% fortune -ae paul murphy

The Non IT, IT boss, Isn't

The talkbacks associated with my IT Commandment #2, (Thou Shalt Honor and Empower thy Sysadmins) were disappointing in that I had expected a much more raucaus debate. One interesting theme that did emerge, however, focused on the use of non IT staff to interface IT staff to the business.

Here's part of an exchange between Anton Phildor and Roger Ramjet:


Yes, some IT sections do take as much control as possible away from users. Some IT sections are already being newly led by non-IT staff, and these two facts may be connected.

You saw the article about CIOs searching for people with a business as well as an IT background. That's to make certain they understand what's being told them when they go walkabout.

The CIOs have even hired people from other fields to lead IT projects, maybe because IT staff might be too IT-centric.


That is what us old-timers call MIS - a VERY separate discipline from CIS. MIS students take a bunch of business classes and a handful of low-level CIS classes (no compiler-design here!). To say that these people "understand what's being told them when they go walkabout." is akin to saying "George Bush knows what he's doing in Iraq because he's commander-in-chief"

Personally, I think Mr. Bush and the United States are doing the right things in Iraq, but Roger isn't picking a fight over politics, he's pointing out that these people generally don't understand either the business or IT - and if you doubt him on the implications of this, here's an experiment you can try: take any real world IT decision in your environment and carefully explain the issues to a non technical "business" person. Then ask someone else to email that person a request for help understanding the decision and finally compare what that produces to what you said. What you'll find is that some issues get simplified, key decision qualifiers get dropped, technology considerations get mis-represented, and some completely unrelated issues or technologies usually get dragged in.

If I argued that my total inability to speak, understand, or read Mandarin qualifies me as an intermediary on business dealings between Western and Chinese companies you'd think me nuts, right? Now think about companies hiring non IT people to interface their business and IT groups and tell me how that differs?

You do see this a lot, however, particularly in larger organizations - and it's not just at the intermediary levels.

As Anton mentions, many organizations have put a "business person" in as CIO to ensure that IT meets business needs while others have out-sourced IT so non IT executives can imagine themselves managing IT by managing the outsourcing contract.

In my experience, however, these methods don't work in the long term. In the short term what they do is put a translator or mediator between two groups given up as otherwise irreconcilable: Systems people and Business people. Indeed IT outsourcing is often little more than a thinly disguised method of firing the IT department without admiting responsibility for making it what it is.

That's obviously both inappropriate and inefficient - basically when you see this you know that either somebody behind the scenes is doing the real job or the job's just not getting done. Either way it signals managerial failure in the executive suite: with either unnecessary overhead or an IT operation running on automatic as immediate consequences.

Consider, for example, the position a non technical ("Business") CIO is in with respect to the three basics of the CIO job: IT strategy, IT Assurance, and IT delivery.

How does a "business" person develop an independent opinion on things like which direction to take the company ERP/SCM package? or whether the zOS, Solaris, or Windows 2003/XP server application environments are better long term choices for the business? Answer: the good ones are like green lieutenants: they find and the rely on a smart non-com, thereby making that person the actual CIO and turning themselves into a mouthpiece for budget requests and reporting.

The bad ones, of course, take advice from the nitwit on the next barstool (meaning they destroy the corporate opportunity to gain competitive advantage from IT by doing whatever's popular), occasionally wander off on adventures of their own, and eventually bring the IT operation to the state of continual near collapse characteristic of most organizations which try this.

Similarly, when this person assures his peers on the executive committee that normal operational standards are being met, and that the IT operation is running smoothly, efficiently, and securely those other managers should ask the obvious question: how does this CIO know? Answer: if there's a real CIO in the background, that person probably knows; but if there isn't, then the acting CIO has no real way of getting a clue and is therefore simply parroting what relatively junior managers with axes to grind are telling him to say.

And, finally, how does this person know that IT delivery is efficient? effective? up to date? appropriate to the business? Answer: either there's a real CIO, or it's barstool conversation at best.

Bottom line: an organization whose IT chief is without IT skills, or which needs multiple MIS "project managers" with neither line nor IT skills, is an organization in deep trouble.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.