You look at your to-do list and everything seems hard and insanely long-term. Create a five-year strategic plan. Map out the skills your IT organization will need over the next 36 months. Sign that seven-year outsourcing deal.
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6 Quick Projects for IT Career Advancement
It’s okay. You can admit it. Sometimes it can get a little…overwhelming.
Then there’s your schedule. Project updates. Executive team meetings. Vendor visits.
Tête-à-têtes with direct reports. E-mail. Presentations. There’s just no time to breathe.
The thought that you could possibly fit in anything else seems downright laughable.
What you need is a 20-minute miracle.
Of course, most big transformations take a while, but not all changes require a military
campaign. There are things you can do in just one-third of an hour that can have a
meaningful and, yes, even a long-term, positive effect on your life, your job and your
enterprise. You could call a customer; you could downsize (and revolutionize) your weekly
meetings; you could try out some Google Apps. We’ve gathered 20 of the best ideas we could
find: quick yet effective tactics that can improve the IT organization, boost your career,
add to your technology knowledge, sharpen your management skills and enhance your
relationship with the business.
Now all you have to do is free up that first 20 minutes to read this article.
Let us know how these work out for you. And tell us about your own ideas for how to
accomplish change in 20-minute doses.
This could be the start of something…short.
1. Counterintelligence 101
Grab the annual 10-K reports that your top competitors have filed with the Securities and
Exchange Commission and read the section called “Management’s Discussion and Analysis.”
That’s where the CEO (through corporate lawyers) describes what happened to the company in
the past year, good and bad.
By scanning that material, you can immediately get a better understanding of the
competition, says Mary Lacity, professor of information systems at the University of
“CIOs need to enable business strategies and the CIOs’ bosses will certainly be developing
strategies vis-a-vis their competitors,” Lacity notes.
To buttress what should be an ongoing campaign to elevate your IT work in the eyes of your
fellow execs, check out how your top competitors position IT. UPS’s latest 10-K mentions
technology 32 times. Target, Kohl’s, Citigroup and Blockbuster are also known for tech talk
in these annual reports.
Also, says Lacity, note whether rivals’ technology leaders are part of the senior executive
team. “If most competitors have their CIO reporting to the CEO,” she says, “that might be
ammunition for a more prominent role for you.”
-Kim S. Nash
2. The Mini-Meeting
If singles have figured out a way to condense that painful first date into
eight minutes of
intense communication, why not try the same thing with your IT meetings?
Sit down right now and reschedule all your internal IT meetings for just 20 minutes. If
that’s too radical, do it for the get-togethers happening this week. Or, if you’re feeling
especially powerful, try it for your interdepartmental meetings.
“There’s only about 15 minutes to 30 minutes of true productivity in most meetings, even
though meetings are typically set up for an hour,” says Michael Hites, CIO of New Mexico
State University, who once placed a 30-minute limit on all meetings. “The idea is that it
forces you and your meeting buddies to prepare and focus.” Hites found that shorter meetings
were more effective and left more time to actually accomplish things.
If you like that idea, consider this even more sweeping suggestion from Direct Energy CIO
Kumud Kalia: Cancel all recurring meetings with your subordinate staff. “Ask them to come to
you with major issues, not every little decision,” Kalia advises.
3. Business Intelligence 201
Take your own company’s 10-K and pay attention to the bad stuff that happened in the past
year. Think about how technology affects such events, then figure out what you can do about
For example, in its latest 10-K, Owens Corning, the $6.5 billion maker of construction
materials, talks about how the decline in U.S. home building hurt sales. Could better
business intelligence have predicted how steeply new construction would fall and have helped
Think also about how IT can mitigate the scary possibilities cited in the “risk factors”
section. Blockbuster notes in its latest 10-K that consolidation in the movie rental
industry looms and that some video stores will be forced to close. “If we are unable to
capitalize on the store closings of our competitors,” the $5.5 billion company’s report
says, “we may be unable to grow our market share and our financial results may be adversely
affected.” You can bet Blockbuster’s new CIO, Keith Morrow, is thinking about how he can
help the company profit from competitor losses.
This 20-minute exercise educates you about the central business issues that your company
faces and fights, and what matters to Wall Street. Remember that what Wall Street thinks
about your company affects your future and your paycheck.
