Tuesday, March 31, 2015

My CFO thinks he knows technology

After a weeklong discussion on the new business opportunity that clearly defined the process and the strategy, the CMO thanked the IT team and the CIO for their active participation. Then he said something that resulted in pin drop silence and uneasy calm: I think the solution should be ready within a week from now ? You know in college we used to write code and release programs in a few days. The CIO decided to clarify different reality for enterprise solutions that require a bit longer for time measured in weeks and months.

The CIO had invited the CFO to the IT meeting to interact with the team; every month he used to call some of the business leaders to give the team differing perspectives of how they contributed to the business and made a difference. In an endeavor to show off his technical prowess, the CFO asked about the storage environment: why don’t you use the NAS for the ERP ? SAN is expensive; you should know how to economize ! I have been involved in many technology projects and want to help you to choose most optimum solutions !

I had the privilege of working with many CEOs who were tech savvy and challenged me to find new ways to use existing investments as well as keep scanning for new technologies which could be disruptive in the future. The joy of working with such CEOs multiplied the not just my enthusiasm but also kept my teams motivated to put in their best to keep us ahead of the curve. This obviously created a culture of tech adoption that infected the rest of the CXOs to create an enterprise that enjoyed the benefits that IT can bring to the business.

Life gets interesting when some of the CXOs think they know technology better than IT professionals just because they worked in a tech company or studied a programming language in their school. Above are just 2 samples of such dialogues which keep the CIOs challenged and humored at the same time. They would make a great compendium to keep the IT fraternity smiling for a long time; the question that keeps raising its head is how to address such “know IT all” and “been there, done that” situations without creating a scene.

In conversations with many CIOs sharing experiences a few strategies emerged which had worked for most of them. To begin with the general consensus was to humor them by letting them speak out their heart and then keep doing what is in best interest of the project, team and the company. They need a platform to voice their knowledge which makes them feel better about themselves; most are happy doing just that in a harmless way without realizing that their wisdom is no longer relevant to the current technology realities.

The balance select minority of self-professed and declared IT experts who really believe that they know, unaware of when to stop are a challenge that needs handling with care. In positions of influence or power, they can be seriously disruptive to progress. This elite group wants to stay involved, sit through review meetings, add value to discussions with vendors, and get into minute details of deep technology that is best left to the techies. The group had no silver bullet though everyone had faced and managed such individuals in their careers.

Some CIOs had escalated such incidents where possible to the CEO or the Board to get them off their backs. Another avenue appeared to be to get an external third party or consultant on board to provide an expert view to counter the often antiquated, incorrect or incomplete knowledge. For the rest it was about the adverse impact on their deliverables which they were unable to control. So they struggled with shifting goalposts and changing timelines driven by the inane and absurd; they just had to grin and bear it.

One CIO had decided to take on such a CXO head-on and not accept the nonsense; he corrected the CXO in meetings and gave alternative and at times contrary views which almost every time put the CXO in an embarrassing and compromised situation. Unable to withstand the humility of the situation, the CXO confronted the CIO: Why do you keep countering everything I say as if I know nothing ? You make me feel like a chump ! What makes you so right all the time as if you know everything ? Stop doing this else …

The CIO moved on to newer pastures leaving the company to the mercy of half-baked buzzword laden CXO.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The CIOs job is so easy !

They had a new CIO and the IT team was wondering how he would be; the earlier CIO was a self-professed workaholic. A bachelor staying few blocks away, he would land up at the office during his morning jog. He would stay on until the morning review meeting with the team running over every activity of the previous day which they had to record in a timesheet. His need to know everything and micromanage every activity obsessively; the team feared his scrutiny. So when the new CIO was announced, everyone was apprehensive, can it get worse ?

The new guy came on board with his reputation preceding him as a celebrated CIO with much published success. Many of the team members had heard him in a few events and seminars though did not know his personality or working style. His demeanor was friendly and approachable which portrayed a pleasant personality. IT vendors spoke highly of his professional expertise and no nonsense way of working; he was tough with them and yet appreciated their contribution. This confused the IT team especially his direct reports.

