CIO Success

By Brian P. Watson  |  Posted 02-08-2010 Print Email

You've outlasted most of your CIO peers in terms of tenure. To what do you attribute your long standing there?

There are probably two things. The first is building a collaborative relationship with the business. It's getting involved with them on a day-to-day basis and having a relationship that allows them to call on you to help solve problems. The opportunity to participate with the business in their strategic planning is also important.

The other piece is around execution. A lot of CIOs get in trouble when they're not able to execute effectively on technology projects that enable the business. If you're going to be involved and work with the business, then they expect you to deliver on the things you've helped craft from a strategy standpoint. I've had the good fortune to work with business people that value what they can do with technology and the problems they can solve. My team has lived up to every expectation in terms of execution--and I'd like to think that on some major projects we've exceeded expectations.

But it's also a challenge to balance running the IT operation with being a corporate strategist. How have you approached that?

You have to hire the best people. There's nothing magical about organizations. It's like chemistry--you have to find the right mix of people and the right mix of skills. When you have some really talented people that manage your infrastructure, security, networks and application development, it makes it a lot easier to empower them and let them run with their particular area of expertise. You provide the guidance they need from time to time, but it frees you to focus upward in the organization and be more valuable versus trying to manage the details of the operation. Also, if you leave the details to your team and empower them to work through issues, they grow and become better leaders.

We also spent a lot of time early on focusing on architecture. We wanted to define what tools, languages and methodologies we'd use to build applications. It's like anything in IT--there are lots of ways to solve a problem. If you're not careful, you can divide and conquer your own resource base because you end up with many different types of systems to support.  We were aggressive early on in defining our standards and guiding principles. This allowed us to put in place a self-governing organization with a focus on enterprise architecture.

On every major project we do what we call an "enterprise architecture fit assessment"--we look at the solution the development team has come up with and ask how it fits with the target architecture we're trying to meet. There is give and take on both sides, but it keeps us more in the mainstream of doing things consistently across the organization, which ultimately improves execution.

You talked about hiring the best people. What's your philosophy on building the best team possible?

IT people predominantly want to work on meaningful projects. They want to grow and have the fulfillment of seeing projects from start to finish while working with the latest technologies. Compensation is a big part of it, too, as well as being part of a growing company where their work is valued.

The challenge now, in a limited growth environment, is keeping the staff engaged since we have fewer resources. In most cases, they're working harder and balancing more priorities. That means we have to focus more on retaining staff.  In the past we wouldn't have worried about retention as much, but it's a much more prevalent issue now.

What about training?

There are two aspects to training. There's certainly the technical training--helping the staff keep up with the latest technologies. But the ability to let them interact with the business units and understand business issues on a more granular level is equally important. We spend a lot of time talking about how to interact and focus on business people as the customer. We think about our staff as IT consultants, working to solve business problems.

Another challenge for CIOs right now is vendor management. How do you approach dealing with your technology providers and vendors?

We tend to view technology providers as either "vendors" or "partners." Vendors are companies that only sell products and services. Partners bring value to your operation. We require our partners to understand our business and the problems we face so they can map their product sets in ways to best support the company.

We've been successful because of relationships we built years ago with our major vendor partners to say, we're going to make upgrades or changes now, with the understanding that we expect their continued support if we have to trim back later. There's a certain amount of cost escalation that's always going on with technology providers. The key is working through the issues and getting them to understand what it is in your business that makes it work or not work. The alternative is to seek out partners that can provide what you need.

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