Oh I See! Getting CIOs to view their jobs from a different angle


January 18, 2011  4:16 AM

A CIO Resume

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

I was reading an article on CIO resume for 2011 with some interest and a bit of cynicism when an email popped into my inbox asking for help. The sender was looking for opportunities as a CIO wanting to expand her role moving from an SME organization to a larger one. Her decade and half of experience across various companies had served her well and she felt that with the economic growth, there would be openings where she could try her skills and luck. Now whether this was providence or coincidence, I don’t know, but I started reviewing the lady’s resume against the principles in the article on my screen.

Everyone, well almost everyone has debated ad infinitum the changing role and expectations from a CIO. We all agree that in the current context, the CIO is a business technology leader driving business and efficiencies with help from technology. Contributions to top line as well as bottom line are now a rule rather than an exception. Any self-respecting CIO would vehemently defend his/ her position and seat at the management table; the discussions are no longer about what is the value, but how much.

So I was surprised to see the mail from this friend who was struggling to find an opening as a CIO. She was technically competent, had delivered most projects for her various companies, and had worked hard through the ranks and risen to head IT for a small business. All the ingredients existed that are required for movement to the next level. I reflected on the discussions with her during a few past meetings and could not find anything that would disqualify the person. So what was missing?

Opening the attachment that was the resume, I started reading. As I read through the first few lines, it was evident that she had achieved success in most of her endeavors―be it setting up MPLS enterprise networks, implementing ERP, greening data centers, virtualization, and a host of technologies. Through the years across companies, she stayed with contemporary technologies and collected a bunch of certifications like PMP, ITIL, CCNE, and MSCE to name a few. Some projects brought fame in IT publications and they were reflected prominently in the document. Is something missing?

Then I put my business hat on and restarted reading. Looked impressive; but where is the value to the enterprise, colleagues, peers, and in general, the connect to benefit that was accrued to the company? The resume lacked mention of initiative, change management, teamwork, metrics or values around the impact of the projects. As a leader, how did she work the internal and external teams towards delivering what mattered! Suddenly I felt that the person had remained enveloped in the world of technology rarely visiting the outside world of business. Her portrayal did not reflect a CIO, but a tech professional.

So I communicated my appraisal of the document advising change to ‘sell’ business alignment and what matters to business; technology is the foundation and can also be outsourced, but domain skills are valuable. Months later, another document landed in my inbox with changes; I tore my hair wondering where I missed in my communication. Maybe she struggled to find the value statement; maybe she does not know how to articulate. Many thoughts wandered through my mind.

After another chance meeting with her, I recommended that she come over for a discussion to my office and hopefully we can together unearth the value and pin it down. It’s a meeting I am awaiting as anxiously as I hope she is.

Read CIO Resume: Part II

January 11, 2011  5:18 AM

Murphy at work!

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

Any festive season brings with it a sense of joy, bonhomie and general feel good factor. After all, there is a planned celebration, friends getting together, family reunions, and if nothing else, some quality time with the family. We all look forward to such occasions to come. Different reasons across the world make for such gatherings, be it festivals, commemorations, faith; however, the world unites together to bring in the New Year.

Now, imagine this scenario:

New Years’ eve, and the day begins with an outage notice from the network team citing a company-wide network outage for causes unknown. The team gets down to figuring out the cause and fix, but the problem appears to be more than just a router failure. It is evident within a few hours that it’s going to be a really long day—maybe a night too—before the situation comes back to normal. So what do you do? It is evident that vendor support will be limited, and global support skeletal.

In a not too dissimilar scenario on a Saturday morning, I have seen the Operational CIO get off a meeting—not to return. On another occasion, a balanced CIO keeps tabs periodically, and on the other extreme a “strategic” CIO continues with his life as usual, knowing that the team will finally resolve the situation.

Murphy strikes when everything appears to be nice and bright with the world at large. He has a way of unsettling the best of plans of good men. These are the times for which all the plans are created, the maintenance contracts signed, and the service levels (SLA) monitored. The machinery has to crank itself up on such moments to deliver. Everyone in the team has to know what they are expected to do, including communication within the enterprise, of the situation and plan remedial action. Beyond the explicit, on such occasions, relationships work their magic. Teams with passion, understanding of the impact and ownership will always rise to any occasion.

