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September 09 2012

The many sides to shipping a great software project

Chris Vander Mey, CEO of Scaled Recognition, and author of a new O’Reilly book, Shipping Greatness, lays out in this video some of the deep lessons he learned during his years working on some very high-impact and high-priority projects at Google and Amazon.

Chris takes a very expansive view of project management, stressing the crucial decisions and attitudes that leaders need to take at every stage from the team’s initial mission statement through the design, coding, and testing to the ultimate launch. By merging technical, organizational, and cultural issues, he unravels some of the magic that makes projects successful.

Highlights from the full video interview include:

  • Some of the projects Chris has shipped. [Discussed at the 0:30 mark]
  • How to listen to your audience while giving a presentation. [Discussed at the 1:24 mark]
  • Deadlines and launches. [Discussed at the 6:40 mark]
  • Importance of keeping team focused on user experience of launch. [Discussed at the 12:15 mark]
  • Creating an API, and its relationship to requirements and Service Oriented Architectures. [Discussed at the 15:27 mark]
  • 22:36 What integration testing can accomplish. [Discussed at the 22:36 mark]

You can view the entire conversation in the following video:

December 20 2011

The price of greatness: Three takeaways from the biography of Steve Jobs

Steve JobsAs the first Christmas approaches without Apple founder Steve Jobs, it's worth pausing for a moment to appreciate what he has left behind.

In addition to an astoundingly healthy business with $80 billion in the bank, recent analysis by Andy Zaky of Bullish Cross suggests that in the current holiday quarter, Apple will record its largest earnings blowout ever.

This is on top of unparalleled customer loyalty and brand recognition, not to mention a potent halo effect generated by Apple's iPhone, iPad and Mac products.

Yet, according to analyst Zaky, Apple remains the most undervalued large cap stock in America. It's almost as if Apple is saving "one more thing" for the holidays; this one, a stocking-stuffer for investors.

I bring this last point up because the notion of Apple still being undervalued (and under-appreciated), despite the accomplishments, accolades and attention, suggests something about the human condition; namely, that when faced with an exceedingly bright and brilliant light, our minds naturally filter it down a bit.

But true greatness, the kind realized by Jobs in his life, and by Edison, Disney and Ford before him, is best appreciated without filters, for it is something that is experienced perhaps only once in a generation.

With that in mind, I want to share three takeaways from Walter Isaacson's biography of Jobs that spotlight both the greatness of the man and the price that greatness demands.

"The flu game"

In the annals of professional sports, there is perhaps no individual performance more emblematic of greatness in action, than "the flu game" in the 1997 NBA Finals, where a flu-ridden Michael Jordan overcame a stomach virus that had rendered him weak and dehydrated to score 38 points and lead his Chicago Bulls to a 90-88 victory over the Utah Jazz in Game 5. They won the series in six games.

That one man could overcome, no ignore, failing health to will his team to victory is both a defining example of the greatness of Michael Jordan as a basketball player, and no different than how Jordan approached every game that he played.

I thought about this a lot in reading Jobs' bio, inasmuch as one of the key takeaways (for me) from the book was how Apple's rise from the ashes was largely accomplished with its leader fighting not a flu, but cancer, and not for one game, but for eight years.

We all know about Jobs' battles with cancer, his forced leaves of absence, and the fact that he was never quite physically restored to the cherub-like state that he embodied when he first returned to Apple in 1997.

But the book lays clear, painfully so, something that all of us grokked and groped from the shadows but could never truly "know" because it wasn't public: from the moment he got sick in 2003 to when he died in October of this year, Jobs was never fully healthy again


Quite the opposite, in fact. He was literally fighting a continuous battle with his body, and a metastasizing cancer, yet still led his team to a series of triumphs that have no equal in the annals of business.

What Steve Jobs accomplished after cancer

  1. iTunes Store ramp
  2. iPhone
  3. iOS + App Store
  4. iPad

During this period, Apple stock surged more than 3,000%, and for Jobs personally, it was only his second greatest financial achievement; he would realize far greater personal wealth leading Pixar's evolution from a failing tech provider for the film business into Disney 2.0.

Apple's stock performance

Just as Jordan's flu game is simultaneously emblematic and par for the course of his greatness, so too was Jobs' leadership of Apple during his period of sickness.

The man known for reality distortion and an unwavering, uncompromising pursuit of the insanely great, ignored his own personal suffering, paying the ultimate price to achieve greatness. More so than any nugget from the Steve Jobs bio is this coarsely ground truth, something that should serve as a reminder the next time we wonder why there are so few great leaders, and even fewer great companies.

Yeah, but he was a jerk

Those who seek to dismiss or marginalize the accomplishments of Jobs tend to focus on one of three things.

Either they diminish his accomplishments as a modern-day Edison since Jobs wasn't an engineer, or they give props to Jobs' marketing savvy as a backhanded-way of diminishing the realness of what he built.

Or, they point out that he was a narcissistic jerk who took credit for the accomplishments of others, was controlling, belligerent, and probably not the prototypical role model of the family man (home for dinner, mowing the lawn on the weekends).

