The Bilingual CIO

Growing up, I was always told that being bilingual was an asset most Americans didn’t enjoy. That French was the language of romance and English the language of business, and that I should be happy to be fluent in each.

Today, I tell my computer science graduate students at Boston University that to succeed in the IT field, you also have to be bilingual, but not in French.

You need to know the language of technology fluently, but you also need to speak the language of business. Not only do you need to know the value of object oriented design but, equally, you need to understand the essential elements of competitive advantage. You need to read Codd & Date and Michael Porter.

Historically, IT management has come from the ranks of the IT organization itself. That meant that CIOs, almost exclusively, came from a purely technical background — either from the programming or the operations side.

While this might color a CIO’s view of how the organization should be run, it also created a language barrier with company management. They heard “geek speak” leaving the CIO to wonder why they wouldn’t approve his latest initiative. The CIO spoke in terms of “features” and the business management wanted to hear about “benefits.”

So why not take someone from the business side and let them manage the IT organization? That person would be a combination CFO/CIO, for example, which we see occasionally in some organizations.

It may well be that, as IT becomes less complex — with fewer technologies and fewer vendors — that this trend will actually increase. After all, do you need to be technically proficient to make a selection of an “off-the-shelf” package for finance?

Although configuring a network today is a complex endeavor, there is no decision about the need for a network. It’s taken for granted just like the telephone. You need both.

Once I would have argued that there were technical decisions involving a network that had profound impact on the organization and that they needed to be made by a technologist: Do I choose IP, SNA or IPX for my network protocol? What network topology should we use? Should we build or buy this package?

Today, these decisions generally don’t exist. Network: IP. Build or buy: almost always buy. Even the vendor selections are getting simpler as the big fish gobble up the smaller fish.

Yet many IT managers are focused on the “features” and really don’t understand the “benefits.” They talk in terms of capacity, or speed, or elegance and senior management still wants to know how this will improve the competitive advantage of the company.

Bilingual Basics

Here are a few of the skills you need to be successfully bilingual in IT today:

Leadership. First, foremost, and essential is leadership. If you can’t lead in today’s environment, you will not survive.

Don’t confuse leadership with managing. I tell people who ask that “things are managed, people are led.” It means getting the respect of your staff, and their staff. Here is where being bilingual can help.

Technology people have a difficult time respecting non-technical managers. There is an inherent suspicion by technical staff of non-technical managers. It goes to the “walk a mile in my shoes” adage. If you know their pain, then you will gain their respect.

Courage. A strange attribute many would say, yet making tough choices is never easy, and although not unique to IT management, it is a valuable element of success.

Communications. Generally rated as the highest of the “hard” skills, your ability to communicate throughout the organization will be the single most important attribute necessary to succeed.

This communication will need to be bilingual, though. When communicating to the IT organization you need to communicate in the language of technology, but you will lose respect and not be understood if you speak to the business functions in “technospeak.”

You need to speak to them in the language of business benefits. Do you want to improve your communications skills? Write articles for trade magazines, teach a course at your local college, or take a course in public speaking.

Business Acumen. Breaking the “us vs. them” mentality in many organizations means having an understanding of the functional units.

Knowing why the credit department needs to view orders in real time makes it easier to quantify the business benefit of changing a system. Spending a few days on the road with a salesman will certainly give you a new perspective of the havoc that a CRM system generally creates for individual salespeople.

Technical Knowledge. Yes, it is important. Understanding that some systems don’t scale well or that the technical architecture proposed by a vendor will simply not work in your environment has value.

Whether you can still code abstract data structures is no longer important. It’s more important to be technically wide than deep. Make sure that you have more than one arrow in your quiver, though.

Just because you knew a specific technology, whether it was COBOL or HP3000, make sure you understand what’s going on today. Mark Twain said that when you have a hammer every problem looks like a nail. Try to add a few tools to your toolbox.

Flexibility. We are in the business of change. If you can’t handle change and ambiguity, then you need to become a butcher.

Perspective and Humor. In the final analysis, you must keep your perspective. Don’t confuse work with your life; far too many people in IT miss their children growing up because the latest software needs to be loaded, or it’s time for an operating system upgrade, or the mail server crashed again, or [insert situation here] …

It’s work, and you have a one-way ticket through life. No one ever complained on their deathbed that they wished they had spent more time at the office.

Don’t work for people who don’t have this attitude, either! Lots of companies speak about work-life balance; make sure they’re serious about it.

Talking the Talk

If you came to IT management from the technical side of the business, you need to learn a totally new language. You must begin to learn the differences between the way technologists see the world and the way other functional units see it.

It’s not enough to be technically proficient. You must also be fully literate in each business discipline.

If you’re a mid-level IT manager, think about a rotation through other functions. If you’re a senior-level IT manager, then you should be thinking about sending your staff out to work with the functional organization.

Start thinking about taking some management courses outside of the IT discipline, and start reading some of the cutting-edge business books on the market today.

You must tell yourself every day, “We are NOT in the business of IT. We are in the business of producing widgets.”

This is a very important mantra, because it will force you to see everything that the IT organization does in the context of how it supports the sales and production of widgets. And, if you can achieve this, you will become bilingual.

Daniel Gingras has been CIO of five major companies and is a partner at Tatum Partners, a national professional services organization of senior-level technology and financial executives who take on leadership roles for client companies — generally organizations undertaking significant change. He has more than 30 years of experience in technology strategy and implementation and teaches computer science at Boston University. He can be reached at [email protected]