Ask The Secret CIO: Boss Decisions

In his reader mail, Herb tackles software piracy on the job, switching careers, leadership, and avoiding office politics.
What happens when your employer is running pirated software?

Dear Herb:

I recently read the comments in Ask The Secret CIO: Cheater's Comeuppance about your column "No Such Thing As A 'Free' PC." About 10 years ago, I encountered an "ethical situation" on the job, and I'd like to know how you would have handled it.

I was a programmer at a propane gas distributor based on Long Island. In the course of my job, I discovered that our mainframe general ledger software package was pirated software.

I asked a co-worker about this and was told that everyone from the owner of the company on down knew about it. I debated with myself about whether to report my employer. My family said I shouldn't risk my job and recommended that I just forget about it. But it kept gnawing at me. I finally decided that I had to find another job. I also decided that if the company was still running the software when I left, I would report it to the appropriate authorities.

A month before I left, the company replaced the pirated software with a legitimate package. I stuck by my decision and didn't report it. However, I felt dirty, because I had compromised my principles. I learned a valuable life lesson from this incident. The next time I encounter this situation, I will report my employer and let the proverbial excrement hit the fan.

I enjoy your column and look forward toward more of your wit and wisdom.


Dear Douglas:

It's a real quandary that you pose. I know that the right thing to do ethically is to tell the boss that no way will you be a party to theft of intellectual property--and, if necessary, report the company. I also know that it's a really difficult decision for someone to make when you have the welfare of your family riding on continuing to bring in a paycheck.

On the other hand, imagine the problem of facing your own family, knowing that you're a party to an unethical as well as illegal act. Day after day, you find yourself being part of a scheme to steal--that's what running pirated software is--from another company.

What to do in this situation? I assume that people who steal generally do it because of the financial gain. Therefore, I think that probably the easiest thing to do is to go to the big boss. Tell him or her that you've discovered that unlicensed software is being run; communicate the potential penalties for not rectifying the situation.

No joke. The Software & Information Industry Association is a trade association with more than a thousand members who pay up some heavy dues to curb such actions as you describe. The group, which used to be known as the Software Publishers Association--the software police--takes a really dim view of such stuff. The stiff potential fines (and unpleasant publicity) are a huge deterrent to anyone who doesn't think that honesty is the best policy.

If your boss is the least bit intelligent, he or she will thank you and ask you to take care of getting the company on the right side of the law. If you are told to ignore it and go back to work, put together your resumé and make a phone call. You don't want to work for anyone that stupid.

Is it a good idea to change jobs?

Dear Secret CIO:

I have 10 years' experience in information technology. I started out as a technical person. I have experience ranging from MVS, VM, PC/LAN, client-server, and Lotus Notes to Web technologies, application development, and project management. Along the way, I obtained a degree in computer science and also an MBA.

I can continue to stick around the IT internal technical administration function, but I'm wondering if I should change my job. I have two opportunities. The first is to switch into our internal audit information systems area. My other option is to move to the commercial side of the business, and do technical sales support for our commercial accounts.

Which do you think would be a good idea?


Dear T.

You are blessed with options. Too many people find themselves locked into a career that they don't like, with no viable way (in their minds) to change the situation.

As you ponder your choices, ask yourself two very important questions: What do I enjoy doing the most? And what are my long-term objectives? Only after you have some sense of these answers can you reasonably decide on a career path.

I have seen too many people who have switched jobs because of money or because someone told them they were wasting their talents, only to find themselves miserable in their new situations.

On an absolute scale, any of your alternatives can make sense. You can get a great deal of satisfaction by keeping all of the networks and back-office hardware running in your present position. Internal audit is a much-maligned but very important function in a company. Systems auditors are valuable allies: They can help find potential problems, give needed support for innovative ideas, and (even when wrong) frequently present ideas worth evaluating. Obviously, sales support is an important function, and working with customers can provide an exciting (and sometimes frustrating) environment that allows you to add real value to the company.