I'd like to focus on this last point, as it is simply irrelevant to the field of play that Jobs made his mark within.

Few of us know or care if Michael Jordan is a nice guy, whether Walt Disney remembered the names of his workers' kids or if Thomas Edison pet his dog. Case in point, Henry Ford held anti-Semitic views, but that doesn't mute the impact that Ford had on the field of play that is the automotive industry.

In Jobs' case, we have already established how fully the man led by example; how unparalleled the financial results his company generates are; and the deep, emotional bond that Apple products engender with users. But, also know that Jobs built a corporate culture defined by longevity, loyalty, depth, purpose and intellectual honesty — but above all, peak performance.

In other words, in the field of play that is creating enduring companies that build products that "make a dent in the universe" (a Jobs axiom), whether the leader is warm, fuzzy and personally likable is mostly orthogonal to the outcomes that he manifests.

Sweating the details

So, we've established that Jobs led by example, making the ultimate sacrifice so that his vision, his purpose in life, could be realized.

And we've noted that whatever personal peculiarities adorned the man, they didn't tarnish his accomplishments one iota.

In closing, I'd note how Jobs' manifestation of these attributes translated into the type of leader who plugged himself into an entire category of granular decisions that on the one hand, most CEOs would delegate "on principal," but on the other, it's darn near impossible to imagine an un-Jobsian leader being able to yield the wealth of transformational products that Apple has created.

One such example explored in the book are the specific materials and production processes that Apple uses in building its products. Such is the story of Gorilla Glass, the exceptionally lightweight, damage-resistant glass that came to anchor the screen of the iPhone.

How Gorilla Glass came to be is classic Jobs.

Internally, the iPhone team was driven by a realization that the centerpiece of a touch-driven phone was the display, not a composite of screen, casing and keyboard.

Armed with this clarity, Jobs drove the Apple team to re-think the form of the device around its display centricity. But, of course, this begged the question of the integrity and durability of the display material being used.

While conventional wisdom initially drove the company toward plastic screens, as the iPod had used, Jobs focused on the elegance and substantive nature of glass.

Having gotten wind from an old friend that Corning Glass was doing some amazing things with chemically-fortified glass, in typical Jobs fashion, he tracked down Corning's CEO, who told him about a chemical process that had actually originated in the 1960s but had never found an appropriate commercial application.

Convinced that he had found the right answer, Jobs challenged Corning's CEO to commit to both the capacity and timeline needed to achieve the scale Apple required to meet the iPhone launch deadline.

It was a game-changing solution for an unproven new device from an approach that had never been produced commercially prior to that point. And it worked!

There are similar stories in the book about the advent of multitouch, Apple's embrace of intricate metal fabrication processes, mass-purchasing of pinpoint lasers and the internal prototyping culture that instructed what became the Apple Stores.

Beyond showcasing the many incredible qualities of Jobs, all of this serves to underscore that having a simple product line — in terms of having very few products — is very different than having a simple product strategy. With scarcity comes focus, and with focus comes precision.

A final thought

There are many of us who consider ourselves to be entrepreneurs, inventors, and startup guys and gals, but I think this quote from Jobs captures the essence that there are no shortcuts to greatness. Greatness is dedication. It's a demand, and it's a detail. Or, as Jobs said:

I hate it when people call themselves entrepreneurs when what they're really trying to do is launch a startup and then sell or go public so they can cash in and move on. They're unwilling to do the work it takes to build a real company, which is the hardest work in business.

Amen. Somewhere in the universe, there is a hole where the light of Steve Jobs still shines through.

Photo of Steve Jobs from Apple Press Info.


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October 31 2011

June 01 2011

Will your business survive the digital revolution?

Over the last few years we've watched in giddy disbelief as a web-based social network launched from a dorm room at Harvard University unexpectedly found its way to be an enabler of a Middle East uprising. We've seen how new types of media have propelled people and events into the spotlight and even helped elect a U.S. president. We've looked in awe as mobile devices connected to a ubiquitous network have brought global commerce to the most remote parts of the developing world. We've seen 100-year-old businesses vanish as cocky upstarts replace their once unshaken dominance. We've delighted as citizens have been empowered by a new ease in which to leverage recently liberated stores of data held by governments.

With just these few observations it's clear to all of us that technology is no longer just in support of our lives and organizations; it's taking a commanding and empowering position. And it's vital that we all fully understand just how profound these changes truly are (and will be). The very survival of your organization likely depends on it.

Are we at the start or the end of this technology revolution?

We observe these incredible events unfold and this may lead us to believe we've reached a new pinnacle of technological innovation. Many of us might believe that we're peaking in our capacity to make amazing things happen. To them I say: we've barely even started.

From economics to democracy, from health to entertainment, from retail to education, and everything else in-between, something remarkable is happening.

In my view the events described here are just the beginning of a seismic shift in our human experience. Indeed, these innovations are not reserved for a single nation or continent. This technology-based revolution is the first to quickly reach and impact every corner of the planet.

