% fortune -ae paul murphy

A brief summary

This is not an excerpt from Brief - those ended last week, and next week we'll start the long and boring slog through the second volume in the series: Business Information Technology: Foundations and Culture. Its purpose, where Brief is addressed to top level executives and Defen is intended for Systems management, is to educate the man in the middle: the user with no real interest in IT, but a job mandate to work with IT people.

Today, however, I thought it might make sense to look at something Sun's president, Jonathan Schwartz, posted on his blog earlier this month in the context of the single most important piece of advice contained in Brief - that whoever runs IT, should actually know IT.

Here's the complete Schwartz posting

A few weeks ago, I was visiting the Chief Information Officer of a large commercial institution. He had with him the company's Chief Technology Officer, Chief Information Security Officer (known as the "see-so"), and a series of lieutenants from various parts of their (large) development organization.

The Sun team had spent the day reviewing our progress together, and was finishing up with a product roadmap presentation. From what I sensed, it'd been a good day, so when I arrived, it was mostly to say thanks for the business, and ensure everyone had my contact info in the event I could help out going forward.

We had just closed the acquisition of MySQL, so before I wrapped up, I asked, "And would you like a quick update on the newest addition to our family, MySQL?"

The CIO responded categorically with "we don't run MySQL, we run [name withheld to protect the proprietary]." The CISO said, "We can't just let developers download software off the net, you know, we've got regulation and security to worry about." The CTO smiled. Everyone else appeared to be sitting on their hands. I was going to leave it at that. Thanks for the business.

Until a (diplomatically) assertive Sun sales rep piped up, "Um... no, I connected with a buddy of mine over at MySQL, and had him check - you've downloaded MySQL more than 1,300 times in the last twelve months."

After a profoundly awkward silence, one of the individuals from their internal development team piped up, "Actually, everybody uses it. Why bother hassling with license agreements when MySQL's got you covered. We're stoked you bought them."

Awkward silences aside, we've now got a very productive engagement with the customer around delivering commercial support on a global basis to what's turned out to be the most popular database inside their development shop. They're finding more and more applications for MySQL, and more ways to save significant time and money in moving toward the future.

And that experience - of a CIO not knowing how ubiquitous and valuable free software has become to their organization - isn't atypical. In fact, it's the norm, and a divide we're gently trying to bridge.

What that company has is an entire top level IT management team that's out of touch with IT - both in terms of what's happening in the industry and in terms of what their own people are doing.

So here's my question: what value do you think the company is getting from them? and if Schwartz is right that this isn't unusual, what does that say about the need for board members and other top level executives to recognize that IT is a technical discipline and putting a non techi in charge a recipe for stagnation, counter-productive expenditure, and management duplication?

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.