Virtual Mentor - LEADERSHIP - CIO Magazine Jan. 15 2000

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JOHN R.'S BOSSES WANT A LOT. They want to have access to trading-oriented information anytime, anywhere. They want him to build the company's fledgling IT department and grow its infrastructure. And the CEO wants John to assist him personally in evaluating potential investment partnerships.

To achieve the first goal of 24-hour access, John's IT group must complete three strategic projects by the end of the year: link trading and accounting systems, create a Web-based marketing system and centralize contact databases.

Pulling this off will require that John manage competing demands for his department's limited resources, finish his projects speedily and remain within budget. Politically, John must walk a fine line between the conflicting expectations of a technology-aggressive CEO and a cost-focused company president.

CIO asked veteran IT executive Robert Barrett to talk with John about how to handle these familiar leadership challenges.

Divide to Survive

John: Bob, my biggest challenge is that this is a small IT shop, but we have multiple major projects and dozens of smaller distractions to deal with. Not only do I manage, I also like to get my hands dirty with the technology. I'm also assisting the CEO in evaluating potential partnerships for our financial deals. So you can understand how rough it is to stay focused and follow things through because I have all these responsibilities -- which I want. But I need to learn to manage things differently, prioritizing and delegating some responsibilities.

Barrett: At every place I've been, one of the first things I've done is separate day-to-day operations from projects. If operations are broken or someone needs something, they assume you can drop everything and get to them right away. If you do that, your projects will never get done.

John: Exactly. Everything is the end of the world.

Barrett: You have only a few people working for you, so it's tough to do it, but somehow you've got to make that separation -- either divide your people into support versus projects or somehow divide their time between the two.

It's hard to say on average what amount of time you spend fighting fires. But you need that benchmark to make your case when you need more people and also to determine an acceptable level of responsiveness when things are broken. It's nice to be a hero, to run in and fix things when something's broken, but it's way too easy to lose track of a project because it's not due for another month.

John: You've hit on what I was thinking: having someone as a dedicated help- desk person and systems administrator. But I probably wouldn't go to the extreme of giving it all to one person. I would take out some time for myself to assist the system administrator. Since it's such a small shop, I have to be involved or the person would be overwhelmed. I like getting my hands dirty on the technology anyway.

Barrett: I like to play with stuff too, but the playing I do now is writing the occasional Web page, not fixing bugs or writing code. The way I express this to my staff is that they are the managers, and it's their job to fix things. My job as CIO is to break things, to challenge people and move them forward a little bit. I feel for you, John. It's tough to do because you sit there and say, "I can do that better myself. I'm just going to do it." But you've got to force this issue.

John: I understand, especially with my other responsibility of working on partnerships on the financial side. Someetimes you have to pass the ball; that's something I have to become better at.

Barrett: The most important thing you can do is hire the right people and get them trained. Then trust them and give them enough rope to make sure they know what they're doing.

Watch the Clock

John: Part of being with my company is that we want to give back to the community. We donate to schools and nonprofit groups. For example, we donated software to every public school in New York City. One of my IT people had to take a few days to set that up, and I had to do a software demo of Microsoft Encarta for 300 people. We're excited about doing stuff like that, but it affects our ability to get our projects done. How should I communicate to the executives that we want to be flexible but remind them that we have a job to do?

Barrett: You have to make it clear to your bosses that there's a certain price to be paid, and you have to communicate that message in the right way. One of the things I expect from my divisional managers is that they tell me the truth about their workload. Some people are good at doing that; others are always whining about needing more staff. One manager complained that he was overworked. I said, "OK, get an intern," and I approved the funding to hire one. But he kept coming back to complain, and he never hired the intern because he said he didn't have time to recruit and interview and train someone. I didn't have a lot of sympathy. I said, "You're telling me you will never get out of this hole and, furthermore, you're not willing to try?" Others come in and say, "Listen, I'm going to bust my hump and work real hard to get this done, but I need more staff or eventually we'll run into trouble here." That's more likely to get sympathy from the people who set the budgets.

John: If I had a project plan at the time, I could have documented how much time these charitable projects take away from the strategic projects.