Every generation believes it lives through remarkable and changing times. And that is probably true. But the large transformations, most recently like those of both the agricultural and industrial revolutions, don't happen that often. These changes are a railroad switch that shifts the course of human destiny. Some have coined our era as the information revolution. But the emergence of the information age has merely been the precursor and a glimmer of things to come.

The true revolution is the convergence of many things. Revolutions require more than just a few elements to be in place. Historically they have required a unique alignment of qualities such as economic and political conditions, readiness for change, demographics and a catalyst.

We see much of that today. Of course, today the catalyst is the Internet. It's also the ease in which so many of us can now produce digital innovation (creating new value through electronic, non-analog means). It's also about the availability of low-cost, ubiquitous global communication networks with an abundance of devices connected. It's close to zero-cost cloud-based storage. With low cost storage comes the easy retention of massive volumes of data and when it's coupled with the fact there are so many opportunities to collect that data; new uses and value can be derived from it.

There is a new world order that is unique to our time that is also enabling this change. Not least the emergence of prosperity in many part of the world and the breathtaking rise of the BRIC nations and others. This prosperity is creating a new class of educated, global participants. This means more competition and it means more innovation. It's all these things and more converging to produce a significant technology-based social and business disruption.

As this technology revolution unfolds, does your business have a survival plan?

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The evidence is clear

The signals are in both the destruction of existing paradigms and in the creation of completely new ones. We're watching entire industries disappear or be reinvented through digital transformation: newspapers, books, movies, music, travel agents, photography, telecommunication companies, healthcare, fund-raising, stock-trading, retail, real estate, and on and on.

Digital innovation has few geographic boundaries, so the disruptor can emerge from almost any place on earth.

Completely new models are emerging: location-based services, mobile apps, gamification, payment systems and new forms of payment, cloud computing, big data analysis and visualization, recommendation engines, near-field communications, real-time knowledge, tablets and other new form factors, augmented reality, gesture-based computing, personal medicine, large scale global social networks, microblogging and more. Many of these did not exist five years ago and many more will exist in the next five years. In fact, the next major disruptor is probably already underway. This kind of change is equally exciting and terrifying for organizations.

Why it is different this time

When the Walkman became the Discman, the music industry flourished. But when the digital MP3 player was introduced, the music industry was fundamentally and forever reinvented. Digital transformations are not subtle or calm. They are equal measure painful, chaotic, and exciting.

When mobile phones were introduced they enabled people to untether themselves from a fixed wire and talk almost anywhere. That was useful and convenient. But when smartphones freely enable the coordination of people and events that facilitates the overthrow of a corrupt government, this is not business as usual. That's a fundamental shift in how humans communicate and coordinate their activities.

It will be a rough ride

Sure it won't all be rosy and bad people will do bad things using more of this technology. But that's certainly not news. The vulnerabilities will grow but so will our ability to fight attacks. Opportunities in security will remain in high demand.

There will also be booms, bubbles, and busts. That's a normal part of the economic lifecycle. In fact, outside of the obvious pain it causes, a bust can be a valuable response to irrationality in the market. We will see many of these cycles through this transformation, but I believe we will net out with a continued exponential growth in digital innovation.

The big stuff is yet to come

When you observe how digitization causes significant economic restructuring and the emergence of completely new forms of business, and you factor in an entirely new level of social connectedness, it's hard not to conclude that big things are ahead.

It's also easy to be unfazed by the digital change underway, particularly if you're working deep within it. In addition, it's equally easy to become fatigued and even cynical about further change. But stop, elevate yourself above the chaos and noise, and the digital transformation is a palpable societal disruption.

At the heart of this blog is not a regurgitation of change that many of us already recognize and embrace; moreover, it's about urging each one of us not to underestimate this transformational shift. It's also neutral on the subject — but recognizes — the social and economic negatives that may result. Big shifts like these do evoke, for example, strong feelings of nationalism (somewhat ironically). But I'll steer away from this subject for now.

Failure to anticipate, prepare and respond sufficiently is a significant organizational risk. In other words, delivering your product or service to the market of yesterday and today without constantly exploring reinvention for the market of tomorrow may be certain business suicide. And while that's largely always been true, it's seldom been so necessary and urgent.

Once we recognize the magnitude of change that digital innovation is causing and may bring in the months and years ahead, it will help us to think bigger and to think in ways that may previously have seemed absurd.

As inventors and facilitators of the future we would do ourselves a great injustice to underestimate the change.

The digital revolution: my own personal experiences

Let's just take a quick look at my world for a moment. In many areas of my life it's fascinating comparing how I did things in 2001 vs. how I do them now in 2011. By the way, it's worth noting that while I immerse myself in technology and innovation through my work, I'm not particularly unique in the way I use technology outside of work.

