Ask The Secret CIO: Attention Spans, Metrics, And School Daze

Herb responds to reader mail: how to get the attention of a CIO, the importance of performance metrics, which company he does not work for, and whether it's better to get a technical or liberal arts degree.
What can I do to get the attention of the CIO?
Dear Mr. Lovelace:
As the CIO at a large company, what advice would you give to a salesperson who's offering professional-services automation software to manage projects, resources, and time?

I'm new to selling to large, technical companies--though not to sales. In keeping with the spirit of your comments in What Is It That You're Selling?, I was once told to be "friendly, honest, and not pushy."

Do you have any specific words of wisdom with respect to getting the attention of the CIO or key people within a company like yours?

Thank you,

Dear Casey:
Wow! I'm impressed. I wrote that column back in October 1999. You have a longer memory than Cindy does when I forget to do something at home that I have promised her. Well, almost.

With the products you're selling, I think you have a good opportunity to get the attention of the CIO. As one friend in the industry likes to point out, what separates the really successful CIO from those who find themselves looking for a new job every few years is the ability to bring critical projects in on time and on budget.

The difficulty we face in the IT community, more so than in the past, is that so many of our software-development activities are interconnected. That means that if one project starts to crater, it can take several others with it. For example, you discover that people involved in the sinking ship are supposed to start another key job next week (and because they won't, how do you tell the impatient sponsor?). Or you sadly remember that another critical job requires some part of the troubled project for its own completion.

One unexpected consequence of so much investment in enterprisewide systems is the total dependency of one task on another. Building large systems today is like trying to separate pickup sticks. You're lucky if the whole pile doesn't collapse the minute you touch something. Good project-management software--and the fortitude to implement it rigorously--can go a long way toward making a CIO's life easier.

What you sell is in the category of products that can be really useful. To get your message across, don't waste time with the customer. Whether it's the CIO or someone lower in the food chain of the target company, follow these steps:

  1. Explain, during the first few minutes of the meeting, why you're there and what you expect to accomplish, both in that meeting and long term with that company.
  2. Briefly talk about what your products have accomplished for other companies, preferably in the same or related industries.
  3. Ask if the information you're conveying is relevant to that company's problems or opportunities.
  4. Find out what questions the potential client has. Answer them right there if you can do so competently, or promise to get back with the information.
  5. Find out what the next steps are to pursuing a successful relationship.
Of course, what I haven't covered is how to get in to see the CIO or someone in authority in the company. Perseverance helps. It's also useful to have a good customer reference, so you can say that you'd like an appointment to show what you did for Joe Jones of XYZ Corp. We all love to hear how our peers have accomplished something in their own companies.

Good luck. And keep in mind that what you're selling may be future job security for some of your potential customers.

Measurement is my metric
Dear Herb:
It seems to me that too many IT companies are concerned with "get the job done yesterday" when it comes to improving performance. Instead, they should be measuring the metrics behind the poor IT results that are causing them so much unhappiness.

Do you think this is a common trend, the focus on results instead of the processes that produce those results that are so poor?

What do you think is a good way to express the importance of performance-metrics measurement to the C-level executive (CEO, CIO, CFO) in an IT industry?


Dear PWE:
It's human nature to pay more attention to the outcome of an event than to the processes that got you there.

Except in very good companies, when a project fails, the first tendency is to try to fix blame, rather than understand what was learned from the experience. It's downright hard to go back and analyze what went wrong. It's even harder to figure out how to change the process to eliminate the errors.

I don't think, though, that focusing on results instead of processes is a trend. In fact, even in poorly managed companies, there's almost always a post-mortem to determine what went wrong. The fact is that there has simply been too much work done on quality and six-sigma not to have affected how we view outcomes.

Of greater concern is the tendency of some people to wait until something does go wrong before modifying a process. These are the people who, when building a system, go rapidly through the development phases and then make corrections just before implementation. For whatever reason, they don't seem to understand that it's a lot less costly to change a specification than it is to modify a production system.

If you want to convince the C-Level executive of the wisdom of performance-measurement metrics, you best have some understandable and meaningful ones. Too often I've had people come to me suggesting measurements that either tell me nothing or provide me with information about which I could do nothing.

Let me give you an example. If someone wants to measure the number of lines of code produced by a programmer, I'm not interested. Years ago, one person in my group was slower than anyone else in writing code, but everything she wrote worked the first time it ran. She simply did not make errors.

I think you'll find that executives will listen to you if you keep three things in mind.

  1. Good performance-measurement metrics are not subjective. Two people measuring something with good metrics will come up with the same answer.
  2. The metrics should be clear to someone who's not a technical expert (try explaining function points to your CFO).
  3. What you measure is important in understanding what can be changed to get better performance.

And the answer isn't ...
Do we get a prize for guessing which company you work at?

I am going to take a shot. First, in Let's Cut Out The Petty Perks, you were talking about the Danish and coffee restriction. There was an article in The Wall Street Journal about companies getting rid of perks like this.

Also, you've said that your company is not doing as well as expected lately. Now, that's a difficult one; a lot of companies are reporting poor earnings. But I think your [email protected] E-mail ID puts the icing on the cake!

So here's my guess: I will scramble the three letters for entertainment purposes: TT&A!


Dear Benjamin:
Nope, it isn't TT&A, T&AT or whatever. But it is an interesting guess.

Once, shortly after he joined AT&T, I had the opportunity to have lunch with Mike Armstrong. He was making a sweep through town, hosting customers and making speeches to various groups. For some reason, I was invited to sit at his table (possibly because, at that time, I was in the midst of a very large evaluation of which carrier would get our business).

I was impressed with Armstrong's energy and his grasp of the forces attacking the marketplace. Here, I thought, is definitely the alpha male needed to turn this stodgy old company around. What Bob Allen could not accomplish, this guy can, I concluded.

What sealed his virtues in my mind was his business card. It was an AT&T calling card, good for 30 minutes, if I remember correctly. Wow, what a neat idea, I thought.

After the luncheon, I even thought about buying some AT&T stock, but decided not to break my longstanding self-imposed rule about investing in any company with which I might do business. As it turned out, that was fortunate, since AT&T stock soon started its precipitous slide.

My opinion of Mike Armstrong hasn't changed. I just think that some problems are harder to solve than others and that even the smartest people can make the wrong moves when they get into a new job.

Oh, by the way, I'd like to point out that other companies besides Comcast offer their customers access to the Internet service provider network.

Technical or liberal arts degree--which is better?
Dear Herb:
I received my bachelor's degree from an institute that focuses education on your major and not on a wide variety of unrelated courses. I think this type of focus is better for career-minded students than a liberal arts school.

One day, while at a state university, I spoke briefly with the head of the computer science department, who disagreed with my opinion. He believed that employers wanted graduates from traditional schools with a "well-rounded, liberal arts education."

What do you think?

Dear Jeffrey:

To paraphrase Tevye from Fiddler On The Roof: You're right--and so is he.

Employers want graduates who have the ability to do their jobs. They also want those employees to be flexible enough to handle assignments that were not available or were not high on the priority list when they were hired.

Whether those types of people are best developed by a liberal arts education or by technical specialty schools is open to debate. A lot of the answer depends on how much in the way of general skills are required in the job vs. technical depth. Personally, I've always thought that the individual's native skill and interest in a broad range of knowledge is more important than what type of degree he or she has earned.

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. And feel free to join me in my discussion forum.

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 you 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.