The team of seven who ran the IT organization were coincidentally all of the same experience levels though across domains and technologies. Some old and some new, they had a tolerable coexistence with occasional professional conflicts resulting from overlapping responsibilities and dependencies on their individual success. Respective teams ran an efficient shop which the organization was proud of, with early adoption of many technologies. Their only challenge was an unfriendly image of IT which was growing rapidly.

The CIO met with the team collectively and individually within the first week to note their challenges and opportunities, aspirations and setbacks, and to understand the organization and team culture. He looked at their modus operandi, reports they created for internal review, processes and practices they had imbibed; he was quite happy to see their diligence and dedication towards work. He also found that some negativity was attributable to the earlier leader’s high technology orientation and disconnect with the business which rubbed off onto the team.

Soon they settled down into a comfortable rhythm, back to the grind, except that they noticed a subtle shift in the way business interacted with them. It was as if suddenly the enterprise had discovered some of the good qualities of the team that got beaten up every so often for operational failures, some of which had nothing to do with IT. Enjoying their new found status, the team gave it back in kind with positive collaboration towards solving business problems or finding new opportunities to win in the cutthroat industry.

Few in the IT team who were hired by the earlier CIO missed the daily morning grilling and technology sessions; they craved the micromanagement, instructions on how to do, prioritization of their activities; for them the regimented way had comfort, it took away the pain of thinking. They associated the new hands-off approach and delegation with lack of technical prowess and acumen; they saw the CIO attend business meetings, seminars, events, and take lead as the spokesperson for the industry which was in conflict to their benchmark of what a CIO should be.

They seeded thoughts across the IT team on the frivolous nature of their new leader and his style of operation; grudgingly granting the fact that business had begun to love technology and investments had gone up, these were anyway expected. For them success was despite the CIOs interventions and not because of what he did. The majority disagreed though had stray thoughts on what is indeed the role of the CIO and the complexity of the job which seemed to change dramatically with the new person. He appeared to have so much of free time !

I recently met with one of the seven who had taken on the role of the CIO stepping into the shoes of his highly successful boss. He was one of the persons close to the earlier CIO though not critical of the new one; he acknowledged the complexity of the role and the balancing act that it demanded from internal stakeholders expectations, team dynamics and its management, vendor ecosystem that needed periodic attention and finally the orchestration of all the components to keep everyone together aligned to the vision of the company’s future.

Few months into the role, he was struggling with the balance tilting frequently, the bar raised high; he was enjoying the challenge. He had finally found the answer to the question, what is the role of the CIO !

Monday, March 16, 2015

CIO & IT Leader Mid-life crisis

Considering sensitivities and association with personal lives that many would have to this post, I would like to start with a disclaimer. This is an assimilation of experiences and sharing from many people over a period of time and not a reflection of any one person’s life, journey, past or current state. This is a culmination of discussions and advice, coaching sought, mentoring done and observations. I hope that it will be a reality check for some of you as you nurture thoughts on your next career move or becoming an entrepreneur.

It was an evening with select senior CIOs who were at their prime of careers; everyone with 20+ years of experience was visibly sitting pretty in their roles with ample success. They had built teams that delivered to promise made to business; vendors loved them for their business and success stories that they contributed. Everything appeared to be going well for this bunch of elite professionals. However the mood in the group was did not reflect the collective success; it was not gloomy but tentative in the discussions.