So let's take a look at some of the changes over the course of 10 years: I no longer wear a watch. No need, I get time from my smartphone. I got rid of my landline phone. My phone is my smartphone. I never go to a bank. Done online. I don't know anyone's phone number by heart. I select a name and my phone dials the number. Outside of a radius of a few miles, I don't know how to get anywhere anymore without my GPS. I never use a map. I barely mail a letter. My use for stamps is diminishing. I seldom print anything. Everything that can be reserved, I do online. I don't watch scheduled TV. I watch shows off my digital video recorder or computer when I want (in HD, no less). I use my smartphone for less and less voice calls. I text. I read, take classes, post photos, write, research, play, watch movies, listen to music, comparison shop, order insurance, complain and more all online.

I'm pretty sure your experiences are fairly similar.

Perhaps it is a little bit of an exaggeration, but I mostly only emailed and consumed static content online in 2001.

Almost every one of these areas represents an industry. And as a result of these enabled behavioral changes over the course of a mere 10 years, within these industries many organizations have been created and destroyed.

If this kind of transformation can happen in the past 10 years, with everything we know about how things are trending, what might our lives look like in 10 years from now? While not necessarily a novel question, I'm simply suggesting each of us are being forced to think bigger and more innovatively than ever before about the realities and possibilities of the future.

So what should organizations do?

I'm confident most enlightened organizations have some form of a strategy in place. That's good news. For those that don't or are hesitant, it's time to act. In either case, the following are just a few fundamentals worth considering:

  • Recognize the magnitude of the digital revolution in acceptance and in action.
  • Invest in understanding how your organization can anticipate and respond quickly to change.
  • Monitor and interpret trends and new technology entrants.
  • Audit your vulnerabilities and score progress and risk on a regular basis.
  • Prepare by taking greater risks.
  • Innovate as standard practice (this doesn't just happen, you need a strategy).
  • Make bold changes in order to continue to succeed when disruption is a certainty.

Technology used to be the domain of a few. Now it's the fabric woven into how we all live, work, and play. Today it has the power to create and destroy value in an unprecedented manner. That's a big deal for every organization.

It's likely a very big deal for you, too.


February 09 2011

The impact of IT decisions on organizational culture

It's said that with great power comes great responsibility. Among business functions, the IT group has disproportionate control over what can and can't happen in an organization.

Let's take instant messaging as an example. Assuming IT makes the final decision (which is often the case), enabling instant messaging both internally and with external parties can fundamentally change the way a business communicates. But prohibit instant messaging (which still happens today), and the IT organization is fundamentally dictating how communication will take place. That's considerable power for a business function, and it must be managed carefully.

Should IT dictate how everyone works?

The obvious and most visible control the IT organization has is over product choices. If you're reading this blog on a work computer, it's likely you didn't choose that model yourself. If your software is locked down, I'd guess you didn't select the browser or the word processor or the email client. Fortunately some organizations allow staff to download applications of their choice, but they are often the freebies, and not the major business solutions. For those there is an approval path and it usually leads back to the IT organization.

Given that the IT organization has chosen many of your basic information tools, it has already predetermined what you can and can't do.

Advice: Non-IT staff should participate in your standards and product selections process. Also, in addition to understanding what the technology will enable, it's important to explore and articulate what it will limit.

Is IT enabling or killing ideas?

I've written about the critical importance of IT governance, and in fact, have made it a cornerstone of the IT transformation at O'Reilly Media. With all its significant benefits, the risk with IT governance is that it becomes the opposite of what is intended. The process in which a new idea becomes a great new product or solution can live or die with IT. That's the power the IT organization has within a business. Executives know this and it is often a source of considerable frustration.

IT is often characterized as an enabler. While mostly accurate, to what degree have we acknowledged that through our decisions it can be a limitation? And more importantly, how do we manage that risk?

Advice: Don't lock your IT governance down. It must be a process that quickly changes as constraints are identified. Stick to the principles but constantly look for ways to reduce friction.

Does your IT organization move fast enough?

Does the IT organization move as fast as the business? Ideally yes, but we all know that the sobering reality is that IT, largely due to its popularity as an enabler (read: demand for IT almost always exceeds supply of capacity), is often a bottleneck. I've seen it too many times: a request won't even make it to IT because there is a perception that it will never get done or at least not get done in a timely manner. If this is the perception in your organization, then IT is stifling innovation. In other words, IT is limiting the possibility of a favorable cultural quality.

Advice: Provide clearly linked-to IT governance, understand current perception and look for ways to manage and prioritize ideas outside of those deeply aligned with business strategy. It's important to explore and continuously evolve your processes to be more agile. I also offer some additional thoughts in my blog about predictability and innovation.

Living with your IT decisions

I've touched on a few examples here, but it must be clear to you now that almost all IT decisions today can have lasting negative implications (we already assume that we understand the benefits of our decisions). Choices like an ERP suite or architectural decisions around how data is stored and shared can have profound impacts on the ability for stakeholders to make timely business decisions. In many cases, and particularly in our new business environment, these IT decisions can make or break a business.

Smart organizations foster the culture they want. They make deliberate decisions to encourage and discourage certain behaviors. Today, business brand and culture are often intertwined and those that get it right consistently win in the marketplace.

