Ask The Secret CIO - InformationWeek

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Ask The Secret CIO

Herb talks about the demise of an unusual cat, the personality traits of a good CIO, and why employers take so long to make a job offer.

*Just What Am I Supposed To Do With This Wonderful Gadget?
Dear Herb:
Call me crazy, but--independent of the privacy issue concerning the invasive CueCat, about which you wrote ("The Cat That Stalks My Mouse")--I just can't imagine the real usefulness of the thing. You mean I'll scan an ad for a fine sherry so I can be brought to the company's Web page for more fluffy advertising? Phooey!


Dear DB:
Digital Convergence thought CueCat would take the world by storm. It banked on the idea that people would flock to what it called "a new world of convergence." The company designed the device to look like a cat (to go with our computer mouse, of course) and gave it a cutesy name with a strange spelling. The investors in the firm must have been convinced that the Cat's ability to connect directly to relevant Web pages by reading special codes in magazines or scanning UPC symbols was a compelling formula for success. Others in industry were also convinced: Forbes magazine and RadioShack gave away the little creatures by the truckload.

The company and its business partners, however, didn't anticipate the storm of protest over what was seen as a lack of candor about the personal data being collected while the public was getting all of this supposed value from the gadget. I received many letters about "The Cat That Stalks My Mouse," and not one of them even remotely defended the concept.

What ultimately killed the idea, though, was not the issue of privacy, although that wounded it greatly. Rather, it was the reaction that you and others had: Who needs this thing?

Personally, I'm saving my CueCat. It's in the back of a closet where I keep all of my obsolete gadgets. Some day, I figure I may be able to sell it as a curio. After all, I can advertise it as brand new, never used, and only taken out of the box once.

Do Booksellers Read InformationWeek?
Hi Herb,
I really love your articles. They're the first thing I read when I receive InformationWeek in the mail. I had to write and tell you how surprised I was when I read that Barnes & Noble is bringing its online business into its stores by installing Internet service counters, powered by Barnes & According to the announcement, customers who visit any one of the retailer's bookstores will be able to place orders for books and other products through the Barnes & Noble Web site. They also will be able to pick up and return products ordered online at retail stores. According to the press announcement, the Internet service-counter initiative is designed to increase traffic and sales in both the retail and online channels of the bookstore.

Some time ago, you wrote ("Barnes & Noble: Hit Back!") about how B&N could compete against It appears you were right on target. Now, did B&N read your article or contract with "the real you" to get this idea? However the company did it, it's marvelous; but I think the credit goes to you.

Please keep writing, as I really enjoy the insight.


Dear David:
Thanks for your letter and the kind words. I was glad to learn that Barnes & Noble is going ahead with some of the ideas I presented in the article. I would've been delighted to discuss them with Barnes & Noble; but, no, the company didn't ask me about the column, nor did it talk to me about its business plans.

I did, however, get a very nice note from one of the company's major competitors describing some of its own ideas about how to sell books and telling me that it planned to implement quite a few of the suggestions in the column--which, it hastened to add, it had had in the works for some time.

Do CIOs Have Personalities?
Dear Herb,
I'm working on a computer resources and information management master's degree. I have a few questions for you:

  1. What do you think the personality characteristics of a CIO should be?
  2. What educational background/experience is required of a CIO? What additional certification do you recommend?
  3. What percentage of technical vs. management skill is a CIO expected to possess (for example, 40% technical and 60% management)?

Thank you for your wisdom,

Dear Ernest:
Wisdom? I'm not so sure. Experience? Yes. Opinions? Definitely.

As you might imagine, job situations are so different that no single answer is correct for each question you pose. Depending on the firm and the industry, the requirements of the position vary. So, if you accept that what I have to say is a generalization, let me share some thoughts with you.

CIOs have to work effectively with almost every group in the company. The job requires being able to explain technology to nontechnical people and to communicate business objectives to every level in the IT shop. Further, many issues with which a CIO deals can be quite contentious. Therefore, a person who has the following personality traits is most effective in the job.