4. Your Vendor, Revealed
Ask your most important tech vendors to conduct an assessment of their relationship with
your organization. “This requires minimal effort on the part of the CIO,” says Chris
Pattacini, vice president of outsourcing consultancy Nautilus Advisors, “but it can pay big
Of course, there’s a catch. Vendors might not be as honest as you’d like for fear the
information could be used against them in future negotiations. Put the vendor reps at ease
and make sure to invite them to rate not only their organization’s efforts but yours as
well. “The assessment can spark a great dialogue about innovation, relationship issues and
other below-the-radar opportunities for improvement,” says Pattacini.
To make sure the vendor representative follows through, give him an achievable goal and a
deadline. Ask him to share his top three ideas for improving the relationship at the next
client-vendor meeting, says Eugene Kublanov, CEO of globalization advisory firm NeoIT.
5. Self-Knowledge Is Power
Twenty minutes is a perfect amount of time for some good, honest introspection.
Gene Bedell, author of Three Steps to Yes: The Gentle Art of Getting Your Way and the
upcoming The Millionaire in the Mirror, promotes the merits of structured introspection.
“Sustained changes in behavior can lead to important improvements in things like career,
company, work-life balance,” says Bedell, a former IT leader at First Boston, among other
companies. “A period of serious self-analysis is a good place to start.”
Find a quiet room where you won’t be disturbed. Ask yourself if you’re working toward
something or just working. Do you want to be CIO of a Fortune 500 company? Do you want to
start a business? Zone in on your passion, says Bedell. “It doesn’t matter what you have
your sights set on, but they must be set on something,” he says. “If you don’t know where
you want to go, it’s unlikely you’ll succeed long-term.” This step should take five minutes.
If your goal is vague—grow, get promoted, make more money—spend the next five minutes
seeking specificity. Throw out modesty and uncertainty. Someone’s got to come up with the
next Google or become the new CIO of GE. Why not you?
The last 10 minutes will be the “10 minutes of truth,” says Bedell. Ask yourself what you’re
going to do when you leave this quiet spot in minute 21. Will whatever it is help you
achieve the goal you just set? Or will you be just getting a job done, earning a paycheck?
If it’s the latter, you’ve still learned something important: You need to change.
6. Call a Customer (Bonus Points If They’re Irate)
That’s right—volunteer to contact a real, live customer.
“Much of what IT is involved in directly impacts the business product and service and the
end consumer/customer,” says Jack J. Santos, CIO Executive Strategist at the Burton Group.
Reach out to your closest contact in sales, marketing or customer service. Ask for a
customer you can contact who’s been outspoken in the past. It wouldn’t hurt to pick a
high-value or highly visible customer. “A positive exchange could create great buzz
afterward which reaches other parts of the company,” says Santos. Want to really wow people?
Ask for an unsatisfied customer whose experience IT might have the power to turn around.
The definition of customer will depend on your business. A hospital CIO might talk to a
physician who’s dealing with electronic records management or, if the organization is
technologically sophisticated, a patient. Try a doc who doesn’t normally interact with IT or
a patient who has.
This dialogue keeps you in touch with the real customer experience, says Santos, and it
sends a message to the customer that the company cares. “It’s perceived [by the customer] as
astounding follow-up customer service.”
7. Life Without E-Mail
When it comes to personal communication strategies, IT workers usually follow their CIO’s
lead. So if the CIO is always forwarding e-mails, adding to the cc line, piling attachments
on top of attachments, IT staffers are sure to follow. Or, if the CIO displays greater
comfort messaging with her BlackBerry than in interacting with peers, staffers will model
To encourage more face-to-face interactions with internal and external customers, and to
fight e-mail overload, CIOs should spend 20 minutes explaining to their colleagues and IT
staffers why e-mail-
free Fridays (or any other day of the week) is a good idea. And here’s
why: Companies that swear by “say no to e-mail” days (or even half days) find that it leads
to more proactive decision making, better relations among coworkers and increased awareness
of customer needs. Instead of an e-mail, staffers will pick up a phone or even drop by a
customer or colleague in person.
Intel discovered that its employees were wasting six hours a week on e-mail. So a team has
been piloting a range of initiatives, one of which is “Zero e-mail Friday.” According to one
of the team leaders, Nathan Zeldes, the goal is to attack a “cube culture” in which
engineers, sometimes seated just a few feet from each other, rely on e-mail to exchange
ideas. (The pilot finished in February and the team is spending March collecting data,
interviewing users and drawing conclusions.) Other companies, such as Deloitte & Touche and
U.S. Cellular, report success switching off e-mail for periods such as weekends.
