IT's identity crisis

Some say the glory days are over; others believe IT's best days are ahead.

Tips on beating the IT career blues.

IT, it seems, is getting hammered from all sides. Industry analysts and pundits are making dire predictions. For example, Morello wrote a research report that said the ranks of IT will be chopped significantly in the coming years, as IT departments hire small numbers of "versatilists" to replace larger numbers of specialists.

The industry itself is maturing and changing in ways many IT execs don't like: there's outsourcing, automation, increased regulatory requirements many consider onerous and more emphasis on formalized processes, such as the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL).

Plus, the image of IT is taking a beating everywhere - from the college classroom, where the number of new computer science majors in colleges is plummeting (see graphic, below), to the boardroom, where the influence of IT seems to be waning.

Look on the bright side

For every Don Dargel, however, there's a Chris Ferrari or a Douglas Schwinn, IT executives who are happy and motivated, and feel they're an integral part of the management team.

Ferrari, manager of platform architecture at Sanofi-Aventis in Bridgewater, N.J., is loving life in the IT fast lane. He has been in the field about 10 years and says he wouldn't have it any other way. "I'd be lost without it," he says.

What makes Ferrari's experience so different from Dargel's? The large pharmaceutical company Ferrari works for understands the role IT can play in creating business advantage and treats its IT staff accordingly.

When IT is well represented in corporate management and top IT execs effectively communicate strategic corporate objectives to the rest of the team - and how IT can help accomplish them - IT staffers tend not to have identity crises. In too many cases, however, one or more of those steps don't occur, leaving IT staff largely foundering - and unhappy.

Schwinn, CIO at toy maker Hasbro in Pawtucket, R.I., definitely has a seat at the table. He is part of a senior management team that meets around 10 times a year to plot corporate strategy. Every other year, his IT team publishes a three-year plan outlining how IT is addressing key corporate objectives. The team also has 12-month operational plans that include budgets, and steering committees that set priorities within the overall strategy.

Schwinn doesn't see any other way for an IT department to operate. "In general, you're a service organization. As such, you need to be part of the fabric of the organization," he says.

Mind over matter

No discussion of IT's identity crisis can ignore Nicholas Carr, whose 2003 Harvard Business Review story "IT Doesn't Matter" shook up the industry. In many ways, his argument that IT is becoming a utility that doesn't necessarily provide a competitive advantage has proved to be accurate.

"By now the core functions of IT - data storage, data processing and data transport - have become available and affordable to all," Carr wrote. In that environment, Carr said, companies have to manage technology effectively, keep costs down and cut out waste. "IT management should, frankly, become boring," he concluded.

It's that type of boredom that is driving people such as Dargel out of the industry. But others, such as writer Geoffrey Moore, take Carr's argument one step further.

Moore, managing director at TCG Advisors, is pushing the idea of separating core functions - those that set you apart from the competition - from context, which is everything else. The idea is to automate or outsource context as much as possible and focus your energies on core functions.

The commoditization of IT that Carr discussed is actually a good thing, Moore says. "Don't fight it; in fact, accelerate it. That'll free resources to invest in the new IT." The mistake many companies make is taking the savings from optimizing IT functions to the bottom line, instead of reinvesting in IT initiatives that will provide competitive advantage, he says.

That's what Hasbro seeks to do, Schwinn says. "Say you deliver one level of advantage and it isn't sustainable, but then you deliver another and another and another. Over time you've used IT to deliver sustainable competitive advantage."

Processing power

If the symbol of the old IT was the command line commando, the symbol of the new, more mature IT department is ITIL and similar rules that define IT processes.

Even before federal regulations such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act required IT organizations to follow stringent policies for handling data, the idea of process-oriented IT management was beginning to take hold.

Proponents say following strict, documented procedures for everything from applying a server patch to swapping out a network interface card will result in increased network uptime, lower costs and higher user satisfaction.

Ed Kamins, chief operational excellence officer for Avnet, a Phoenix distributor of components to high-tech manufacturers, is a big believer in process. Kamins came up on the business side of the house, but was asked to take over as CIO a few years ago and given a mandate to fix a decentralized, inefficient IT department.

Ed Kamins, chief operating excellence officer, Avnet

Ed Kamins, chief operating

excellence officer, Avnet

"As we work on operational

excellence, it's really all about

fixing the process first, then

[automating] through IT," ;

He centralized infrastructure teams while leaving application-development groups with the business units. He also implemented standards covering everything from network architecture to database software. "We probably took $50 million of cost out of IT while at the same time, in my opinion, improving the service," he says.

Now Avnet is all about improving its processes, not just in IT but across the company. "As we work on operational excellence, it's really all about fixing the process first, then [automating] through IT," he says. "Today's CIO may very well need to be tomorrow's CPO - chief process officer,'' he says.

