Ideal CIO

Our CIO is leaving us for another job. My boss wanted to give my name to someone on the search committee seeking staff input for what we need in a CIO. This is just an organization of my thoughts and conversations I have had.

A couple recent conversations netted these:

  1. Big picture. There are over 100 people working on implementation. You should spend your time deciding what are the goals and priorities not meddling in the details of making it happen. Sure, reports on progress should percolate up, but quality people were hired to make it work, so let us.
  2. What do you bring? What experience do you have? Someone from another kind of environment may lend to a very different operating style than exists here. We operate in higher education but not academia. We work with universities and their users, but we are not ourselves academic. The “needs of many outweigh the needs of the one.” The CIO should fit into our culture and needs.

My own thoughts on the kind of leader I would like:

  1. Students first. We work in higher education, so you need to love students and want what is best for them. If the choice comes down to what is best for students vs what is best for faculty / staff, then the student choice should be the winner every time.
  2. Under promise and over deliver. Failing to meet a deadline even a “super tentative” one makes people unhappy. True, you will survive the first and n times, but eventually these failures will catch up to you. (True, we can sometimes save your ass by getting something out there and refining over time, but that early delivery sucks and the clients know it.) I learned under promise over deliver my sophomore year of college, so it surprises me how so many people at the top level can throw down an unrealistic arbitrary date before we even have looked at specifications or planned what is involved.
  3. Empower automation. My ideal CIO will have me replaced with a shell script. Well, lets me replace myself with them. My goal always is to replace everything monotonous I do with shell scripts and wherever possible schedule them. Why should I spend any time a week on tasks by hand a script can do for me? The first thing sacrificed in insane deadlines is the automation with the hopes of circling back around later to build it. Unfortunately, the success of meeting the deadline by sacrificing some things is more commitments which means no time to circle back around for automation. But, also distance from the initial development makes doing it later harder as what seemed trivial then gets forgotten and complicates the future revisiting. This is also where under promising helps as items like this stay on the plan so it gets done right the first time.
  4. Open architectures. Haters gotta hate. Salespeople gotta sell. That sometimes means glossing over the crappiness of their product(s). Really they cultivate relationships to feel needed. Just like I want to test drive a car before I buy it, I want to stand up the product and have end users clicking every button, administrators running every job, and engineers running it for some portion of the community in a pilot to ensure it works as expected. Pre-sale we learn how wonderful software is and how it will change our lives for the better. We learn just how terrible software is and no different from what we had prior running it for real the first six months.
  5. Need vs want. Our clients will say they want the buzzword of the day, but really they want a specific aspect or another thing entirely who might be somewhat related. Buzzwords create confusion because everyone intends something different by them. They know these are important concepts and use them to sound relevant. You need to tease out their vision and share your own so that when we can deliver yours, they get the thing they expect.
  6. Risk assessment. If you want to do something big, then we are going to tell you what are the risks. It may sound like “No,” but really we are laying out the groundwork for what needs to be overcome for success. Think of it as part of the planning. Pay attention to what is being said as you might learn what seemed easy enough will take far more effort than originally assumed. Use it to set expectations for #2.
  7. Introverts. This is information technology. Some people who work here like computers better than people. (Easier to understand. Consistent.) Extroverted activities are fine, but do not force us to attend. An extrovert is more like to be CIO, but they need to understand we are not all that way.
  8. Real costs matter. Good services improve efficiencies such that people can do more than the past. Bad services bog people down such that they spend more time to do less. One-size fits all products tend to fit into the bad services category. They try to cater to every users’ needs such that they have too many buttons with wrong terminology. Too much time has to be devoted to training just so people can feel comfortable using it. Too much time has to be devoted to support issues so people can figure out how to do basic mandatory tasks. Because really they only ask for help on those issues and curse us for all those tasks they give up on trying to accomplish because it was too hard but not mandatory so ultimately not worth the effort.

The search committee should thoroughly investigate the hire before announcing it. From past experience they will interview, select 1-4 finalists they bring for us to meet, and offer to one. A piece of advice: Any finalist and definitely whomever gets the offer should be vetted beyond just the resume, references, and background check. Do Google searches on them and their last few employers. Investigate further anything publicly negative about them. Even better, talk to people there who are not listed on the references because we the ground level will find out any dirty laundry within days of the announcement. If they are leaving because of a scandal, then you need to know before we do.

(Technically I wrote a draft of this a month ago, but I did not schedule it to publish until later because of this part. A few more items were added since. And decided to publish password protected.) Less than six months into the now outgoing CIO’s reign, I was very unhappy. I was thinking long and hard about how bad of a fit this was to me. The grumbling came from everywhere around me. The last time the people around me were this discontent, I jumped ship and landed here. So I was preparing to jump ship again. In the end, my enormous respect and loyalty to my boss (who had no idea) saved me from going. The difference between last time and this was the great boss.

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