“All it takes,” says Zeldes, “is one manager to decide to do something about it.” What are
you waiting for?
8. Say Yes to Staff Training
In 20 minutes, you can authorize a budget line for training or, even more quickly and
inexpensively, send an e-mail to your staff to encourage them to pick up on something new.
And tell them they are expected to spend one day a month learning. Make it an official day
on everyone’s calendar.
“A lot of 9 to 5-ers out there don’t have the time or interest to expand their horizons,”
says Julie Lerman, a Vermont-based .Net software consultant who is active in the computer
user group community. In 20 minutes, you can take the first step to help those employees
find out what they’re missing and add critical skills to your organization.
One no-cost way to do this is to encourage participation in computer user group meetings and
industry associations. Lerman gives the example of some developers who attended a free, full
day MSDN (Microsoft Developer Network) training class, which showed off the new features in
Visual Studio 2008. “These guys’ eyes opened wide,” says Lerman. “So now their interest has
been piqued and it will be important for their managers to keep them looking for and wanting
9. And Who Are You?
An impromptu chat with someone on your staff can make that person nervous and can seem
contrived if you’re not in the habit of doing it. So get in the habit.
“Why are you wandering around?” asks Gerry McCartney, vice president of IT at Purdue
University. “Because that’s what a good boss does.”
Visits with employees let you gather intelligence about what’s going on in your
organization-as well as help you build relationships that make it more cohesive. “If you
believe that your people are the key to your success, building a personal connection is an
important piece of sustaining their commitment,” says Tom Murphy, senior vice president and
CIO with AmerisourceBergen. “It also gives you a view of organization realities that you
don’t necessarily get when dealing just with your direct reports.”
Just don’t ask, How’s it going? “Be specific,” advises Murphy. And whatever you say, make
sure you mean it. “People know if you’re genuinely interested in their opinions and
observations,” Murphy says.
McCartney lays the groundwork for conversations with employees by spending a few minutes
getting to know every new hire within his or her first two weeks on the job. “I think those
folks are more inclined to talk to me later because when we met [there] wasn’t a business
agenda,” he says. In fact, he makes it a point to engage employees in neutral situations,
such as at an office luncheon.
When he brings up work, McCartney asks his staff to suggest ways to make their jobs easier
and to make themselves more effective. They might not have much to say the first time, he
says. But if they get the idea that he’s approachable, they’ll feel more comfortable coming
to him when they do have something important to say.
10. Go for a Walk
You know walking is good for you. A regular, 20-minute jaunt can reduce your risk of heart
attack, keep your weight down and help you manage stress. We’re made for it, too. As James
A. Levine, a physician and researcher with the Mayo Clinic, writes in a recent issue of the
Mayo Clinic Proceedings, “Our bodies evolved to walk,” but in the modern world, “we have
forsaken our legs as a means of locomotion, work and leisure.”
Health experts advise walking at least 30 minutes a day, but “20 minutes is better than
nothing,” says Maggie Miller, senior vice president and CIO with Warner Music Group.
Miller finds that a short run or a vigorous walk first thing in the morning helps her think
more clearly and creatively. She’ll also hit the pavement “when I’m mad about something.”
Her strategy: “Write the zinger e-mail and park it in my drafts box to simmer while I go for
a walk in Central Park or, more likely, Riverside Park, which is quieter. By the time I get
back I’ll usually have worked out a way to deal with whatever the issue is in a much more
constructive and collaborative way.”
Now, get out of that chair.
11. Knock on a New Door
In order to create an IT organization that provides strategic value, you have to understand
how your business operates. “It always starts there,” says Michael Jones, CIO of the
National Marrow Donor Program. “I don’t mean how IT operates in the business context; I mean
how the business functions. What drives profit and revenue. What the business spends money
on. Who your customers are. What requirements each person has.” To find out, says Jones,
“you need to talk to a lot of people, from the C level down to the basement.”
Chances are you already check in regularly with a defined group of business executives. Why
not use your 20 minutes to venture into uncharted territory and visit someone new?
Don’t go in with an agenda. Leave the strategic plan behind. And for goodness’ sake, don’t
give a speech.
Have a conversation.
If the topic turns to business, ask questions. What’s his or her job like? What’s going
well? What’s not? What might make his or her job easier? Brian Tennant, CIO of Bethesda
Lutheran Homes and Services says a simple Whatcha workin’ on? can do the trick. “I ask
people what they’re doing and I gain a tremendous perspective on functions, roles, the work
people do and the challenges they face,” Tennant says.