However, process isn't necessarily popular among some IT workers. Alex Ayotte is a systems project administrator for a state agency in Florida. When he sees a server problem, he has to open a work order, then an office of change management ticket. If the problem is critical, it will usually be approved the same day. If not, it may take three days or more. "Hell, you used to go in, see a log error, find a fix and you'd fix it," he says. "All the fun has been sucked out of the job. I spend half my time doing paperwork."

Ferrari, who is a big proponent of ITIL, agrees that process does take some of the fun out of IT work. "There is paperwork," he says. "But if there's a problem, you know what to do" because there's documentation to fall back on.

Business-IT alignment

Process often goes hand in hand with a close business-IT alignment, which is a key factor in developing a positive IT environment. Employees tend to be happier when they understand how their efforts fit in the big picture and help the company achieve its goals.

Tim Hudson says the shift to a closer business-IT alignment has been underway at his Fortune 100 healthcare company for several years, dating back to when his title changed from Technical Analyst III to Principal Business Technical Analyst III.

"I was asked to be more involved in the business side," he says. That includes helping negotiate maintenance contracts and attending meetings to discuss business objectives.

He adds that in the past IT would drive technology deployments and often come up with technologies the business wasn't sure how to use. Now it's the other way around.

"It works better this way, with the business driving IT," Hudson says. "There's not a lot of time wasted" working on projects that never come to fruition.

Wasted time is a significant issue in organizations that lack a coherent business-IT alignment and a process for requesting IT resources. David Goebel, a Web developer for a state unemployment agency, says he's approached "from all angles" to handle projects.

Although there are some processes in place for users to request projects, in practice most clients approach him directly with what they invariably describe as an urgent need. That often means there's not enough time for proper planning and testing, which leads to problems with the finished product. Other efforts are abandoned shortly after deployment, because they weren't really needed in the first place, he says.

Like Dargel, he's thinking about a career change, possibly into project management.

That may be an astute career move on Goebel's part, because companies are looking for people with a mix of skills. For example, Hasbro's Schwinn says he doesn't hire pure programmers anymore. In fact, he says he hires mostly from business schools.

Jim Hall, a professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, agrees, noting that Sarbanes-Oxley is forcing companies to audit IT functions in a way they should have been doing all along. Payroll, for example, requires sophisticated understanding of accounting, transaction processing, databases and other technical skills.

"How do you get all those skills in one person? You don't," he says. To compensate, companies use a team approach that is "imperfect," because the accounting and IT people don't understand each other's disciplines well enough.

"There's a whole career here, starting at the entry level," he says. "There will be a real demand in the future for CIOs and CEOs who understand audits and technology better than [their counterparts] do today."

Motivation through innovation

Investing in core functions that provide competitive advantage and automating or outsourcing context functions can help keep your IT staff invigorated, says Lance Perry, vice president of IT customer strategy and success at Cisco. "Keep more and more core activities on their plate and less and less context," Perry says.

Schwinn agrees, noting that as Hasbro improves its operational capabilities, it can create new opportunities for its IT staff. "You're getting people into more exciting opportunities than day-to-day maintenance," he says.

Outsourcing, often considered anathema by IT departments, can play a positive role in the strategy. "We'll buy services for more and more stuff that [IT] doesn't want to do any more," Schwinn says.

Avnet's Kamins cites another positive aspect of outsourcing. "I will use outsourcing to supplement the workforce, so we don't have cyclical hiring and firing based on the needs of the business at any point in time," he says, noting the company hasn't had an IT layoff in three and a half years.

None of this will work in organizations that lack business-IT alignment-and there are many, Moore says. "The problem IT has, is most organizations have a jumbled strategic profile because they let each major executive interpret the strategy in his own terms," he says.

Although IT executives can't repair the problem, they are in a good position to discover when it exists, Moore says: They should sit down with major business executives and ask them to outline their strategy and key differentiators. If the IT executive discovers business executives are on divergent vectors of innovation, that's valuable information to bring to the CEO.

Kamins has little patience for IT executives who complain they aren't treated with the proper respect or the company lacks strategic direction. "My answer to that is, 'How many customers have you visited in the last 90 days?'" he says, meaning the company's end customers, not IT's internal customers.

"Why are businesspeople viewing IT as a second-class citizen, as a vehicle for implementation as opposed to a real partner? Probably because you're not bringing them ideas that can help them do their jobs better. If you want to do that, it's all about the customer," he says.

At Cisco, IT staff routinely talk to customers, and not just about how to implement Cisco products, Perry says. "We'll talk about how we do desktop management, how we do change control, anything to help a customer," he says.