So in such an eventuality, what is the role of the CIO? It does not matter whether the CIO is operational, strategic or balanced. Should the CIO continue with preplanned celebrations while the team toils the midnight oil? Or lend a moral shoulder to lean upon? Just get out of the way lest he becomes a pain for the team trying to solve the problem? It is important for the CIO to understand the value he will bring to the situation and decide what works best. But one of the key actions required is to communicate the impact if any to business, what are the measures being taken to minimize the adverse impact, and keep information flowing periodically to keep shortening tempers at bay.

Post incident resolution, acknowledgement of the effort along with words of merit and appreciation are definitely worth engaging in. The message it sends will ensure that when Murphy strikes again, the team will be up to the task.


January 4, 2011  7:52 AM

How do you buy?

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

IT procurement has always been an activity that provides the CIO and IT staff with substantial power —that of a customer who defines the requirement, negotiates, and sweats the poor sales person through each interaction. There are horror stories of negotiations beginning post midnight, as well as of joyous ones with a handshake happening across the table in less than an hour. In a few cases, this negotiation is the role of a specialist IT buyer or purchase department.

The recent past has seen a lot of rigor in this process, with expectations of better deals and discounts driven by tightening budgets. In many cases, Finance teams were thrust upon the CIO to validate or take over the negotiation. The underlying assumption is that Finance has better negotiation skills, and they will fiscally protect the enterprise’s interests. It is another matter that these individuals (with best of interest) had little knowledge of the overall value propositions on the IT solutions. Another angle discussed is of governance, elimination of temptation driven by large value transactions, and keeping everything above board. 

In the early days of my career, one of the executives charged irregularities in IT purchases. I welcomed the conducted audit, which validated the IT departments’ innocence and above board dealings. This set into motion a change in process with the induction of another coworker from Finance during the buying process. While she was in the initial stages an observer more than a contributor, over a period of time, she was able to start adding value. The cast aspersions were no longer a talking point, but collaboration was considering the perceived transparency that it brought to the process.

There have been not so pleasant experiences too for some CIOs facing “interference” from other functions, as they do not understand (nor make an effort to). Thus the strained relationships between IT, vendors, and largely the finance/purchase team leads to a lose-lose proposition for the enterprise—with delays, inefficient negotiations, and missing line items in the overall project charter or Bill of Material. Everyone finds this an ordeal, but is unable to change the outcome, as the value propositions are not understood.

If your organization is functioning well without involvement from other functions in IT procurement, periodically review the perception of how you are seen doing that same. It would help you address issues before they become a talking point. On the other hand, if your organization does require purchase decisions to involve a larger group, get them into the discussion from day 1. Else you may face frustrating moments in the future. Their involvement and participation will be a function of whether they are measured on this. Make sure that KRAs are aligned; else they have no reason to devote time beyond what makes them win and look good.

I also had the privilege in a company to have senior finance personnel sit through tech vendor presentations nodding knowledgeably for a while. Then they would start making excuses not to participate, or get off the meeting as some important call took them away.


December 28, 2010  8:00 AM

Time value of information

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

Every now and then, there’s a flurry of activity, questions and debate around real time information—on inventory, sales, production, process approvals, financial metrics, and so on. The passionate appeals by vendors makes one wonder whether the business is really inefficient or missing out on a large opportunity by not disseminating  information to the managers and CXOs in real time. Add to this the new dimension of “complex event processing”, and the picture depicts a Jurassic era of information enablement.

Real time information availability has been business’ aspiration for a long time. IT enablement of the processes and operations in an enterprise expedited availability, but batch processing still did not provide the information as the event happened. As the data mining tools matured and models appeared for predictive modeling, gaps of the present became very evident. SOA Integration and middle layer technology solutions reduced the time gap. Mobile computing removed the physical presence limitation, as trickles of information could be provided on the handheld.

