CIOs Uncensored: Conflicts Are A Part Of The Job--Aren't They?

This CIO's experience as a consultant lets him see past the sales shill to the heart of technology.

John Soat, Contributor

August 1, 2008

3 Min Read

James Tarala is a conflicted man. he just doesn't know it.

Tarala works for Schenck Business Solutions, an Appleton, Wis., accounting and services firm. But I'm not talking about the inherent dichotomy represented by a voluble, entertaining, highly opinionated individual who works at an accounting firm in Wisconsin.

Tarala's title is CIO/CTO. But I'm not talking about the turmoil exemplified by that dual title, reflecting the long-standing blood feud between CIOs and chief technology officers. I'll save that for another column.

I'm talking about the conflict between consultants and CIOs. Tarala has been on both sides, and it should be tearing him up inside.

Except, apparently, it's not.

"I'm now in the role that I used to sell to when I was on the other side of the fence," Tarala says. In fact, his background as a technology consultant gives him valuable insight and perspective for dealing with vendors and acquiring technology. For instance, "I look at the vendors we select as long-term partners rather than one-off sales," he says.

Tarala's been doing technology consulting gigs since high school. His first real job was with a grocery wholesaler, consulting with its retailers. But he got tired of traveling thousands of miles a week, so he decided to settle down and work for--an accounting firm. Eventually, he says, he got fed up with the mentality of accountants. "By nature, they're looking backwards," he says. And they don't spend a lot of time thinking about technology. "It's a lot like herding cats," he says.

He ran his own consulting firm for 10 years--"a VAR systems integrator focusing on the ERP space," he says. His company merged with Schenck (an accounting firm, 'natch) in 2000, and Tarala headed its technology consulting practice. He became more and more "vocal" in his opinions about the company's technology strategy, he says, and "finally, they said, 'OK, you run it.'"

Having been the guy making the sales calls, Tarala says he understands the frustrations of trying to get in front of the CIO: What message is going to capture that person's attention? Also, how the CIO very often makes it clear he or she would rather be dealing directly with the vendor, when many times the VAR is "the better point of contact," he says.

On the other hand, his experience enables him to recognize when consultants are shilling, which means they'd better be able to articulate the technology road maps and long-term strategies of the vendors they represent. "If they can't talk intelligently, I have very little use for them," he says.

Tarala says his firm has a number of VAR clients, and that's a conflict in itself. "There's always that subtle pressure to shoot business their way because they're writing checks," he says. But his job is to pick the right technology for the firm, he says, and if it doesn't fit into somebody else's strategy, "too bad." That didn't sit too well with some of Tarala's fellow partners at the firm, he says, but they're starting to see the logic in it. And the VARs themselves are coming to terms. "It's taken awhile, but the message is getting through," he says.

I guess that's conflict resolution, Tarala style.

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