While I believe we recognize the limiting qualities of IT decisions, I'd suggest we've insufficiently studied the degree to which those decisions in aggregate can have a large influence on organizational culture.

It might be time to better understand the relationship between the culture of your organization and the IT decisions that are being made.


January 19 2011

3 types of IT leaders: maverick, innovator, guarantor

There is little recognition that the operating profile of IT leaders can vastly differ from organization to organization. This is most pronounced when studying how technology vendors sell to this audience. It can often appear there is simply one type of person leading every IT organization. Variations in needs are seldom reflected in the way products are sold.

There is an array of independent inputs that determine the style of each leader. Take for example the industry in which the person works. The approach of a CIO that leads a B2B industrial products business is going to be vastly different from one that runs an IT department at a university. Now also consider the culture of a business. It's not possible to have the same style leading IT at a highly risk-tolerant, innovative tech company versus providing the essential needs for a conservative and low-tolerance-for-risk insurance giant.

For many of you, this might sound obvious. But why then do marketers, analysts, consultants, and so many pundits (I'm probably guilty here too) so often sell to this community like it's one dimensional?

I don't mean to generalize too much. We should certainly recognize the brilliant jobs so many salespeople perform. Rather, the advice in this post is for the group of salespeople who could benefit from thinking differently about the diversity of every IT leader.

The following guidance can also be used by recruiters when thinking about filling IT leadership roles. In this instance, it can be asked: do the characteristics of the organization align to the skills, experiences, and personality of the person being hired?

Finally, if you work with or for an IT leader, it might help you in thinking about how to manage the relationship in a positive way.

Here I present my vastly condensed categorization schema for the IT leader:

1. The maverick

This IT leader works for an organization that thrives on taking risks. You're likely to see lower levels of vendor standardization; this IT leader likes to try lots of different products and the organization's broad portfolio of hardware and software reflects that.

The maverick IT leader is likely to have a higher level of comfort with open source and with quickly adopting less mature technologies. The background of this IT leader is likely technology-based and he/she has extensive IT knowledge.

The environment requires this person to move fast. Sitting on long, protracted RFP submission proposals, for example, will not go over well, nor likely be a common approach. Speed and agility are popular qualities with this IT leader, but there is a trade-off with standardization, repeatable processes, and predictability. Often this person succeeds with the sheer brute force of determination. But this benefit can often come at a price.

Advice: When working with this IT leader, be conscious of his/her low patience and less of a long-term commitment to any one direction.

2. The diligent innovator

This IT leader operates in an enlightened organization. He/she understands that IT innovation can bring considerable benefits, but this leader doesn't necessarily make a first-mover play.

In this organization, occasional managed risk is supported with the caveat that homework is done and a back-out strategy exists. This IT leader is often asked to be agile in responding to needs while also being encouraged to push back on requests that don't align with business objectives or may disproportionately introduce unnecessary complexity. It's often a hard place to operate because the pull to take greater risks must be balanced with diligent decision-making. This can often result in a slower pace of activity, or in the worst case, in an impasse. The focus on diligence with underlying encouragement to innovate makes this a popular posture of IT leaders, but it can be the hardest of the IT leader categories to succeed in.

Advice: Be sure to provide this IT leader with plenty of assurances, good quality information, and support throughout any initiative.

3. The rock-steady guarantor

The ask of this IT leader is often the simplest: keep the essential systems running, don't take too many risks, and keep the technologies moderately current. This person doesn't need everyone to have the latest versions of software. They keep a close eye on new developments, but almost always take a late-majority approach to implementation.

While it sounds like this IT leader has it the easiest, that is the furthest from the truth. This person is being asked to keep everything working. Disruptions and surprises and not well received by management. Naturally, this makes the IT leader less agile, forces processes to be more bureaucratic, and change is much harder to make happen.

For most of history, this organizational profile has succeeded by being conservative and moving at glacial speed. The jury is out on whether this method is sustainable in today's economic environment. The IT leader at the helm of this type of organization has considerable challenges ahead. He/she will see increased pressure to operate in a way that has been historically inconsistent with the risk profile of this type of business. A large amount of CIOs fill this category.

Advice: This IT leader requires a considerable volume of analysis to make decisions. Be sympathetic to rigorous approval paths, and prepare to support commitment to projects in the long-term.

I expect most IT leaders will have styles that overlap among all three categories, but it is highly likely that the predominant characteristics live in one of them. Of course, I'm really interested to hear from anyone who thinks they know an IT leader who doesn't belong in any of these categories.

A short blog post can never do justice to an important discussion. I've left out a lot here, such as budget control and who the CIO reports to. But what I'm trying to do is raise awareness and provoke a dialogue. There isn't a one-IT-leader-fits-all model. IT leaders are fundamentally different based on the organizations they lead.

Knowing and considering the subtle and not-so-subtle differences with each IT leader will help marketers better reach and resonate with them. It will help anyone who works with the leader to have more successful interactions and outcomes. Ultimately, it will be better for the IT leader and the organization.


January 11 2011

Why is IT governance so difficult to implement?

