Sorry, you don’t get to quit your day job.

Bob Lewis

Many people say, with trends like BYOD and SaaS, the role of IT will shrink in the future. Well, I’m here to tell you that IT doesn’t get to stop doing anything it used to do. The good news is that you will have a more strategic role, but, unfortunately, you don’t get to quit the day job.

I wrote a book called Keep the Joint Running, and it lists the 13 rules of modern IT. Rule number seven speaks to the book’s title: before you get to be strategic, you have to first be competent. In other words, before you get a seat at the strategy table, you have to make sure the basics are handled. The same holds true for any other aspect of the business. If you have a CFO who can’t get the debits on the left and the credits on the right, the CFO won’t be able to talk strategy either because nobody will listen.

So that’s the starting point. You have to handle the basics. IT still has to finish projects reliably and on time, and the projects need to deliver things that the rest of the business can use. You can’t have employees talking about the “helpless desk,” for example.

This means IT’s role is actually expanding. As CIO, first, you have to make sure the lights stay on and then, like it or not, you will take that seat at the strategy table. So you will now have a second job, which is helping to run the business.

A “Delightful” IT Experience?
This second job embodies a key dimension of this much-discussed transformation of IT. The traditional model was to run information technology like it’s a separate business. The business units were your customers, and books like In Search of Excellence told you not to simply satisfy your internal customers, but delight them.

But the real transformation is in realizing they’re not customers. Customers are people who make buying decisions. Your internals and your peers are collaborators. In a healthy company, you’re all focused on the same goal, which is creating value for the company’s real customers, its external customers.

Unless you dispense with the notion of ‘the business as a separate entity’, you end up with arguments between the IT folks who say, “The software meets the specs,” and the executives who say, “It doesn’t matter! I can’t use this. And by the way, I never understood the specs; you just held the project hostage, telling me I had to sign off on them or you couldn’t move forward.”

It doesn’t have to be that way. IT used to be the company’s primary change agent, but, somewhere along the line, IT became the primary bottleneck in most companies’ ability to achieve their goals.

And it’s nobody’s fault. There’s an old joke that the reason it only took six days to create the world is there was no installed base. When there is an installed base, an inordinate amount of time and effort goes into making sure IT doesn’t break anything. I have seen IT projects where 80% of the effort went into making sure nothing broke—especially the interfaces—and only 20% of the effort went into adding or providing new value.

New technologies are changing everything, so that should all be gone. IT must now collaborate with the rest of the business to figure out how to make the company’s processes and practices as effective as possible, using technology where it makes sense, and not using technology where it doesn’t.

This change is coming. IT will truly become a valuable business partner if it not only sees where the ball is going, but also takes care of the ball it’s already holding.

One Response to “Sorry, you don’t get to quit your day job.”

  1. Shashi says:

    Your essay triggered an avhnalcae of thoughts, the simplest and most readily expressible of which concerns the role of algebra. I too was over-taught math, although I suppose that in pursuing physics I was asking for it. I have never applied more than 5% of all the math I was taught, and my work in computer games has involved vastly more math than most game designers apply.I agree with the basic notion that too much math is taught to students; I would argue, however, that all college-bound students should learn basic algebra and REALLY LEARN it! It has taken me years to truly grasp the operational significance of the four basic arithmetic operators, and how you actually use roots, exponentials, and logs. I have met damn few people who know how to actually use these simple concepts. Sure, they passed lots of math courses, and sure, they can solve traditional math tests. But out in the real world, they seldom have the foggiest notion of how to actually apply these concepts.The understanding of basic algebra will be critical to the success of the next huge intellectual transformation of humanity. Language provided the first huge intellectual transformation by uniting mental modules and connecting people. Writing provided the second huge intellectual transformation by permitting rigorous evaluation of ideas, which ultimately led to logic, math, science, and technology. The next huge intellectual transformation will come with the rigorous exploration of subjunctive thinking, which will be executed by computers programmed with, guess what, algorithms. Those algorithms will be the new form of expressing oneself. Instead of using words to argue over the merits of, say, some government expenditure, citizens of the future will express their arguments algorithmically, demonstrating that the costs exceed the benefits at a point too low to make the effort worthwhile. But they can’t do this without possessing basic skills in algebra AND knowing that their audience possesses the same skills.

Leave a Reply