Print Hed: Running Your Own Technology Company
How many times have you thought, after listening to an awful technology vendor presentation
or watching your software partner miss deadline after deadline, “If I ran that company,
things would be different.”
It may be time to act on that impulse—if you have the right background and a good deal
of drive. CIOs who want to run the show as CEO are finding that technology companies are a
natural fit. As longtime customers of IT vendors, they know the products and the development
process, they know the business—from the customer view—and they’ve sat through
enough presentations to know how (or how not) to sell. And if they’ve been networking with
their peers, they should have a good customer target list as well.
These experiences are your price of entry to running a technology company. But as three CIOs
who followed this path explain below, you must also decide that this is your career goal and
set in place a strategy to make it happen.
Get Cross-Functional Experience
“In 1985, I had an epiphany,” says Mike Kistner, CEO of Pegasus Solutions, a provider of
reservation and distribution technology, and financial and marketing services in the
hospitality industry. “I was a senior developer at Super 8 Motels working on a general
ledger program, and I realized that the date fields had two digits. I thought, ‘this will be
a nightmare in 2000’ and I vowed to get out of IT before Y2K.”
This epiphany led to another one for Kistner—that the pursuit of management roles
outside of IT could be a critical step on the road to CEO, if he managed his career
correctly. Kistner began to build relationships that would pave the way into new areas of
the business. As Super 8 was acquired by HFS and then by Cendant, Kistner kept a hand in IT
but he also accrued cross-functional leadership experience. At different times, he held
responsibility for IT, reservations, guest services, convention planning and other
During his tenure from 2000 to 2005 at Best Western, he led IT but picked up distribution as
well. In 2005, he joined Pegasus Solutions as VP of operations and technology, and then
became CEO in June 2008.
His advice: “If your goal is to run a company, you need to get out of IT and into other
parts of the business. My old boss, David McNicholas [former CIO of Avis] used to say, ‘To a
man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’ You need to put down the IT hammer once in
a while and pick up tools from other parts of the business.”
Fill in Your Skills Gaps
Sean O’Neill is CEO of Newmarket International, a sales and catering solutions provider for
the hospitality industry. He was the CIO of ITT Sheraton when he realized that he wanted to
broaden his aspirations. “I was creating a ceiling for myself as CIO. I wanted to have
broader influence over decision making and decided to pursue a different path.”
During interviews with his next employer, travel vendor Grand Circle, O’Neill talked about
“how we had transformed information technology at ITT Sheraton into a business function that
was integrated with the business. They knew that while I was coming to them as a CIO, my
motivation was to be on the business side.”
Grand Circle hired O’Neill as a CIO with the understanding that he would soon add EVP of
operations to his role. Several years later, in 2001, he joined Newmarket as CEO. “I chose a
technology provider strategically,” says O’Neill. “I wanted to stay close to what I knew
best. I had the experience of being a consumer of these products and could get up to speed
His advice: “Become a student of the skill sets required to run a business,” says O’Neill.
“As CIO, you have access to a wide variety of leaders both inside your company and out.
Interact with those people and start to understand where the gaps are in your own skills.”
He found, for example, that while he had a good grasp of functions like accounting, human
resources and sales, he needed a better understanding of the financials. “I would risk
looking like someone who doesn’t get it by raising my hand in a meeting and asking, ‘Why did
we use this debt structure?'” he says. “I would anticipate my next meeting with our CFO and
Engage Your Customers
In 2006, Trent Gavazzi was a business-line CIO with the capital markets division of the Bank
of Montreal in the U.S. He was implementing risk and compliance systems and realized that he
had no way of providing executives with a way to monitor systems and be alerted to urgent
events. Gavazzi started looking in the marketplace for what he needed but found that there
was no solution that fit his problem.
He started floating the idea of a risk-monitoring system to people in his professional
networks and received enough enthusiasm that in 2008 he launched QuickWaters Software, a
consolidated risk management alert software provider. Having come from a family of
entrepreneurs, Gavazzi knew he would wind up launching a business at some point, but found
that his CIO background was critical for this venture.
“My CIO background helped me reduce the barriers to entry,” says Gavazzi. “I knew all of the
hot buttons of a large financial services organization and what slows down projects. My
years of installing systems taught me to reduce the complexity of the product and do the
right documentation up front. As a CIO-turned-CEO, you have to learn from the way you
tortured your vendors so that you don’t make the same mistakes they made,” he says.
His advice: “Running your own software company is not for everybody. You have got to be able
to engage your network, to let people know what you’re doing, and to be passionate and
believable and creative about how you get attention.
When you are the CIO, people are
calling you. When you’re running a software company, you are the one making the calls.”