Now cast an eye across industries and various processes that are fed with, or create information. We will observe that today information flows with every step, decision, and event—irrespective of the sector, size or geography, the paradigm is uniform. People create information, people consume information, and people transform information. Managers, supervisors, CXOs, and even customers, seek control with real time information availability. Is it necessary to provide real time information to all the stakeholders? How does it change their behavior, decision or end outcome, if at all?

Take the case of retail. For a customer shopping in a store, price information on nearby stores in real-time is valuable, as it helps her get the best price for a product. To the retailer, a product sold is information, as it indicates that a customer has chosen a product from the shelf, and the stock count is down by one. Based on the supply chain’s agility, the retailer can use this information to plan for replenishment. The information can also be shared with a supplier who may use this snippet for planning next delivery and the impact on production schedule.

All this looks good in a one-one relationship, but when you multiply the dimensions, the complexity renders the simplistic scenario unviable as the optimization across the value chain has multiple constraints that operate on each decision point. Even when the collation and decision points can be automated, “complex events” have a way of making decision making a really difficult task requiring human intervention. In the above scenario, if the retailer received hourly information, will it materially impact the quality of decisions or process triggers (like a replenishment)?

The ground reality is that real time information does matter to an enterprise, but the rule cannot be applied for every byte of information. For a nuclear reactor, there is no other way. In case of a manufacturing plant, PLC data is, inventory data is not. Similarly for a financial institution, risk positions can build up quickly unless near real time monitoring exists, but a trial balance can wait for end of day. The application of technology for real time information is a good tool to be judiciously applied, and not get carried away by the use cases presented by the seller of the technology. If you are not doing it, get started, but ask the question at every stage. What changes with real time information?


December 21, 2010  7:41 AM

My CFO, my best friend!

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

The recent past has seen many discussions, debates, as well as advice from anyone and everyone who has an opinion and finally some pieces of alignment between the CIO and the CFO. All of them make interesting reading, depending on whether you are the CIO or the CFO. Last week, my CFO and I were approached by a media house to do a story on our relationship and the CFO called to ask — Is this a story?

Almost every CIO (and I will not debate the merits or lack of) passionately believes that he should be reporting to the CEO or the Board. This is a demonstration of IT’s strategic intent, as the CEO has direct overview of the direction taken by IT and the influence it has on the business. Reporting to the CFO is fraught with pitfalls, as the primary discussion is around cost. While I largely agree with this hypothesis, a lot of equations changed during the downturn, as the CFO grew in his span of influence.

IT was at the receiving end to some extent, with squeezed budgets, investments becoming difficult and overall sentiment prevailing around cost containment. Organizations with good governance processes as well as CIOs who were aligned to the enterprise realities adapted quickly, and worked with the CEO and CFO to create models that worked for everyone. Innovation slowed in some cases, but did not come to a halt. On the other hand, some CIOs had difficulty in adjusting to the new reality as the CFO dominated the decision making process.

Gigabytes of information were created around this new paradigm; CIOs hating it and CFOs wondering about what’s wrong with IT. The strain in an otherwise cordial coexistence or tolerance became a sore point for the CIO who could only vent his frustration at the inability to break the deadlock — unwilling to recognize that change begins from self. In the last 18-24 months, I had many interesting discussions with CIOs who struggled to get on with the IT agenda. Not that this was universal; many adapted to the new reality. In the new normal, the baseline has shifted and the new paradigm is a way of life. The CFO is an integral part of the decision making process, and signs off at least large value investments or costs.

Coming back to the interview between my CFO, myself and this senior correspondent, the discussion was around the relationship, alignment, issues and challenges. The bantering between us left the reporter surprised, until it was clarified that I am the CIO and my CFO is indeed the person who manages the money (amongst other things). The stereotype CFO too has changed as the CIO has evolved; thus to expect a Bean Counter in every CFO is like expecting every CIO to go fix the CEO’s laptop or the boardroom projector.

