by CIO Staff

A Grand Delusion of Adequacy: In Praise of CIOs

Jan 15, 20026 mins

It’s interesting only to me, I suppose, that this column marks my second anniversary writing as Anonymous for CIO Confidential. This month’s contribution also happens to be my last. Put together, the 20-some columns have been one long cathartic rant, devilishly challenging and, thanks to a steady supply of ineptitude and general nonsense to rant about, terrific fun.

I’m told that CIO Confidential will go into mothballs for a while as the editors search for a new Anonymous. I highly recommend the job, although the pay is terrible.

Wrapping the column up turned out to be tougher than I could have imagined. You try making sense of all of the changes we’ve been through in the past two years. Try making sense of the past four months! Sept. 11 proved, once again, that difficult times bring out the best in individuals and organizations. That’s a darn good thing because after the blistering run-up of the past five years things have gotten pretty difficult.

In planning this last column, there was some discussion about finally revealing who Anonymous was. I’ve decided not to do that because it doesn’t really matter.

The fine print at the bottom of this column used to mention that I’m the has-been CIO of some pretty big companies. It very kindly doesn’t mention that I’m permanently burned out and without even enough cachet left to get the occasional speaking gig. These days I do mostly the less glamorous varieties of ranch work like digging postholes and fixing machinery alongside better, tougher men. After 25-plus years in IT, it’s pure heaven.

For the senior executives I used to hang out with, work is more about identity than cash, and although they’d never admit it, they would consider what my coworkers and I do now as pretty meaningless stuff. Perhaps it is, but it’s been a long time since work has given me this kind of peace and satisfaction (my programming days, in fact). Every hour is devoted to the project at hand; every day yields progress we can see and touch. That is why chief information officer is no job for an information technology mechanic?someone who loves and understands the science, the art and the machinery. And yet, those are essential qualifications for the job. Anyone else who would assume the CIO role is an empty suit, a pretender.

We all take on our first CIO job suffering a grand delusion of adequacy. Some of us grow into the job, and others don’t. After you do it for a while, you start to see the world through a much narrower lens than you used to, one that has no aperture for the small but very real bits of creativity that may not fit into the master plan. Pretty soon, the perks and dangers of influence, the uneasy interface between personal loyalties and career take their toll, and you begin to cut corners without even realizing it. Canned software seems less risky, hence more attractive, than creating uniquely advantaged solutions, and no one remembers why or how we got there.

An old boss of mine once told me that avoiding boredom is one of the most daunting challenges of a successful career. The CIO job had become a bore. I resigned.

The Tao of Pete

Pete, an old friend I hadn’t seen or heard from in 18 years, called me last week. It had to have been the most entertaining hour and a half I’ve spent in a long time. Pete and I joined the same slightly disreputable fraternity in college, roomed together for a while and did our best to stay close after graduation. Unfortunately, careers and family obligations demote most long-distance friendships to extravagant distractions. He and I graduated during one of those recessions when careers were pretty hard to find and about the only coat-and-tie job for the taking was selling.

Pete started out selling ladies ready-to-wear clothing from a rack of samples in the back of his car. That meant thin commissions and long hours behind the wheel between remote towns with struggling economies. The guy who had the territory before him went bankrupt buying gasoline and fast food, but not Pete. I asked him once how he managed to do it, how he got up every morning, especially when things weren’t going well. “When sales were good and things were cookin’,” he said, “I’d eat gas station sandwiches and look for the cheapest room I could find. When things weren’t going well or the product wasn’t moving, I made sure I ate steak and stayed at the best hotel in town.”

I imagine that if Pete were a CIO today he’d be pitching the biggest, most extravagant project anybody’s ever heard of.

Pete is an exceptional guy.

In Praise of CIOs

People who can design software, architect and tune networks, and make computers do tricks are an exceptional bunch. That goes double for the ones who can understand it all well enough to put them together into useful systems. Even more exceptional are the few with the vision to see them arranged in unusual combinations and for new and profitable uses.

We promote the best of the best at these particular skills… which is fine, except that when we go about the process of measuring their effectiveness or critiquing their personalities, we use the same tired yardstick we use for executives in less exceptional areas of the company. It’s short-circuiting the careers of some of this profession’s most talented people.

Very soon the economy and the technology industry will snap back. Based on what I’ve seen and read, the next generation of systems, particularly those built for the Internet, will be more adaptive, visual and polymorphic. In order for our organizations to thrive in this next wave, we’ve got to develop and hold on to CIOs and IT professionals who can do more than install this year’s version of McSoftware.

I’d like to thank CIO for this rare opportunity to spout off. I’d also like to thank my editor, Abbie Lundberg, for her endless patience, and everyone who took the time to e-mail me feedback on the column. My best wishes to you all. Your continued success is our success.