1.      I have been working for over 25 years running the rat race; my teams run IT operations efficiently leaving me free to pursue my calling. While everything is going well, I feel an internal unrest and at times insecurity about what next ? Technology disruptions come and go, we embraced some, passed others, and my role has continued to evolve. Internet, Cloud, Mobility, Analytics, BYOD, Big Data, IoT, and what have you, challenged momentarily and then the enterprise adapted, so did I. All of this is now on autopilot mode, I seem to be drifting, how to I stay relevant ?
2.      The organization is changing fast along with the industry; with global aspirations the company is pushing hard, at times really stretching the limits of business and people elasticity. My team is under pressure to do more within finite resources, vendors are seen as inept unable to keep up with new opportunities while we keep pressing the accelerator. I feel inadequate at occasions, a feeling I never had earlier ! My team has aspirations to grow which can be fulfilled only with growth of the enterprise; I think that I need to change tracks and become an entrepreneur.
3.      Not having got what I deserved and alienation with some of the new CXOs, I decided to take the plunge and start on my own. Working as a consultant has not been easy; all the people who flocked around me earlier in my corporate avatar now seem to be distancing themselves; they politely listen to my pitch, then nothing happens. It’s been almost 2 years now and I am reaching the limits of my financial stability which is increasing my anxiety and stress levels; wondering if I should go back to the corporate world with a steady income.
4.      I have had a good time over the last decade with multiple roles with increasing responsibility; IT had a great run with the business contributing to the change and market leadership. The industry is now being threatened with some of the new digital disruptions; my management ignored the early signs and my pleas to change our business model. As a result, our growth has slowed down significantly; costs are being cut to stay afloat. There have been discussions on forced attrition and I am worried that I may be a target as a high cost resource.
Call it circumstantial, self-determined or self-imposed, these are real situations faced by many CIOs in recent times. Losing relevance, hurt professional pride, sidelined due to changing political dynamics, inability to stay engaged with business, insecurity driven by financial goals, the end outcome of these and more is that the CIO in his mid-life and probably peak of career is finding that while s/he has made so many changes to his/per persona with changing technology and business expectations, there is no certainty on his/her continuity.

No magic wand or formula solves these puzzles; mid-life crisis can happen anytime to anyone irrespective of personal and professional credentials. My suggestion is to always build a strong professional network in which you stand for a cause, purpose, proficiency, expertise, thought leadership, or just someone who people can reach out to should they have a need. People always remember you for how you treat them and they do reciprocate. They will open doors for you, and those who won’t, probably you are better off without them.

Get started, it’s okay to be afraid.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Big customer of a small vendor, or small customer of a big vendor

The CEO was perplexed that despite his product having all the features and more when compared to the market leader, most enterprise customers were shy of giving him business. His product was priced at a discount to the larger and dominant players thus providing great business cases and ROI; the technology platform was current versus competition. Customers liked the product and agreed that it met specifications and requirements; however it did not result in business. His company was a young startup and had few customers.

The world of startups is exploding and they offer solutions for existing and imaginary problems that you may have never thought about. Consumer applications are finding their way into the enterprise while the choices for enterprise applications have increased manifold. Convergence across the differing use cases creates opportunities for IT to automate and/or create new process efficiencies. These are beginning to offer viable alternatives to the large vendor solutions with complex licensing models and maintenance contracts.

Meeting a few entrepreneurs exhibited the most prominent feature across all the discussions was the belief and the passion in their ideas. Everyone had a dream to challenge the big players, wanted to solve problems of the world, and almost everyone was born a digital native. For these individuals the pursuit of their dream overshadowed the difficulties they faced learning to survive in fiscal deficit. With loads of infectious enthusiasm they happily demonstrate the value of what they have or plan to build to anyone interested.

They have like-minded teams with great technology skills and ability to create solutions with velocity that puts many enterprise IT teams to shame. They are able to react quickly to market and demands of their sparse customers; the struggle is largely around creating a dialogue with business and IT leaders on how their solutions will benefit the enterprise. They are the advocates and the best salespersons for their companies and solutions and in an endeavor to get first few customers, it is highly probable that they are willing to offer bargain prices.

Most enterprise CIOs and business heads find themselves meeting these entrepreneurs more often, now competing with the larger well established local or global solution providers. The gorillas with loads of muscle power, large number of customers, and an ecosystem of system integrators create doubts in the minds of potential buyers on the stability and longevity of the minnows. Thus in the face of perceived risk most customers end up making the expensive choice of going with the well-entrenched players.

Good news is that there is a wave of fresh air wafting through the crevices in the enterprise fortress – the data center and the application landscape; some successful and early adopter CIOs have taken calculated risks and the call to work with startups. The benefits in almost call cases have been beyond compare with quick and unbelievable ROI; for the struggling beginners these saviors were embraced and they stretched to exceed expectations. The CIOs pleased with success built symbiotic relationships by mentoring them.

For the safety net seekers following conventionally long implementation cycles, the larger players provided rich functionality though with restrictive practices offering ROI over 2-3 years. They became victims of their choices when they could have taken an alternative approach and experimented with the newer generation solutions and enjoyed associated benefits. The loss of agility came with its own set of challenges considering the fact that rarely a solution change is undertaken after long cycle of implementation.