"Governance? Process? Yuck, nasty words!"

Those are the actual opening words I used in an introductory email to O'Reilly Media business leaders whom I was inviting to participate in an important new process. What I was introducing had the potential to become antagonistic bureaucracy and could seriously backfire. So I was treading carefully but knew I had to move forward to enable our desired IT transformation and sustainable on-going effective operations.

But let's step back and understand the origin of my motivation for this new process.

As an IT leader, do these statements sound familiar? Demand for IT capacity far exceeds the ability for the IT team to deliver. Everyone who makes a request considers theirs to be a priority and wants it done as soon as possible. There's considerable frustration from requesters that their work is not getting addressed or has been put on-hold to address other priorities. The IT team is highly stressed, lacks direction, and morale is low.

The good news is that IT remains a highly valuable and in-demand business resource. The bad news is that all too often these statements reflect the state of IT operations for many businesses. And while it can continue like this, the costs are all too well known. IT becomes the bottleneck to business growth (yikes!) and effective operations and nobody is happy: not the IT team and not the business.

If you want to transform IT and fix these all-too-common issues, a new approach must be adopted. The trouble is that by introducing the methods to fix these problems, in the short-term it can be tough to win buy-in. In effect, you have to introduce a modicum of bureaucracy which will often arouse aversion by business leaders. Getting past those first few months and demonstrating success will help you turn the corner and transform the way IT is delivered. It's not easy.

So what is this process?

What I'm describing here is IT governance. In simple terms, IT governance is a process that ensures that IT capacity is working on the right things at the right time to enable business goals. It's a set of controls that focuses on organizational success while managing associated risks. Sounds simple, right? The devil is in the details! While nobody could argue that any process that aligns IT to business goals is the right strategy, it's the change required and the compromises on the part of business leaders that can derail this most worthy of efforts.

Why is IT governance so difficult to implement?

Business leaders want to do the right thing. They want the business to succeed and they will work hard to make that happen. But all too often, they are motivated and rewarded by having their small part of the organization succeed. IT governance requires that the scarce resource of technology capacity be diligently distributed across the organization for overall business success. In other words, it requires that IT cannot be allocated on the basis of individual team needs but rather on collective, organizational goals. (Of course, we recognize that a small percentage of IT budget should be set aside for specific team needs and in many organizations each team gets a dedicated amount of cash for that very reason).

How does IT governance work?

IT governance works like this: all technology investment requests are brought to a central authority (at O'Reilly Media we call it our governance review board) and the merit of every request is debated and a decision is arrived upon. Membership of the board is made up of senior members of the organization that represent every function.

What is the core value that ensures IT governance will work? The ability to compromise.

If participants are focused on the success of the entire business, compromise becomes easier. Those not used to this type of approach will initially be frustrated, and that's why the first few months are essential. You have to demonstrate that this is a better way to manage your scarce IT resources. If it works well, it solves most of the issues described earlier in my post. Seriously!

I'm passionate about IT governance because I see the enormous value it has for every type of business. But more specifically, to me, this is the central activity that will ensure the success of O'Reilly Media's IT transformation. I've said it many times to my team and the business, if IT governance doesn't succeed, it will radically hinder our abilities to do the important things we want to achieve. That's no over-statement.

How is IT governance at O'Reilly Media working?

So far, so good. We now have a clear roadmap of IT projects that have been agreed and approved to move forward on. Business leaders are happier because they know what is being worked on and when solutions will be delivered. Some leaders have reservations, but they are remaining open-minded. The IT team knows what to work on and understands the role of the solution relative to other systems and goals. It is a win-win. But there is still important work to do and demonstrating the long-term value is still ahead of us.

Is IT governance optional?

There are many ways to implement IT governance, but the principles remain the same. While we can debate the method of implementation, I'll go to bat to suggest that we cannot debate the essential value of IT governance. Regardless of the size of your business, some form of IT governance must be part of your organizational processes.

Bureaucratic? Sure. Essential? Definitely.


January 04 2011

Can good IT managers make great business leaders?

Recently, many people have been pointing out to me how my O'Reilly blog on IT leadership and the attendant observations on technology have been resonating outside of the IT community. Specifically I'm told, the subjects I'm writing on have meaning and value as general business management content. As I pondered on this notion, it struck me (and it's obvious in hindsight) that in a world where technology is a fundamental foundation of almost all business, there's not a great deal of difference between the skills required for good IT management and that of general management.

However, as true as that might be, as I further considered the thought, I concluded that good IT management doesn't necessarily equate to great business leadership. We hear it all the time: today, CIOs and IT leaders must be able to partner with other members of the C-suite and in addition to running the operations of IT, be able to grow the business through IT enablement.

After all, the CIO is first and foremost a business leader.

Here's the ask: the CEO wants more value from IT, the COO wants optimized operations, and the CFO wants it all at the least possible cost.

This requires the CIO to understand business and — surprise — have some form of general business background. That being recognized, the most common path to IT leadership is still through the IT organization, and that means the CIO strength may be of a technical nature with a nuanced flavor of management. That can often present a problem.

