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Why net execs are poised to be industry leaders

May 26, 20033 mins
Computers and PeripheralsNetworking

Regular readers know I’m a big fan of Lou Gerstner, former IBM CEO and engineer of Big Blue’s turnaround from technology has-been to e-business leader in the ’90s. He’s got great common sense and wonderful perspective because he approaches the computer industry as an outsider (he worked at McKinsey, Nabisco and American Express before joining IBM).

In his book about the IBM turnaround – Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? – Gerstner says: “What I was totally unprepared for were the characters and bizarre practices of the computer industry.”

Characters? That would be Larry Ellison, Bill Gates, Scott McNealy, Steve Jobs. Yeah, “characters” is a diplomatic way of describing that crew.

What are these bizarre practices? Front and center, Gerstner highlights the lack of common standards across the computer industry, particularly in software. While recognizing the advances we’ve made with coding specs like Java, Java 2 Enterprise Edition, XML and the like, he marvels at our industry’s focus on proprietary way-cool technology enhancements over specs or standards. Keep in mind Gerstner is talking about the computer industry, not the network industry (from an outsider’s perspective they’re all the same). He raises an excellent point – with major implications for network executives everywhere.

Here’s why: In most organizations, the “infrastructure” group usually ends up being run by executives with a background in networks. These are the individuals who’ve spent their careers making crotchety and cantankerous systems work together. And the art of making disparate systems work together will truly end up reshaping industry in the 21st century.

Historically, CIOs and CTOs came from either an applications or a systems background. Applications people specialize in masterminding colossal projects involving hundreds of people and millions of moving parts. Systems folk focus on learning the black arts of keeping sophisticated engines well tuned. Both skills are important. But they don’t necessarily result in solutions that are seamless and open, which is what IT will need to be in the coming years and decades.

If Gerstner is right – and I believe he is – that the lack of effective standards is one of the biggest weaknesses in the IT industry, the people who have the best track record in integrating disparate systems are the ones best-equipped to deal with the challenge. Overall, I expect that an increasing percentage of CIOs and CTOs will come from an infrastructure (read: networking) background.

As companies rethink the power of the Web and connectivity to optimize their own business networks linking customers, suppliers and partners, the individuals with the greatest insight, vision and perspective will be CIOs and CTOs with networking backgrounds and business savvy. These individuals will be able to help their companies reinvent their business processes and business networks. And in the process, they’ll reinvent industry.