary component in creating new solutions. That seems to be missing these days.

If you take a look around, what you see now is a whole lotta nothin’. Most of the time, money and marketing are spent simply to dress up assorted swine with bangles like wireless, broadband and (too little, too late) security. Much of the dull sameness has been brought on by our fealty to Microsoft (need I say more), our dependence on canned goods like ERP and CRM (which have made the notion of substantive differentiation among competitors a thing of the past), and finally (weirdly), recruiters and recruiting practices in general.

The social critic, poet and novelist Paul Goodman once wrote, “Few great men could pass Personnel.” I have to wonder whether the sameness we see among IT organizations, the solutions they develop and the way they develop them isn’t in some way tied to the sameness we see among the members of the Rolodex Club. Clubs, after all, imply commonality. The two most important qualifications for membership are a good rŽsumŽ and the promise that you won’t embarrass the recruiter who sent you. A very successful recruiter friend of mine told me recently that he operates on a three-strikes rule. No matter how qualified the candidate, if she doesn’t get a job after he’s sent her on three interviews, she’s dropped from his list forever.

Wear a decent suit, speak in complete sentences, and don’t scare the client by expressing your desire to build rather than buy or to experiment with original ideas.

Like it or not, the ability to serve up candidates who make a good first impression is how recruiters are measured and ultimately rewarded. This natural tendency to pay more attention to marketing than substance, in case you were wondering, helps explain why so many incompetent, insane CIOs keep landing good jobs after being fired from the previous five.

So what’s the answer to this boredom problem? I’m not sure. What I do know is that while the causes may be global, the solutions will have to be local. The cure for boredom may not be doing the obvious thing (changing jobs, for example); instead, why not use the fact that you may not want (or be able) to keep your current job much longer as license to take some risks? Conceive an unimaginably risky project with astronomical returns, and build it from scratch. When they tell you you can’t have the money, build it anyway. Shut down an ERP implementation and build a unique solution that will set your company apart. Charter a skunk works with no particular goal in mind. Set aside an hour each day to do the things that attracted you to IT in the first place, like writing or designing applications.

Could this stuff get you fired? Maybe.

But don’t sweat it. You’re in the Rolodex Club.