Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A career in IT is not Sexy

I've read a number of articles about the role of the CIO and IT leadership, some of them dating back to the early 2000s.  I actually remember one article in the Harvard Business Review by Nicholas Carr titled, "IT Doesn't Matter".  The points of Carr's article and many others could be loosely distilled down into one theme.  Basically, technology is becoming so ubiquitous that "everyone" is using it and consequently everyone has become an IT expert.  Carr predicted that the role of CIO was overblown and that IT would cease to become a separate function as it migrated out into "the business".  Of course, the business is always defined as the important part of company to which IT is just a necessary evil.

Fast forward about eight years (now) and look at the situation.  The advent of things such as the cloud, virtualization, telemetrics, and mobility have made IT more important than ever.  So important, in fact, that IT professionals have a joblessness rate of less than 2.4%, even lower when they have a degree.  Why is that might you ask?  It's because technology is never static.  What so many people (yes, you too Nicholas) failed to see is that every line of business is thirsty for technology.  It is the one specific thing that we can all count on to help us gain more market share, be more profitable, and more competitive - every time.  Tech will help you accomplish what all the marketing in the world just can't do, which is to be consistently and ever more competitive.

Say that you don't believe what I just said.  Ok.  Now think about everything your business or company does to make money.  Unless you're a total luddite, you'll see IT as your key enabler.  So why would I make the title of this article "...IT is not Sexy"?  The answer is all about power, prestige, and understanding.

In order to appreciate something you have to understand it.  The artists out there who read my column might disagree but I would counter by asking why art is always placed into some type of period - "cubism", "impressionist", "post-impressionist", "abstract", etc.  Artists do that so that others can understand the work.

Back to the point, almost nobody outside of an IT organization understands what happens inside of IT.  In fact, technology has become so specialized that in many cases IT people in disciplines like infrastructure don't always understand what the software developers are doing and vice versa.  Because it's human nature, if you don't understand something you tend to think less highly of it.  I don't know how many times as a CIO I have heard other CIOs or myself referred to as the "IT guy(s)".  None of us ever hear the CFO described as the "Finance dude(tte)" or the COO called the "Ops chick".  This is because their functions have been around for 100 years and our parents, usually Baby Boomers, taught us to respect them.  Since IT wasn't a force until the late 80s, none of us grew up holding CIOs in awe.

My good friend Martha Heller, a senior editor at CIO magazine and president of her own search firm, is about to come out with a book called "The CIO Paradox".  I'll talk more about that in a subsequent blog.  She describes very elegantly the paradox that most CIOs find themselves in.  A CIO is unlike any other executive in a company.  They are responsbile for ensuring both the day-to-day operations of a business (tactical) while also preparing for the future evaluation, adoption, and use of new technologies that are absolutely critical for successful competition (highly strategic).  What other executive finds herself in this position?  And yet, for all the responsibility the CIO rarely gets a seat with the senior leadership team.  Seems kind of odd, doesn't it.  Yes, I have heard the stories about "clueless" CIOs who are too technical or just don't have the leadership skills to act on par with other CXO types.  But when is the last time that you, the reader, heard of a company with a specific CIO development track?  You don't hear about it because these programs rarely occur.  This leads companies to almost always select CIOs from the outside or to put "senior business leaders" out to pasture by giving them a C-Level postion (CIO) as a cookie right before they retire.

So there are two anecdotes that you'll hear about CIOs.  The first is that CIO means "Career Is Over" and the second is that they have an average tenure of about two years.  The first you can laugh at or ignore but the second is not so funny.  Too late, companies realize that the CIO IS important and that a poor one can create long-lasting dysfunction within a business.  But once and if they get one, the cycle of treating them as lesser executives, despite the title, continues.  Two years later the cycle repeats.

If IT people did not make, on average, more money than other employees there wouldn't likely be anyone willing to work as a full-time employee.  Most of them would realize that without respect there is only money.  Have you seen the rates for IT contractors these days?  If not, just know that you're paying between $140-$400/hr for them.  And yes, it's not just CIOs with short tenures, it's *all* of your IT workers.

Here is the point of this blog and a general piece of advice:  If you do not have a CIO and you're making revenues in excess of $250 million, get a good one fast.  If you do have a CIO, give him or her a seat at the senior leadership table. The CIO is not a minor role - it's as strategic as any other function that you have.  It's not your CFOs, attorneys, or Ops executives that are going to determine your success in the new millenium.  It's going to be those "IT guys" who will make or break your company.

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