If your new friend asks about you, keep it brief but keep it real. That’s what friends do.
12. Should You Stay or Should You Go Now?
Good leaders, like good captains, often think their job is to carry on no matter what, even
to the point of going down with a sinking ship. But sometimes the best thing to do is to
find a lifeboat and paddle to an inviting shore. “If you find the job no longer excites you,
it’s time to seek another,” says Steve Yates, KeyBank CIO. “When you find it grinding on
you, you’re done.”
It should take less than 20 minutes to see if you’ve passed the point of no return. Grab a
pen and a pad of paper (yes, do it the old-fashioned way; it’ll help ground you) and set a
timer for 10 or 15 minutes. (Hourglasses are optional, but recommended.) Draw a line down
the middle. On one side write the reasons you should stay; on the other, the reasons you
should go. If your go list is longer than your stay list, it’s time to go. Finding a new job
is no harder than showing up for a bad one, day in and day out.
“The CIO job is demanding,” Yates says. “You have to feel good about coming to work to be
able to handle all the twists and turns of politics, technology, organization change and
If you’ve burned out, your people will notice sooner or later, and it’ll only be a matter of
time before the decision of whether to sail for new shores is taken out of your hands.
13. What’s So Funny About Company Peace, Love and Understanding?
Many I.T. staffers don’t have a lot of interaction with other departments. By inviting the
head of finance (or marketing,
sales or HR) to give an informal 15-minute presentation at your next staff meeting, your IT
department can become familiar with the structure, needs, current initiatives and challenges
of other groups within the company.
There shouldn’t really be heavy lifting on either side, as department execs tend to have
canned presentations about their department and their current needs-presentations they often
give to the board of directors or within their own departments.
The benefit to participating execs: The better IT understands their world, the better IT
will be at servicing them, says Peter Kretzman, IT executive and author of CIO/CTO
“These presentations may be the only structured opportunity that a lot of people in IT have
been given to learn and ask questions about other company areas,” says Kretzman. “Through
these sessions, the exec in charge of those areas becomes more than just a name and a face,
and real understanding and positive working relationships tend to ensue.” He adds that it’s
often a reciprocal arrangement, one that offers a huge opportunity to evangelize what IT
does and why.
14. Set Up a Facebook Account
Maybe you don’t like Facebook. Maybe you think it’s for kids.
But maybe you’re wrong and by being wrong you may be missing out on an opportunity to learn
a little something about social networking. After all, with 64 million users, Facebook is
the fastest-growing social network on the Web. The company claims that its over-25
demographic has grown the most rapidly. So take 20 minutes and set up an account.
Mark A. Lappin, director of IT for Lee Michaels Fine Jewelry-which owns eight retail shops
in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi-has maintained an account since the site opened in 2004.
“We don’t allow access at work,” says Lappin, “but [my] people use it on their own time at
Lappin believes CIOs can learn from Facebook in order to build successful social network
equivalents for employees behind the corporate firewall. “That,” he says, “is a goal on our
intranet down the line.”
15. Encrypt Now or Regret It Later
When an employee or contractor loses a notebook PC and it turns into a data breach and PR
nightmare, what are you going to say when your CEO asks why you hadn’t encrypted the
company’s notebooks? That won’t be fun. So start investigating encryption options.
“A lost PC without encryption is truly getting caught with your pants down,” says Forrester
Research senior analyst Natalie Lambert. “However, you would be surprised at the number of
businesses that have not encrypted their mobile devices.”
Price used to be a concern, but encryption technology has become practically a commodity
item, Lambert says. For advice from CIOs who have encrypted their mobile fleets, see “How to Lock Up Laptop Security.”
16. What Users Want
Are you sure you’re making the right IT investments? Here’s a novel idea: Why not ask?
According to David Hatch, research director at consultancy Aberdeen Group, IT management
spends way too much time researching the latest technologies and virtually no time asking
users what they want. There’s a huge disconnect between strategic thinking at the senior
management level and real-world usage and adoption among end users, he says. That’s why
Hatch recommends taking 20 minutes to conduct an informal, anonymous e-mail survey of all
company employees that asks the following questions:
- Which of our apps are most useful to you? Why? (Be sure to provide a list.)
- What app is so critical that you simply couldn’t do your job without it?
- Which app don’t you use at all?
- Which app causes you the most problems?
- What new business application or capability, currently not provided, would instantly
make your job easier and improve your performance?
