Ways to break into business

Those who have moved from tech to business offer tips on how to make it happen.

If you want to break out of the network operations center and eventually run a company as CEO, start acting the part of a businessperson and get immersed in the sales and finance side of your organization, say tech pros who have made the leap to general business leadership. Here's what they did to meet their career goals:

•  Initiate and create projects, services or products that generate revenue for your organization. Recruiters for C-level business roles are more impressed with initiatives that you've created to enhance company profits, rather than whether met the deadline for a project that was assigned to you.

When Vincent Oddo, a 10-year veteran CIO in the telecom sector, was interviewed for his first non-technical role as COO of Network Telephone, the recruiters grilled him on his lack of sales experience. But he pointed to a project he had initiated as CIO at Graphic Scanning (later acquired by BellSouth) to create a real-time interface to a cellular switch. The product allowed sales staff to activate customer cell phones quicker than the company's competitors, and enabled Graphic Scanning to contact past-due customers in real-time via computer-generated calls. In September 2003, Oddo nabbed his first CEO title at carrier Access Integrated Networks.

•  Learn about the business you're in. Many tech pros-turned-business-leaders agree that getting IT folks to be considered as CEO material at tech firms is easier than at non-IT companies, where it may be hard to shed the geek image.

That's even more reason to immerse yourself in the industry you're in. Not only should you know about your business, but also that of your competitors - their strengths and weaknesses. "If you can't talk the language of business, only technology, you're not going to be accepted as a peer," says Larry Geisel, who served as CIO at Xerox and Netscape, and is now CEO at Nexaweb Technologies.

As part of your education, Geisel advises talking to your company's customers, reading business newspapers and books, attending business conferences and developing a camaraderie with business heads.

"The single biggest thing I developed was explaining complex things in ways that can be understood," he says of his CIO stint. "I sponsored internal conferences and invited business heads. I'd present new technologies, review case studies and other benchmark information, and we'd discuss what we could do for the business and how to harness technology to better the business."

•  Learn to think strategically and don't get too hung up over technology. Eighteen months into his tenure as senior vice president of finance at Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, Tim Aubrey, said that things he regarded as issues in his previous role of vice president of technology now seem trivial.

When he headed up the tech group of the luxury hotel chain, he would worry about the functionality of a specific technology or support issue, but that's not important in business, he says. Although he still thinks about technology in his new role, he is more conscious about the organization and the relative allocation of resources, he explains.

"When you're in technology you think with a technology agenda. But as you move across to finance - the movement of money - you think about technology, but also about HR and sales and marketing, and what's really important. You listen to the strategic goals and try to translate that," he says.

•  Move out of IT - permanently or temporarily. Aubrey moved across from tech to finance to immerse himself in the running of the company. Other areas that tech pros could move to are HR and marketing, or even business development if you can demonstrate sales ability. If your ambition is to lead a business, make it known to your bosses early in your career - good companies will recognize talent and try to nurture by moving managers around different business units.

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Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.