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Ask The Secret CIO

This week, Herb comments on the dynamics of Web development and responds to several questions about why users have a habit of discounting what they're told by the IT staff.
*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.

Following A Clueless Leader
Herb:

As usual, right on. Only, I hope nobody will use your points in "The Real Planning Problem" to advocate the "guru method" for deciding business direction. It's easy and quick, but I've come to distrust the brilliant-but-otherwise-uninformed guru. As you say, in this day and age, we need only one big, bad call to ruin the company.

I want to share my own example: I worked for now-defunct Acme Computer Co., which had built a solid niche for itself under the IBM umbrella. We relied heavily on the instincts of CEO Joe Jones, who had guided the outfit pretty darned well for its first 15 years, mainly by offering products that people wanted. Our networking-heavy product line delivered its distinctive high-reliability features, and we used network techniques with savvy--except that our network was heavily Systems Network Architecturelike.

Then came the Internet. Folks such as Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems, with their excellent TCP/IP packages, ate our lunch before we could integrate similar capabilities with the existing product line. I recently heard about a conversation between Joe and his immediate advisers during that time, in which the advisers were discussing the Internet's impacts on Acme's products. Joe is reported to have said, "What the heck is this Internet?" Whoops!

Tell J. Karen Lovell to keep up the research, and of course, keep the product line options open!

Bob

Dear Bob:

As I said in the article, it's frequently futile to try to guess what the future will hold. Or to be more precise, it's foolish to assume that our predictions will come true, without evaluating the consequences of being incorrect. Phil's inability to accept that we just don't know what will happen in our markets causes Karen, as VP of planning, more than a little grief. She has tried to do the right thing by explaining that the wisest posture is to ensure that our plans not only define what future path now seems to make sense, but also contain the strategies to help us respond quickly to the unknown and the unforeseen.

Unfortunately, Phil wants a sure thing. At times, he's like the guy who bets his entire portfolio on a high-flying stock. Of course, he isn't a whole lot different than many CEOs. It's great while times are good, but there isn't much of a cushion when the market turns and reality hits with a thud.

Like a good CIO, Karen wants the company to plan for the unpredictable. If Phil and the rest of the executive team are smart, they'll listen to her.


Getting To Yes
Dear Herb:

I'm sure you've been approached about this situation throughout your years as a CIO.

I recently joined a company organizing conferences. My feat to accomplish is to attract to our events senior-level IT executives, CIOs and E-strategists from major corporations. Do you have any advice about how to convince these guys that taking time out of their busy schedule will be worth it?

What would catch your attention if approached? With so much competition, what wins??

Anonymous

Dear Anonymous:

Competition is brutal in the conference business. There are more and more professional events being offered to people who have less and less discretionary time. I do not envy you your job.

Your question is really hard to answer. The problem, of course, is that what's of critical importance to one executive is of little or no interest to another.

I know two ways to get around this difficulty. The first is to have content that appeals broadly, but isn't so general that it's of little value. The second is to have a spectrum of content, some of which is so compelling that it will draw an individual even if the rest of the program is useless to him or her.

Personally, when I attend conferences, I want to come away with specific information that will help me do my job better than if I had stayed home. I'm not looking for fancy resorts or a good time, although I know it's popular for event planners to focus on both these elements. It's helpful to have as much information as I can beforehand about what I will learn and why the investment of a day or more of my time is worthwhile.

In a way, though, your query is putting the cart before the horse. Rather than asking how you can attract senior people to your events, you might ask your event planners what is compelling about the program agendas that they have developed. If they can't tell you, then it's probably impossible to accomplish your job.

One little hint, though. When potential attendees turn you down, ask them what would make them want to attend. Use that information to help your planners build future events. It may not be in your job description, but you'll be doing your organization a valuable service.


The Job/Experience Catch-22
Mr. Herbert:

I've been out of the school for six years, and have spent the last five of them doing general business programming and support for various companies. But when I get up every morning, I ask myself, "Where do I go from here?"

I have a bachelor's degree in accounting and two Microsoft certifications (MCSE and MCDBA), but what I really want to do is database administration. Without the required experience, I'm relegated to financial application support and a network-support role.

Friends urge me to take the certification route all the way, and eventually get my foot in the door as a junior database administrator. Certification is certainly a good thing, but one can study and pass the tests until he is blue in the face, and at the end of the day he's pawned off as just another person who can memorize a test well.

What can guys like me do to get out of this Catch-22 situation? I have the knowledge and controlled experience (from books and five computers at home), but lack the actual world experience to get into the field I want.

Thanks, Tom

Dear Tom:

I suspect that most of us have been told that we can't have a job we want because we don't have the experience. We sit there trying to figure out how can we possibly ever get the experience if no one will give us our first chance.

Your friends are correct: additional certification will help. You also are correct that certification is no substitute for job experience. So, I'd suggest that you consider the following approach: talk to your bosses at work and see if they would be willing to move you into the database area, possibly as backup for your database administrator. If they are unable or unwilling to do so, don't hassle them, but instead move on to Plan B.

Plan B would be to sign up for additional certification and put your resume out on the street. Talk to potential new employers about your desire to work as a DBA. Try to leverage the experience you have now, combined with the certification for which you are studying. The fact that you are in the midst of taking the needed coursework will be a plus.

Your path may be frustrating at times, but you're to be commended for having a clear career goal. Here's wishing the best of luck to you.


Planning For My Next Job
Dear Herb:

I have a career question and would appreciate your advice.

I'm a VP/CIO working/living on Long Island. I'm fairly confident that I will need to change jobs in two or three years, and would like to prepare myself as best as possible.

I have a solid background, blending technical and business skills, so I feel I'd be an asset to any company. I'd prefer not to travel to New York City, as my family-oriented activities would have to end.

Given the lack of CIO jobs on the Island, I felt my plan should be to meet and align with one or two executive-level recruiting agencies to be ready when the opportunity arose. My first two calls and E-mails went unanswered. I originally thought agencies would still be hungry for senior IT people these days, but maybe not.

Am I correct in assuming that my best line of attack is with executive recruiters? Do you have any suggestions for quality agencies I could contact? Is there a local Long Island CIO group I should begin networking with?

Thanks in advance for your thoughts on the matter.

Anon

Dear Anon:

It can't hurt to be close with executive recruiters, but that isn't where I'd spend the majority of my effort. Remember that the objective of a recruiter is to fill the positions he or she has available, not to act as a resource for you to get another job in a year or two.

That you got no response isn't something of concern. As a matter of procedure, your resume was summarized and placed into the firm's database for future reference. Your best bet is to send that resume to several leading executive-recruitment firms, and keep them up to date on significant changes in experience and accomplishments. Beyond that, use the approach: Don't call them; wait until they call you.

Instead, I suggest that you build a network of other CIOs who will remember your name when headhunters call them about potential jobs. A significant number of job candidates come through referrals. If several people give a recruiter your name, it's likely that you'll be called for a phone interview.

An added advantage of building a CIO network is that you'll have a group of talented individuals with whom you can discuss mutual problems and learn ways of approaching problems that you have in common.

Since you are in the greater New York area, I suggest you make contact with the local chapter of the Society for Information Management. SIM is a nationwide organization of more that 2,000 high-level information technology professionals, and is an excellent source for networking. Also, attend events that tend to attract IT management people in New York, such as the forums and roundtables given by InformationWeek (see InformationWeek Events).

NOTE TO READERS: As I've mentioned, I'm planning to put my InformationWeek columns together into a book with a 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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