CIOs who have cultivated a relationship with other CXOs (including the CFO) would wonder if this hype is created by consultants wanting to sell models of alignment or governance. My quip would be that you should invest in relationships with all CXOs. If you do not help them win, why should they help you?


December 14, 2010  7:07 AM

Return on Investment, or Return on Intelligence?

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

Considering that almost everyone is at some stage of the next year’s budgeting process, ROI has been dominating mindshare. Amongst these were two discussions around return on Business Intelligence and return on Disaster Recovery. Both are fairly nebulous in their manifestation, and difficult to put a fix on the number that can satisfy the CXOs — especially the CFO and the CEO.

Business Intelligence is a discipline that suffers from detachment from its real users and owners, largely due to the technology’s complexity. Thinking beyond conventional reports to analytics is a leap of faith, and the enterprise’s ability to formulate and use trends and associations that are atypical. In the flurry of operational activity, discretionary time is a luxury that many can ill-afford. Thus, most organizations end up with expensive automated reports which serve the same purpose that ERP reports did earlier.

Disaster is something that strikes others; so why put aside significant investments, time and effort that could be used to create new capacity or build additional capability? With a few exceptions, almost everyone has a disaster recovery plan on paper — nominally funded, rarely tested end-to-end, and seen as an item necessary to pacify the statutory auditors. Should an untoward incident strike, the ability to retain continuity of business would not withstand the rigor of time and process.

In both cases, continued budgetary support is seen as cost and not as an investment. The discussion on ROI is thus fraught with danger — avoided by the CIO, challenged by the CFO and others. Is there a way out of this predicament? Definitely yes, but it requires the CIO to approach the discussion a bit differently — maybe play a difficult hand; conventional dialogue will not change the outcome.

One track that some have used is to debate the absence of these solutions — what it implies and the associated risks. Absence of BI may probably not be treated with the respect it should, as transactional reports are also possible from the ERP systems and the belief that everything else can be done in a spreadsheet. So a BI discussion has to be guided towards the benefit to different stakeholders and possibly transferring ownership to one of the business CXOs. IT should not be the driving force and implicit owner. After all, the starting point of BI is B-business.

The absence argument has better traction with DR; with the primary systems being out for a period of time, the impact with varying degrees will be felt by everyone, irrespective of industry segment. The time to recovery will decide the type of DR option to be executed. DR is also synonymous with insurance. No one wants to die, but almost everyone buys insurance. So if the data center were to pop it, DR does step in and take over (hopefully, and that is where the discussion went awry).

Are there any models that can be universally applied to formulate ROI on BI and DR? Unfortunately, even those that exist (perpetrated by vendors or consultants) are being challenged to shorten the payback period. Innovation is pronounced after success is evident — else the debate will get ugly. We all know that “insurance promising ROI” is not insurance, we are paying more than we should.


December 7, 2010  6:04 AM

Why do IT vendors sponsor CIO events?

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

It is a general belief that CIOs are a pampered lot, with every vendor equipped with a marketing budget vying for time of the CIO — wining and dining them, or taking them to exotic locales under the aegis of a larger event organized by, say an IT publication. A destination’s lure or the fine dining opportunity is what the vendors believe attracts their audience to accept these invitations.

Now, the CIO is usually attracted by headlines promising to transform the business, strategies to enhance business value, getting ahead of competition or additions to the corporate bottom line, to just name a few juicy titles. It does not matter what product or service the IT company offers — the titles are very similar in their stated intent to help the CIO in being a winner. Expectation mismatch?

The reality is more on the lines of a captive audience, subjected to what can be described as Auschwitz style torture by presenting presumptuous facts of a micro-segmented market that has no correlation to the reality (of the audience). They then propose the same old solutions around data centers, storage and server virtualization, wrapped on cloud computing enabling the business statements using logic defying rationale.

Recent times have seen the gas chamber (read conference room) pumped with cloudy trends and solutions suffocating CIO prisoners and adding to the confusion.  The CIOs’ silent cries are lost in the din of the collar-mike-d speaker who avoids eye contact with the victims, so as to not be cursed by their souls. Sighs escaping occasionally are drowned by the amplified voice of the person standing a head above the rest (on the stage). Basic decency and courtesy prevents the CIOs from walking out; a few regularly pass out, even as their snoring disturbs those who seek solace.