Good luck in evaluating your options.

The cost of office politics is a lot more than the value of any new software system

Dear Herbert:

I spent 15-plus years in mid- to large-size Fortune 500 companies. But at the (short) time I spent at three now-defunct dot-coms, I was refreshed by the teamwork, camaraderie, and "forget who's to blame, let's fix it and get on with it" attitude. The value of ERP, right-sourcing, ASPs--it all pales in terms of cost-efficiency gains when compared to the "outlawing" of political posturing among executive staff.

After reading some of your articles, I feel reassured that I'm not that only one fed up with office politics.


Dear Osias:

Office politics is a way of life in any organization that's not faced with a day-to-day struggle with outside threats. The refreshing part of many dot-coms was the focus on the customer and on surviving, thus keeping the politics down to a rational level.

I have a theory that the more insulated a subculture is from risk (be it a company, university, or civic club), the greater the backbiting and petty politics. If someone else hasn't already figured out the relationship, maybe I'll coin a new Lovelace Law:

The intensity of an organization's office politics is inversely proportional to the amount of need it has to satisfy customers.

Frequently, a good boss can stifle the propensity of some individuals to play games, but it's very hard to change the spots on a leopard. Once, I was put in charge of a group with a reputation for infighting. I told the directors that it was OK to disagree with me and with each other, but that if I found anyone engaging in office politics and back-stabbing, I would fire him or her--and I wasn't smiling when I said it. The biggest game player of all took me at my word and was a team player for the several years that I was in charge. Within six months of my departure, however, word got back to me that this individual went back to his old habits with hardly a wasted motion.

It's a shame that so much effort is wasted on playing games. Maybe we need a big sign on everyone's desk that reminds us that the enemy is out there, not inside our own walls.

The only leader that really counts is the one to whom I report

Dear Mr. Lovelace:

One of my favorite authors said, "none sing hymns to air, until they are without it."

I have seen so many negative examples of management that the few examples of quality leadership stand out like beacons. Heaven knows it's hard to get enough good leaders into a single company that can (a) be willing to stick around and (b) build something that will last more than five years.

I recall a Harvard Business School study reporting that most people stay at their jobs and form their opinions based on their immediate supervisors--the much-maligned middle manager. Despite companywide human-resources announcements, executive initiatives, and consultant-based hoopla, workers form their opinions based on the interpretations their managers place on events.

Although we see only what you choose to put into print, I would assume that someone with an eye for talent, self-awareness, and a wife to keep him honest would be a good boss. How did yours maintain that focus for long enough that you were able to ascend to CIO status?


Dear Gordon:

Thanks for your letter. The study you reference that said that the immediate supervisor was the single most influential reason for a person staying in a job or leaving it rings true to me. We frequently put too much emphasis on policies and processes within a company and not enough on the quality of the team leaders. In my experience, whenever I had abnormal turnover in a group, the vast majority of the time it was because of an inept or untrustworthy supervisor. As I wrote some time ago in Good Worker, Good Manager? when that situation occurs, it's necessary to make changes, and make them quickly.

As for my own career, I had my share of disappointments along the way. I just figured that none of the potential rewards was ever worth doing things or treating people in a way that I would feel uncomfortable telling the family (see Heed Your Embarrassment Quotient). I don't regret for one second ever following that little rule of mine.

This is my final Ask the Secret CIO column. At some point, this online column may resume. I certainly hope so. I've enjoyed the opportunity to interact with you. The Secret CIO column printed in InformationWeek magazine will continue, although not at its previous twice-monthly frequency.

Since June 24, 1996, your letters have raised serious issues about the difficulty of managing information technology in today's world. Given that what we do for a living is simultaneously both critical to society and also frequently absurd, I've tried to answer your questions in a manner that would be useful, as well as fun to read. My objective was to help you, my colleagues in this business, at least partially as much as I've learned myself from your correspondence.

Best wishes, and as you go through the travails of life, may the wind always be at your back.

Herb Lovelace
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