It's important to recognize that to run an IT project or to manage a team of IT developers requires good management techniques. But all too often, IT professionals exist and operate in a vacuum resulting in a variation of management absent of inputs such as market forces. In other words, the typical IT manager, for example, may never be exposed to a P&L statement.

This is not by intention, but comes about as a result of how almost every IT organization operates. Largely shielded from the real work of the business, IT has both the convenience and the limitation of working with internal sponsors who are captive customers with no choice of supplier. That couldn't be any more different than leaders who were groomed with and are working with the open marketplace. Put another way, acquiring management skills within the IT organization may result in a myopic view of general management.

The best IT managers I've seen have a background of both IT and general management. Many IT managers do not get to work in a non-IT environment. But the IT managers that do best are often those that have had more business exposure than their peers. Take that as a tip for any aspiring IT manager.

I'm not suggesting for a moment that a great IT leader doesn't need a technical background or a good understanding of technology. That's necessary and expected. After all, one assumes that the reason for wanting to be an IT leader stems from a passion for technology often reflected in a life of mild obsessiveness with geekdom. What I am suggesting is that a technical background with IT management skills may not be enough to cut it as a great business leader.

To succeed, an IT leader must learn to talk in the language of business. For example, cloud computing is about potential cost reduction and new business opportunities, not some abstract technology term that introduces a suite of complex new service models. The latter has a place at your IT team meetings, but will do little to invoke attention in the board room.

A great IT leader is also a salesperson who takes an idea and inspires the audience. He or she must drive emotional commitment from a team and sell a vision that people can buy. That killer combination of communicating IT innovation in business terms, understanding the numbers, and eliciting belief from the C-suite can form the backbone of highly effective business leadership.

Without these skills the CIO can often be relegated to order-taker and maintenance guy.

Being a good IT manager is hard. Being a great business leader is harder. What separates them is not just the ability to continually and uniquely inspire, but first to be a really well-informed and skilled business manager. Get the basics right, learn the business, understand the financial aspects, think big picture, talk the talk, inspire through your values, and then deliver. Hit many of these on the head and you just might shine as a business leader in the C-suite.


November 10 2010

Being CIO: 5 tips for surviving the first 90 days

I'm fast approaching 90 days as the CIO of O'Reilly Media. On the one hand it sounds and feels like a short amount of time, but as I've learned it is also a critical and long enough period where the tone and pace of your leadership can be established. Too many mistakes during these formative days can temporarily, and in some cases, permanently hamper the ability for a leader to succeed.

While much has been written on the importance of the first 90 days, nothing beats the real experience. So many of you have asked me about my experiences, I've assembled five top of mind tips that have shaped my tenure to date. For obvious reasons I won't call out the tips I learned from the mistakes I have made, but simply suggest that every good intention is open to revision.

Tip #1: Do a lot of listening

You're the new guy and people will want to bend your ear. Sometimes if a person can get to you early they can try to influence your agenda in their favor. You'll hear both sides to everything, so it's important not to make up your mind too early. This is not a bad thing since you can quickly get insight into how the organization thinks and behaves. Mostly though, listening is about formulating where some of your priorities are going to be. If you're hearing consistent messages, that's probably indicative of something important. After the first 90 days, keep listening. I would argue that great listening skills are an essential business and social quality regardless of your role and level.

Tip #2: Learn about the business you are in

You might know how to manage a datacenter, deploy Apache, or write poetic code, but do you know how the product or service that your organization produces is designed and delivered? More importantly, do you know why it's done that way? Increasingly, business leaders want an IT leader to be a partner not a supplier. Being a partner means understanding and talking the language of the business. They want someone who understands where they are coming from when they describe an issue or solution that requires a technology input. In addition, knowing the business gives your work (and the environment you have inherited) context early and can aid in the initial learning curve.

Tip #3: Think carefully about what and how you communicate

Today, the role of the CIO as both business enabler and innovator has the ability, more than ever, to influence and be held accountable for organizational success. This means that the audience that is listening to you is broad and influential. When you're in middle management your input can be considered, but not necessarily acted upon. The same doesn't hold true for the CIO. During the first 90 days (and beyond), it is crucial to be deliberate and thoughtful in your communications. Flippant comments and mere suggestions should be avoided. Mean what you say and say what you mean. Lastly, use all forms of communication channels: in-person, email, instant messaging, telephone, and video. Being available and responsive demonstrates your level of engagement.

Tip #4: Make progress

While you are listening, learning, and communicating during your first 90 days -- three things you'll do a lot of -- there is also a business that needs support and an IT organization that needs leadership. You were hired to get things done. In a highly competitive business environment patience is low and expectations are high. So figure out things you can address quickly. CIOs are problem solvers, so I suggest you find something that you can help solve, something that takes a fresh set of eyes to assess or a risk that a predecessor was unwilling to take. In addition, look for ways to demonstrate your ability to make decisions, such as enabling a useful process or approving a purchase. The amount and methods in which you initially make progress will be indicative of your pace and style. Getting it right can ensure you are in sync with the business. Being too slow or too fast has considerable inherent risk.