This cycle repeats endlessly, with the CIOs hoping in vain that IT vendors have probably taken their last feedback. That they have changed their way of using the precious face time with a group of decision makers. But no, it is as if the basic principles of customer engagement have been thrown to the winds. Forget the customer or his needs, sell what you have; it does not matter whether the customer needs it or not. Twist the message adequately to make the square peg fit into a round hole.

The vendors’ defense is typically on the lines of, “Listen to the customer? How can I do that when I have only 45 minutes of stage time? I have to tell them my story (the story that my company wants to propagate). I will read the slides, take a few minutes longer than the allotted time, so that there is no time for questions”. After all, I have spent some hard money to sponsor the event.

Over the last year or so, many CIOs have started excusing themselves from these excursions and invitations, in many cases at the last minute, citing business exigencies. This number is growing, and such opportunities will just wither away — unless the model changes to encompass “Engagement, Listening, and Empathy”.

Is anyone listening?


November 30, 2010  5:17 AM

Is OPEX (Operating Expense) the holy grail of IT?

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

IT budgets were never a great discussion; the CIO struggled to find the right balance between “Business As Usual”, or keeping the lights on, IT infrastructure, incremental innovation, new projects that business wanted, initiatives that IT wanted, and some that the CIO believed will have a transformational impact on the company. Over a period of time, the operating expense ran out of control — to reach almost 90% of the total. Across the industry, this required a conscious effort to bring back the innovation budgets — with BAU settling around 70%.

In the recent past (at least the last two years that is vivid in my memory), almost every IT solution, vendor, consultant, and CIO has promoted the idea of shifting capital investment to operating expense. Capital investments almost withered away, as the economic challenges dictated cash flow controls. Large initiatives found it difficult to get initial funding. IT companies turned around models to offer almost everything as a service, thus obviating the need for capital expenses. New business models liked payments to outcomes spread over a period.

The operating expense model helped forward movement; in success based engagements, everyone was a winner. For the CFO or the CIO, in the absence of success, it was easy to pull the plug, and stop loss. Yes, there was, and is, an inherent risk of the project or initiative not working, but we have not heard of any such anecdotes as yet — as if success rates now equaled the past’s failure rates. Is this due to the fact that the financial risk is now shared in a different proportion between the stakeholders? Or is there another angle to it?

The answer is probably affirmative when it comes to the shared financial risk. However, I also believe that the vendors now prefer the OPEX model, as it helps their profitability over the long term — with continued revenues and the ability to spread their capital investments over a set of customers. The customer is probably paying more over the useful life of the product.

There is another angle as well. Once any process operates over a shared IT infrastructure, application, or solution, with the data too being stored in the service providers premises (sounds like the Cloud?), the ability to get out of such an arrangement into an independent model will be a huge, if not insurmountable, challenge. Everyone recognizes it, and believes that the changeover is executable, but I would be worried to be in a situation where I could be held to ransom — despite what the lawyers tell me.

I am not propagating the message that we all need to move back to the good/bad old days of big capital expenses. The CIO should be wary of the “too good to be true” deals, and safeguard the enterprise’s interests by reviewing alternatives to disruption of services, or the possibility of a shift should the service levels fall below acceptable limits; and in the worst case scenario, the service provider increasing the fee to abnormal levels. The time and cost of any change in this situation can be very high indeed.


November 23, 2010  4:44 AM

Mr IT vendor, what did you expect?

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

Last week, I was at a round table discussion organized by one of the big IT vendors which focused on “Virtual Desktop Infrastructure”, amongst other things. A gathering of about 15 CIOs was invited to explore the adoption of desktop virtualization — its associated merits, challenges and opportunities. It was an opportunity to engage, that once again failed to engage the IT leaders.

The group had a fair representation across industries from manufacturing, banking, insurance, retail, IT enabled services, and some more. The agenda was fairly simple, with the expectation to understand how different industry segments view VDI and what has been the journey thus far. Of course, it was about market sizing and qualifying leads that could result in some business from the vendor’s perspective.

