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5/11/2011
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Global CIO: Get Out Of The Office More

A rich marketplace of ideas awaits IT leaders who force themselves to venture out of their comfy confines.

I've just arrived at Interop. Getting to Vegas from Asheville, N.C., isn't exactly straightforward, and I'm taking a big hunk of time away from the office to be here. So why do I do it? To avoid the trap of virtuous navel gazing.

When you get caught up in the massive responsibilities of your job, it's easy to think that you need to spend all of your time on site, to think that your entire benefit to the organization consists of what you do while you're interacting with the people you work with. That's because when you're responsible for IT at an organization, all the problems eventually roll up to your inbox in a funnel-like effect: infrastructure, applications, customer service, personnel.

News flash: The CIO role isn't about operations. Sure, if ops are going poorly, your tenure will be brutish and short. But that's the basic "food and shelter" part of the CIO role. The higher reason you're employed is to enhance the fiscal health of your employer and improve service through the judicious use of technology.

And that means having and implementing new ideas. If all you do is interact with the people you work with, how can you expect to introduce truly new ideas?

Staying within the walls of your company or organization is a riff on the Einstein insanity principle--doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. You must get out of that comfy corner office regularly and interact with the various communities you belong to--customers, partners, peers--if you want to do anybody any good.

One of my mentors told me that there are two types of CIOs--the ones who gaze into the data center and the ones who gaze outward. Jonathan, he'd say, don't get so tied up in the data center that you forget about customers. Let me suggest that in addition to engaging directly with customers, you also must take occasional trips to the marketplace of ideas, represented by conferences such as Interop.

These conferences are a chance for me to get out of my box and hear some of the things I need to hear. For example, a recent North Carolina entrepreneur's conference hosted in our town featured marketing guru Peter Shankman, who told a hundred entrepreneurs that if they think they steer their businesses, they'll fail. Shankman told them that the people who steer their businesses are the folks who buy from them. Truer words about running IT, an internal business serving the larger business and its customers, were never spoken.

The marketplace of ideas also lets me bounce ideas off some of the smartest people on the planet. Talking with folks who have nothing to do with my employer helps me think through the challenges of the day. How do we get data center staff on board with cloud computing? How do we create more of a "devops" mentality? Where should we begin on the road to IT fiscal transparency? Like you, I have no shortage of challenges.

To be sure, I have ideas and an array of experiences regarding some of the issues on my docket, which I'll share in the InformationWeek Analytics session I'm participating in at Interop on Thursday, called "Creating Functional Teams for a Cloudy and Virtualized World." I'm sure our presentation will benefit audience members, but these sessions always benefit me as well. You learn a lot in the nervous hours spent preparing to present to large numbers of your peers. I also learn a lot from my co-presenters and the audience members. Often, one of them will ask a clarifying question that helps me to more clearly articulate my position.

For example, someone once asked me at a conference session how to get staff motivated for a project. I replied that any innovation is essentially a break with the status quo, and thus a renegade activity. "Harness your renegades," I said, which seemed to resonate with the audience and the Twitterverse. But just as important, I went and did just that when I got back home, with great success.

To paraphrase Seth Godin's recent blog post coming out of the South by Southwest conference, the greatest value can be had in the hidden surprises of a conference. For example, at a recent event, I ran into some peers in the same business I'm in, and over breakfast they provided me with valuable insight into a serious legal problem we're facing at work. While I can't publicly talk about the issue, let me assure you that when you're looking at what appears to be an intractable problem, and then someone offers you what appears to be an answer key, you grab it and treat the conference dollars as money well spent.

I hope to see you this week at Interop! Message me at @_jfeldman during the show, catch me on the show floor, or introduce yourself after our Thursday session. Whether or not you go to Interop, make it your business to get out of the office more often, and into the marketplace of ideas.

Jonathan Feldman is a contributing editor for InformationWeek and director of IT services for a rapidly growing city in North Carolina. Write to him at jf@feldman.org or at @_jfeldman.


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