Tip #5: Work hard not to break anything

Last and most importantly, make your best effort not to break anything. In the future it will be okay to make some big bets that don't work out the way they were intended. However, in the first 90 days, there is little appetite for a new leader who appears on the scene with ideas and intentions ablaze, only to disrupt and confuse. Put another way, make sure you're aware of existing priorities and critical systems and avoid partially-baked decisions that could jeopardize essential business functions. While somewhat tongue-in-cheek, this tip is probably the most serious. While you won't be measured on this quality alone, combined with the other tips, you'll get credit for keeping the ship afloat while demonstrating authenticity and making meaningful progress.

There's some irony that the qualities of the technology leader I've described above are completely absent of technology skills. But that is deliberate. The CIO is increasingly a business role. And in business, leaders win or lose by their soft skills. Sure, technical skills are important, but it won't be those skills that your stakeholders will be initially assessing.

Your first 90 days are important. Perform a few important things right and you'll move forward. While you're at it, have fun. It's exhilarating work.


October 11 2010

IT transformations must begin with hearts and minds

The role of the information technology (IT) department is changing. In simpler times it was the bastion of back-office services like data storage, network operations, and ERP systems. Today, both its purpose and the demands placed upon it are quickly evolving. Driven largely by economics, the IT function is outsourcing many of its commodity-type activities; looking for ways to rein in out-of-control support costs; and being asked to be more central in helping to enable new business opportunities. Simply put: the C-suite is demanding more value on its IT spend.

For many IT departments, moving from a largely back-office role to being an enabler of business growth requires nothing less than an IT transformation. This can often translate to painful, but essential change in the way IT is sourced, organized, and operated. But more importantly, it is about shifting the mix of IT dollars spent away from maintenance and into new investment. A successful IT transformation should result in 60 percent or more of all IT spend being available for new projects that can be directly tied to business growth.

Getting there is not easy.

Many IT leaders tasked with this directive leap deep into the strategy by quickly shifting priorities, shutting down projects, and using sheer brute-force to change the dynamics. This approach can work, but it will come with a price.

Like all change, and given its particularly complex nature, an IT transformation must be managed in a deliberate and multidimensional manner. Sure, the heavy lifting is essential, but it should not be the first thing that gets done. This kind of radical change must start with the CIO and his or her managers engaging in collaborative discussions concurrently across the business and with the IT team. As the impact of the change will be experienced by almost everyone, setting expectations and getting as many people as possible bought into the strategy at the outset is essential. An IT transformation will be tough, but it will go smoother and will be better understood and accepted when leadership has won hearts and minds.

As CIO of O'Reilly Media, I'm leading our own IT transformation. Driven by our desire to get more done, more quickly, and to continue to be at the leading edge of innovation in the business areas in which we compete, requires nothing less than a significant shift in how we execute our IT function. We'll keep doing the things we do well, but we will take a careful look at everything else.

Over the next few months, I'll be blogging candidly about our experiences: both what is working and where we are being challenged. I want you, the O'Reilly Media community to be part of the conversation in this change. We've started to work on hearts and minds and that also means we've got to do a lot of listening. So go head, tell us what you think.


February 22 2010

Four short links: 22 February 2010

  1. Schuyler Erle's blog -- Schuyler, a leading geohacker, is in Haiti as part of a World Bank effort to rebuild geospatial infrastructure. His blog posts and twitpics are excellent.
  2. Panton Principles -- basic groundrules for useful open data in science. Raises the flag of licensing: arbitrary license clauses or hastily-repurposed software licenses lead to a quagmire of incompatible licenses and prevent useful combinations of data, just as license proliferation in open source created a confusing and difficult environment for people trying to combine multiple open source projects' code.
  3. The Internet? Bah! (Cliff Stohl) -- piece from 1995, which I remember reading when it was first published. It stands as a great reminder that scale and change happen: in 1995 there were barely 16 million Internet users and statements like this seemed self-evident: Then there's cyberbusiness. We're promised instant catalog shopping--just point and click for great deals. We'll order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts. Stores will become obselete. So how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month? Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the Internet--which there isn't--the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople. (via Hacker News)
  4. Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy (YouTube) -- 3m long and it's a brilliant insight into creating a movement. Must watch. (via robertobrien on Twitter)

December 21 2009

Play fullscreen

December 21, 2009

Iran mourns Montazeri's death

Montazeri, an architect of Iran's revolution, became one of the government's fiercest critics

via The Real News Network

Sidebar text to the yt-video from Al Jazeera

Millions of Iranians are mourning the death of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri who is due to be buried in the holy city of Qom on Monday.

Montazeri, who died on Sunday aged 87, was one of the architects of Iran's Islamic Revolution but eventually became one of the government's fiercest critics.

Montazeri's stance against Iran's leadership made him a hero of the country's opposition, while his criticisms were all the more stinging because of his stature as one of Shia Islam's most revered clerics.
Reposted byiranelection iranelection
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