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The life of a CIO: It's not pretty

The life of a CIO: It's not pretty

Lofty title but plenty of landmines

Want one of the worst jobs in American industry? Try chief information officer, a job with a lofty title and plenty of land mines, almost all of them more related to Machiavelli than technology.

Take my friend Gomez (not his real name):

"I barely escaped the debacle of Y2K. I thought I saw a cute way to upgrade all of my systems through supplemental budgets. Well, the corporadoes came after me with tongs. The only thing that saved me was that everyone knew we had been underspending, but no one wanted to face up to it.

"Now? Now the big push is to drive costs down. Which means I have been to India so often that I have started to understand cricket. The first blush is over, but all those firms are making 40 percent on our work, and the corporate push is to go in ourselves and set up a 'center of excellence' in Hyderabad or Bangalore. Management isn't content to just do software and applications -- they are looking at exporting to India every job that conceivably could be done. At least they speak English; my counterpart in manufacturing has to go to China every six weeks.

"At the same time, the divisional IT guys are playing this cute game; they give great lip service to having common platforms and cooperating, but when push comes to shove -- they push and they shove. And since they really work for the divisional manager, they are always going to do what works for him first.

"More importantly, they really control the bucks. I have all of the responsibility, but only one-third of the actual dollars. And who do you think takes it in the ear when the systems are down? Me. Not to mention that each and every one of them thinks -- no, make that 'knows' -- he could do my job better than me.

"What's left? When you come down to it, I am just a high-priced purchasing agent. I am supposed to beat up on our 'strategic vendors' to get continual price reductions and to drive down the processing cost for each transaction.

"We have too many systems, too many vendors, too many platforms. I tried to offer a bonus if we could simplify -- but the answer always was, 'tell the other division to use ours' -- and no one wanted to be the one who changed.

"When it comes to new technology, the divisions always have an answer -- 'let corporate pay for it' -- but they are the ones who will benefit.

"Did you see that Dilbert cartoon a few weeks ago, where the pointy-haired boss told everyone to use open source because it was free, and they confiscated his trade magazines? That is exactly what I have here. Everyone is an expert. Somebody will have read BusinessWeek on Saturday and come marching into my office on Monday asking about what our virtualization strategy is. My job is to keep the systems running, and Amateur Night Software is not going to hack it. I tell them that they can have free or they can have systems that work, but they can't have both.

"I am supposed to divine the future but if I look out five years, I am categorized as having my head in the clouds. If I get on the divisional guys because of their ridiculous, unused software licenses, I am viewed as too much of a green-eyeshade type. We have no idea what we have, what we are using and what we are paying. Don't tell anyone that, but sometimes I am more of an accountant than an information officer.

"I spend too much of my time either going to Gartner meetings -- where we are spending US$200,000 a year to hear a keen sense of the obvious -- or in endless internal negotiations. My CEO keeps wanting to buy companies on Monday and have them fully integrated on Tuesday. And every time he does this, he justifies it by saying that savings will come from the 'back room' -- which means me. But the acquired company knows that once we integrate, their jobs are redundant, so they push for best-of-breed, which is shorthand for 'let's take two years.'

"And every time I come up with the rationale to kill a system, the divisional manager says it's strategic -- whatever that means. I will tell you what it means: lose money.

"So what is my job? Compromising. Compromising all day long. And trying to find a reason to rationalize this complete mess we call information systems.

"I have gone through centralization, then decentralization and then centralization again. I swear it is the McKinsey Full Employment Program. My network is held together by bailing wire, our Internet strategy is nonexistent and it is ever and ever harder to hold on to my technical people. All the new young Turks avoid working on our legacy systems and want to do the next cool thing, but those systems are the only thing that keeps us from spinning completely into chaos.

"Now if you will excuse me, I either have to go slit my throat or prepare to go to another silly meeting."

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