Discussions started off with differing perspectives on filters that every CIO applied to their business operations to determine the suitability of desktop virtualization in their environment. Some amongst them included the kind of work undertaken (task, analytics, office automation, and graphics intensive work), volume of desktops per location, type of applications used, and not the least, ROI on such an initiative. In the same breath, challenges were also debated listing cost and resilience of connectivity (specifically in the Indian context), licensing impact, cultural issues, and again ROI.

Within some time, it was evident that the vendor and CIOs were talking different languages; the former talking about the technological innovation, and the latter focusing on business benefit. With no translator or moderator, the two conversations found it tough to converge on common ground. Thus, the anchor closed the discussion after about 90 odd minutes — with some CIO doodles labeling VDI as vendor driven initiatives or very dumb idea!

Post panel networking had an interesting insight shared by the vendor CEO with the anchor; the CIOs today are not willing to discuss technology anymore. This is making the task of selling to them a lot more difficult as compared to what it was. For sales persons to get into the customers’ shoes and then have a discussion requires different skill sets than currently available.

My rebuttal to that is “Mr IT Vendor, what else did you expect from the CIOs?” Over the last decade, expectation levels from the CIO have shifted from a technology advisor to a business advisor. CIOs have seized this opportunity (not challenge) and many have gone over the tipping point to take on incremental roles in business. To expect this level of discussion from the same vendors who always have “IT business alignment” as one of the top 3 priorities reflects that they too need to embrace the same change that they have been preaching so far.

The IT vendor evolution is a paradigm that I think CIOs have to start contributing to — else they will continue to be at the receiving end of inane discussions and presentations around technology — not winning with the business. Get started and do your good deed of the day, so that the next CIO they meet will not go through the same pain.


November 16, 2010  12:22 AM

Are you microapping?

Arun Gupta Arun Gupta Profile: Arun Gupta

Mobile data services brought about email as the first (and probably still the biggest) killer application on the mobile. This is the opportunity that created Blackberry and its many competitors; almost all focusing on creating a better email experience for the corporate user.

Browsing was at best a chore with the small screen, and unwieldy websites struggled to fit on to the small screens. Corporate IT and the CIO were, and continue to be under pressure to enable business processes on the same handset that earlier provided email.

The same users demanded their personal emails on the handset — that expanded the market to consumers, albeit in a small way, until iPhone came to the party and changed the smartphone market. Consumerization of IT ensured that corporate suits wanted the iPhone, while a large segment of consumers (who were earlier fringe data users) became a large force. This created an industry around micro-applications that did inane stuff at times, but mostly enabled the smartphone user with earlier unimaginable capabilities. Competing platforms played catch, while zillions of applications sought favor — spanning across categories like utilities, travel, education, entertainment, productivity, and finance.

IT organizations on the other hand, continued to work on large projects with reducing timelines and budgets. Enterprises using and deploying monolithic applications have advertently compared the facile microapps with the clunky screen-based complex navigation to conduct business operations. Small applications made their way to corporate phones, largely enabling road warriors and pushing information to the real-time executive — not that it changed business decisions in a big way. Sales force enablement was the quick (and in many cases the only) derived win. Another disruption arrived with the tablet demanding attention with better capabilities than the phone.

It is evident that the era of large applications as the primary interface to business process is on the wane. IT is expected to create mobile enabled micro-process automation. Its starting point may be on the fringes with quick tactical workflow approvals, graduating to complex processes on tablets. CIOs should be exploring options that are able to use the existing infrastructure with microapps.

With multiple competing mobile operating environments, transportability of applications will remain a challenge in the mid-term, but that should not restrict attempts. The multitude of form factors and devices that a corporate user now possesses, also poses a conflict of choice. Scan the various app stores, and endeavor to find a set of applications that may find favor within the enterprise. Security will of course remain a red flag as this trend gains momentum. So the CIO has to work with other CXOs to define “acceptable risk”.


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