17. The Kids Are Real Smart
Sure, your seasoned vets have great ideas but why not shake things up and ask the kids on
your staff to come up with ideas to improve efficiency, quality or the workplace?
Organizational newbies can have a unique perspective, says NeoIT’s CEO Eugene Kublanov, but
they’re rarely tapped effectively.
C-level executives rarely solicit or hear the ideas of their junior team members, says
Kublanov. And that’s a waste of a valuable resource. “Many technologies that started in the
consumer or peer-to-peer world, such as mobile technologies, video games and wikis, are
making their way into the business realm,” Kublanov points out. “Who better to provide input
on how to apply these technologies to make business more effective than those for whom using
these tools is second nature?”
Of course, you don’t want to look like you’re going around the chain of command to solicit
the input, so keep it casual, says Kublanov. Try something like, “Hey, I’d like to get your
thoughts on how we might improve efficiency in the organization. Think about it and get back
to me with your top three ideas by next Friday.”
This isn’t pie-in-the-sky, do-gooder, morale-boosting theory. Kublanov and his clients have
put it into practice successfully. “Some of the outcomes have included leveraging wiki tools
as a more effective knowledge management system, distributing training videos on iPods and
using social networking tools to create internal knowledge hubs,” Kublanov says.
Reward your young innovators by involving them in the implementation of their ideas. And “it
never hurts to recognize the person for the idea in a group setting,” says Kublanov. And a
simple thanks from the boss goes a long way, too.
18. Does Your Vendor “Get” You?
Sharing your strategic plan with your vendors can help both of you. Maybe your plan relies
on products that are going end of life. Wouldn’t that be good to know? Maybe there are
products in the pipeline that can better meet your future needs. How would you know that?
First, invite your strategic vendors to an IT strategic plan presentation and allow time for
a Q&A. Stephen Guth, executive director of the Vendor Management Office at the National
Rural Electric Cooperative Association, says limiting the number of representatives from
each vendor and targeting the key players, such as the account executive, his or her manager
and an executive representative, is important. And the strategic plan should not be e-mailed
or handed out to vendors; they may not read it, and copies are difficult to control.
“Having a roomful of vendors listen to an IT strategic plan presentation, even when there is
no product or service overlap,” says Guth, “creates a sense of competition.”
All of them competing to help you. How can you beat that?
19. iPhone Fun
Hugh Scott, VP of IS at Direct Energy, has a team that supports some 500 smartphones, all
BlackBerrys. But at home, he’s an iPhone convert.
Why? Scott believes it offers lessons for IT people regardless of their chosen mobile
“The first thing is the sheer usability of the product,” Scott says. “You don’t even get a
user manual with it. You can just figure out how it works. That’s quite an important lesson
Scott also says that Apple extended that usability well beyond the user interface, a fact
that became clear when he activated his iPhone for the first time. “I had all my personal
e-mail accounts on my [Apple notebook]. And after I set up [the iPhone], all of my e-mail
accounts had all been set up. I was used to having to set up the POP [mail] address myself.
But this thing figured it out on its own.” And users will come to expect the same kind of
ease from the technology they find at the office.
Even with its advantages, Scott says he has no plans to migrate employees from the
BlackBerry’s secure, enterprise-tested RIM platform. But while he’s not yet moving his
corporate budget to the iPhone, his home budget is another story.
“This Christmas I bought my wife an iPhone,” Scott says. “We’re a two iPhone family now.”
20. Take a Google Test Drive
Okay, so it might be another decade before you use a productivity suite other than Microsoft
Office. But if you’re tired of paying the licensing fee for workers who use just a few
Office features, it’s worth taking a peek at the consumer version of Google Apps.
By default, when you start a Gmail account, you have Google Apps. Try the docs &
spreadsheets, calendar and Gmail chat functions and you might find the lightweight tools to
be pretty helpful. Rebecca Wettemann, an analyst with Nucleus Research, says CIOs should
have a Google Apps account if only to show their users that they know what’s going on in the
consumer space. “It can be a great way to gain credibility with a user base that sometimes
sees IT as being all about servers and storage and not about software innovation,” she says.
For only $50 per user per year for an enterprise version of Google Apps with Postini
security for e-mail, you might find it a compelling option for “nonpower users” of
“As Google Apps’ functionality grows, CIOs may want to consider migrating some users from
Microsoft Office to Google Apps and showing the CFO a nice return on investment,” Wettemann