  • Calm under stress
  • Able to communicate clearly and succinctly to a spectrum of people
  • Objective and perceived as being fair and honest

The educational background is not particularly important, so long as it teaches the individual to think clearly. I know of CIOs who have graduated with degrees in everything from math to English literature to music.

Obviously, though, it's important that a CIO know sufficient technology to understand the implications of the technical direction of the organization and the decisions that he or she will have to make.

I know of no way to assign a weight such as 60% technical and 40% managerial to a CIO position. I would say, though, that leadership, managerial skills, and the ability to recognize the impact of the technology on the company and its customers are all equally important. Without talent in each of these areas, a CIO is unlikely to be successful.

Just How Do I Increase My Chances Of Getting A Promotion?
Dear Herb,
I've recently been promoted to manager of an IT team. Although I've been taking business classes, I do not have a college degree. I was looking for some direction about which degree adds the most value as a future CIO candidate: business or technology?

I have extensive business knowledge and a broad understanding of technology. In your opinion, what would put me in a better position for future promotions or career moves?


Dear Bill:
The question isn't so much what education will enhance your chances for a promotion, but rather what education will help make you more valuable to your present employer and any potential new one. Keep in mind that people frequently make the most advancement when they are actively working on something they enjoy.

Since you've stated that you have extensive business knowledge and a broad understanding of technology, the real question to ask yourself is, what would you like to be doing or be able to say about yourself 10 years from today? Some people I know would answer that by describing the job they're doing. Others would talk about the amount of money they're making or the type of life style they want to be living.

If you like the technology side of your job better than the managerial part (or vice versa), then certainly concentrate on that aspect in your educational plans. If you enjoy both equally well, then consider a business degree with a strong emphasis on technology to provide yourself with the maximum flexibility.

Hiring Speed
Dear Herbert:
As an IT professional, I have moved around quite a bit. The jobs that make me the happiest are challenging and stimulating. Before being hired at my new job, I sent out many resumes to those companies that had openings I thought were a good fit. The IT field being what it is, I was hired by a new company in short time and am happily employed.

However, about three month after I started, one company that had never responded called to say it was going to start interviewing for the position; could I come in? "Well, no thank you," I said. The question at the back of my tongue was, "What took you so long?"

Why is it, in this highly competitive IT job market, that some companies adhere to hiring practices that virtually guarantee they won't hire the best, only what's left?


Dear Jerry:
Some companies move very quickly when it comes to hiring people. They're confident that their interviewing skills and knowledge of their needs are so strong that they can move quickly. Some will even interview a person the day they hear about the individual's availability and make an offer within hours.

Other companies navigate very slowly through their hiring process. It may be because of corporate bureaucracy, indecisive management, or an intense dislike of firing employees who were the wrong choice.

In today's tightening job market, the tendency would be to figure that there are still enough good people out there that it's better to wait to pick the right person than hire the wrong one.

If a person is looking to change jobs, it's important to use whatever leverage available to control the process as much as possible. That means that it's a smart idea to ask prospective employers how long it will take them to let you if they are interested. It also means telling them when you expect to make a job decision. There's nothing wrong with keeping them up to date on your own progress in the job market, so that they can adjust their own speed to your needs if they're truly interested in you.

I have a good friend who was discussing a position with a company for months, when along came another sparkling opportunity. He called the first company and explained the situation. The next morning, it made him an offer that he accepted.

Your letters to my print column and this E-mail forum raise some serious issues about managing information technology in today's world. Since today's world is essentially absurd, my serious responses may sometimes sound a little whimsical, and my occasional whimsical one, serious. In any case, if you want to participate, or comment, write to me at [email protected] I reserve the right to edit for size and content. Just sign your E-mail the way you want it to appear online. Or, post a message (in response to what you see here, or to ask your question) in my Listening Post discussion forum.

NOTE TO READERS: As I've mentioned, I'm planning to put my InformationWeek columns together into a book with a little bit of additional commentary around the events and people about whom I write. If any reader would like to be notified of such an event, please drop me an E-mail, and I'll build a mailing list to let you know about it. Just use the word BOOK as the subject line.

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