Barrett: That's what I'd suggest. Make sure you have a really good list of all the projects and how you spend your time. Include all the operational tasks and these charitable projects as well.

John: I think having a project plan is extremely important. I used Microsoft Project a lot when I was at AMS.

Barrett: Did it include operational activities?

John: No.

Barrett: That's my point. Often that's the piece that's missing.

John: We definitely should add the operational tasks to the project plan. People send us help-desk requests using Microsoft Outlook. I hope there is some way I can tie that in to the project plan just to show the sheer number of calls we have to deal with.

Barrett: When I came to Unitrode, my people were overwhelmed fighting fires. I said I want to hire a full-time person to work the help desk. My guys freaked out and said, "We don't need another help-desk person, we need another programmer to get the work done." My reaction was, "No, we need a help-desk person so that I can start to measure how long it takes to answer these requests and respond to these fires." That way I can make a case to my managers that we need or don't need more people.

Bulletproof the System

Barrett: We keep talking about operations. At both of the growing companies I went to, we spent a lot of time building the infrastructure and firefighting. When I got to Unitrode, the systems were breaking, literally going down two or three times a day. All people could do was fix things. If you can make that infrastructure bulletproof, it will free you up to do the other stuff. Getting to that stage can require an investment upfront. You tend to think, "Oh, we'll get to it later. We don't have the time to upgrade." But biting the bullet and just doing it will pay for itself in the long run. Also, you should decide whether you need the latest version of tthe software or can live with the old one. I have people pushing me for upgrades all the time. To me, having us all on the same version is more important than having the newest version.

John: We're running an old version of communications software and it has a consistent bug we haven't been able to fix. But it would cost $10,000 for vendor support. What else can we do besides upgrade and see if that fixes the bug?

Barrett: I'll push back and say $10,000 may sound like a lot for support, but it might be worth it just to get that out of your way. It gets back to bulletproofing the operation so that you can get into the strategic stuff. Whether it's fixing a bug or upgrading a version or even supporting it, that's something you really ought to think about outsourcing. I know you're trying to cut costs, but I think you've got to wrap that cost into a project's business case.

John: We do want to cut costs, but we also want to get things done. That's a great idea -- make the server software upgrade part of a project.

Barrett: We did it at Unitrode. When we went to the latest version of Microsoft Office and Windows NT and everything else that went along with it, we made it one big project to upgrade everything. Get an outside team to do it, or have your people do it over a weekend.

Make a List and Check It Twice

John: There are some conflicting priorities on our executive committee. Our CEO wants information to be accessible from anywhere, but he hired our president to temper that push. The president wants IT to be a great department, but he wants to keep the budget down.

Barrett: Sounds like you've got two different bosses, John, and I'm not sure that you have clear agreement on expectations and how to manage in both directions at the same time.

John: Exactly. How do I approach that?

Barrett: I'd go back to that list of projects. Show both of them your projects, who is working on them, the time frame, and lay out the progress you're making. Below that is your wish list -- here are all the other things we could be working on, including all the little things that take up your time. Like the charitable work. Get it all on one list and show it to them often. Every time you talk about priorities, pull out the same list. So when one boss wants to add a project, you say, "Here's my list. Which of these other projects do you want to put lower in priority?" If the other executive wants to cut costs, you say, "Here's what I'm working on; which one do you want to cross out?" That consistent framework helps the CEO and president understand the trade-offs of adding things and taking things away.

John: Sounds like this project plan should be my right-hand man.

Barrett: But you can't wave this list around every time you see someone with a request. You use it just enough to give them the feeling that you are managing against known priorities. There's art in how you do that; how you play the politics. Part of being a manager is getting people to trust you.

Three Weeks Later...

John reports that he has indeed separated operations responsibility from development. He has created a support specialist position, and he is redirecting all help requests to that individual. "I'm getting more distance for myself from the support function," John says. "At first, people were apprehensive, but the support person I designated is doing a great job, and he's responding to people a lot faster than I thought he could have."

This division is already paying off. IT's productivity on the strategic projects has "gone through the roof," John says. And his project plan now includes operational tasks as well as strategic projects. "I've been putting everything I can into the project plan to present to the executives. I even added training for PowerPoint users just yesterday."

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