When he ran Cisco's global infrastructure group, before taking his current position, "I lobbied for a function within IT that was customer-facing," he says. Now three of his staff of about 40 deal with customers full time and pull in another 80 to 100 Cisco IT personnel worldwide as needed.

Don't be afraid to do some marketing

In many companies, IT may suffer an identity crisis in part because it suffers from an image problem. That in turn often stems from another problem - a lack of marketing, according to Ken Rau, an adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and an independent consultant.

IT staffers tend to be introverts, he says. "The idea of pushing a product doesn't go over too well with them. It's not in their nature." IT should be out in front, reminding users of the services it has delivered and how to use them effectively. But that rarely happens. "IT is forever sitting back and assuming that if they provide these services, these gifts to the users, that they'll be loved. That isn't how it works," Rau says.

The marketing of IT can take many forms, including brown bag lunches where IT helps users with problems, and training to help users get more out of their applications. Rau also suggests forming special-interest groups around certain technologies, such as for BlackBerry users.

IT also should conduct surveys to find out what problems users are having and take steps to correct them - then let users know what steps were taken. A quarterly newsletter can be effective, combining news of IT projects with informational, educational content on technology.

Bill Miller, manager of desktop services for Nevada County, Calif., says his group calls users after a help desk ticket is closed to make sure the problem was handled satisfactorily. "That has gained us a huge amount of credibility," Miller says.

His group also conducts one-hour training sessions roughly every other week on topics such as Word, Excel and combating viruses. The sessions are proving successful, playing to packed training rooms. And departments no longer have to pay for the four- to six-hour sessions that outside training companies used to provide.

Chris Ferrari loves his IT job at Sanofi-Aventis. “I’d be lost without it,” he says.

Training for the new world order

Just as users appreciate training provided by IT, IT staff appreciates training that will further their careers.

Beyond the technical training that should be a staple for any IT organization, Lehigh's Hall says organizations also should provide direction in business. "I would argue that companies should be requiring their IT people to get business training," he says. "This is the new world, the new order."

Hasbro is on board with that idea. It works with Dartmouth University's Tuck School of Business, Schwinn says, sending management-level executives in groups to its advanced-management program. "The IT folks are right in there with other lines of business," he says. All six of his direct reports have been through the program, and now the company is progressing to the next level down.

Failure to train IT staff can breed resentment, as it has for Dargel, the system administrator who's headed to the National Guard. When some of the organizations he's worked for had a need for new skills or certifications, they would hire inexpensive, recent college or technical school graduates rather than train internal personnel. "Then they send you packing, with a little extra pittance as a parting gift," he says.

Susan Cramm, president of executive Valuedance, a coaching company in San Clemente, Calif., advises midcareer IT executives to have a 360-degree performance review - which includes feedback from bosses, peers, subordinates and customers - and study the results. "Determine what your strengths are. You don't need 50; you need a couple," she says. Then build on those strengths to make them "towering strengths" and work on any "fatal flaws" that crop up.

The common denominator Cramm sees across her client base is a need to improve soft skills, including negotiation, persuasion and relationship building.

Miller gets about $10,000 in his training budget each year for his team of 10; last year the management directive was to spend the bulk of it on soft- skills training, including project management, communications, time management, conducting effective meetings and writing.

The writing training, for one, has already paid off in spades, by helping IT staff clearly and concisely fill out the statement-of-work forms now required for all IT projects.

The key to effective training is to have a development plan tailored to each individual, Cisco's Perry says. The plans map out where each employee wants to be in two, three and five years. Whether an individual wants to follow a business or engineering path, the company finds a way - within reason - to get them exposure in their chosen field.

Perry is also a fan of frequent job changes as a way to renew energy constantly. "If you look across Cisco senior staff, only two or three out of 12 or 13 don't have a different job than they did a year or so ago," he says.

Avnet follows a similar strategy, asking staffers to look out five years and imagine their dream job. "Then I know how to build your development plan," Kamins says. At the same time, he's learned that IT staffers are a different breed from the sales folks he's used to.

"Ninety-nine out of 100 sales people want their boss's job, but nine out of 10 IT people don't," he says. IT staffers do want to learn new skills and get new titles and more pay, but many don't want necessarily to manage others. So Avnet has created dual career paths that allow for that kind of advancement, he says.

For midcareer IT executives who want to move up the organizational ladder, Hall says master's of business administration programs designed for people with engineering or science backgrounds are the best bet. Failing that, just get as much business training as you can.

"That's where the action is. That's where the real advantage is going to be in the future - that intersection between business and computer science," he says. "It's a void that is just absolutely unfilled."

Desmond is president of PDEdit in Framingham, Mass. He can be reached at paul@pdedit.com.

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