Startups nurture their customers who imposed faith in them; large enterprise customers bring them credibility. They contributed significantly to their revenues which in turn helps them raise money from interested sources. For the large players another customer is just another customer even if you are a dominant force in the industry; exception being companies who are larger than these large vendors and they are just a handful. Relatively size does makes a difference to the treatment the vendors give to a customer.

All things being equal the question is where do you want to be ? A big customer to a small vendor or a small customer of a big vendor ? Your choices will determine not just your success but also your ability to influence the product direction, shape industry solutions, and finally give you a financial advantage. Having been in all the three camps, I would say that being a big customer of a startup outweighs the perceived risks; the sluggishness imposed by big vendors can be a big challenge; finally as a part of startups now I love big customers !

Monday, March 02, 2015

How not to implement an ERP in today's world

I recently met one of the senior team members of an enterprise who had decided to move away from bespoke custom developed solutions to implement a market leading ERP solution. For the company it was a big step forward after much discussion, debate and hesitation on the changeover and expected resultant business impact. They had thought about it many times, engaged with different consultants to assess the business case and every time decided to retain status quo fearing business disruption and no change readiness.

The ERP wave that started in the mid and late nineties ebbed almost a decade back with almost everyone taking one or other solution. The resultant automation, integration of business processes, and transparency brought about a quantum jump in efficiency for most. Some enterprises resisted the change to process and practices embedded in the solutions, ending up with highly customized implementations. They delivered superior results over the earlier tailored solutions though with overhead of maintaining the custom code.

In the ensuing years with the changing industry and economic dynamics, maturity and evolution of the solutions with new features and technology, and new business models, the ERP implementations began to appear as monolithic and unwieldy. The high level of customization became a roadblock towards leveraging newer technology and innovation. Soon it was evident that new strategies will be required to overcome the agility challenge; to gain benefit from the new age solutions, it became imperative to review the IT landscape.

Business CIOs took up the challenge and recommended trimming bolt-on and fringe solutions with every version and technology upgrade. The brave ones endorsed and took up reimplementation of their ERPs which eliminated changes to the core solutions and depended on parameterization over custom code to the extent possible. Advent of the Digital world and on-demand service models gave them an opportunity to stay current and relevant. Few who had implemented out-of-the-box solutions stood validated and happy.

In conversation with my friend I was curious to learn about his journey on the project which had high visibility in the industry due to the large size and complexity as well as the reputation of his company being risk averse. They had gone live after multiple misses to the timeline stretching the project to a level where the fainthearted would have got palpitations. He was not too happy with the end outcome; the project which to begin with had been planned well down to the last level of detail had not gone the anticipated way for many.

The going in mandate was to stay with out-of-the-box best practice processes and functionality with help of one of the best global implementation partners. Everyone had aligned to this direction which was deemed to be the best approach for a large enterprise. Functionality was cast in alignment to available features, changing process to ensure that business requirements are met. Progress suddenly faced potholes and bottlenecks with some new constituents challenging every decision that steered away from changing the system.

Archaic views prevailed over commonsense and best practices were overruled as being irrelevant to the company’s context. The direction was changed to the well-trodden path of an era gone by as the new players had only been on that track which lay mothballed and abandoned by the newer generation of IT leaders and followers. Thus began the regressive journey of change that brought in a battalion of programmers to fit all processes with customizations even if it meant breaking the core to batter the system into a familiar face.

When the secret chambers are opened and fundamental innards tinkered with, something has to break; and it did colossally spinning a spiral from which it became difficult to surface. Despite the writing on the wall the team plodded through with fear of retribution should they even raise a whimper. Deadlines came and went. The chaos and delays started hurting the business who finally found their voice and asked uncomfortable questions. The inept leadership reduced project scope, blamed everyone but themselves, and finally declared go-live with a badly bandaged system.

With an embargo on communications, the real state of affairs will probably never be known, though murmurs are heard off the records of the adverse business impact and the loss of credibility of the team with the business. Published numbers do indicate everything is not hunky dory; I guess that this episode will remain under the carpet for some time to come. Custom applications and customizing commercial off the shelf systems are getting buried. Unfortunately the challenged in positions of power continue to hurtle enterprises down the ravines of ignominy.