Human Capital & Careers

Programmer, Reprogrammed

Building a more business-minded CIO.
Gay JerveyDecember 1, 2004

This past September at a hotel in Atlanta, some 20 senior IT managers in industries ranging from agriculture to retail to high tech attended the first in a series of invitation-only “MBA for IT” seminars sponsored by Blazent Inc., a San Mateo, California-based software vendor.

Throughout the day, consultant Ron Griffin, a former chief information officer at Home Depot, led the attendees through a battery of courses designed to show IT managers how to integrate business fundamentals into their everyday work lives. Griffin began by discussing what CFOs and CEOs think of IT, and then covered such topics as IT governance, accounting, and finance fundamentals, how to effectively compete for budget dollars, and how to manage expenses. To make such concepts come to life, he peppered the course materials with quizzes and real-life examples, sharing anecdotes from his own experiences in more than 30 years of working in IT.

The goal: to build a better CIO. “We are trying to prepare the next generation of IT leadership,” says Griffin. “We want to give the attendees a full-blown curriculum that covers the waterfront for not only the business essentials that they need but also technology essentials, project essentials, management and administration essentials, and leadership essentials.”

Griffin uses the three-legged-stool analogy: in this instance, the legs are technological competence, communication skills, and business savvy. “If you are weak on any one of those,” he says, “you have a problem.”

For years, CFOs longed for CIOs who were at least familiar with concepts like hurdle rates and return on capital. Now, these wishes are becoming requirements. As Howard Rubin, an executive vice president at Meta Group, puts it, employers today are “looking for a new hybrid professional who understands the business and can translate it into systems action with high acuity. The new technology worker is not just a technology worker: he or she is a business-technology worker with good business skills, technology skills, and massive intellectual capital about the subject domain of their company.”

Senior IT executives are not the only techies who need to do some growing. Even midlevel IT workers are being pressed to expand their horizons. “Somebody who is inflexible and wants to be a programmer for the rest of their life is probably in the wrong industry,” says Stephen Pickett, vice president and CIO at Penske Corp., a Detroit-based transportation company, and a board member of the Society for Information Management (SIM).

This corporate push for more business savvy IT workers can be seen in the types of training offered by various professional organizations. At SIM, president Nancy Markle, a former CIO at Arthur Andersen Americas, says, “We are not just training them for Microsoft or Cisco certification, but really training them more broadly in areas that are needed by the company; for example, some of the soft skills like negotiation and project management.” Much of that effort is motivated by the move toward outsourcing and related service arrangements — initiatives from the top that often leave IT employees managing the work of others rather than doing it themselves.

Professional organizations such as SIM have made management training a priority. In the past 10 years, more than 1,300 members have completed a nine-month professional-development program that covers everything from team-building, creative thinking, and listening skills to business ethics. CIOs are also getting into the act. Take a recent program initiated by John Sternbergh, CIO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina. Earlier this year, he rolled out “Health Care 101,” a “getting to know your business” class for IT staffers.

“We’re asking some of our employees to spend two or three half-days learning about what we do as a business,” explains Sternbergh. “Learning about our customers, our primary partners. What does it mean to pay a claim? What is a claim, and how do we interact with the provider community — the hospitals and physicians?”

Some companies are following a similar path. David Luce, CIO of Rockefeller Group International, a New York-based real estate development company, says he sends members of his staff to trade functions and organizations developed for the real estate world. That, he stresses, is something that he wouldn’t have even considered a few years ago. Back then, says Luce, he was much more concerned with sending workers to technical conferences and seminars. “But,” he says, “it is now extremely important for us to maintain a strong level of credibility, in the sense that we are able to speak the language of our business.”

Colleges and universities that fill the pipeline with new IT talent are taking similar steps. Peter Lee, a professor of computer sciences at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, cites a recent study by the Computer Research Association that shows the number of new computer science and computer engineering majors in the United States and Canada declined by a stunning 23 percent in the past two years. Even for a prestigious program such as Carnegie Mellon’s, applications have dwindled from 3,200 in 2001 to around 2,000 last year.

Consequently, Carnegie Mellon and other universities have initiated new programs designed to both encourage greater enrollment and sharpen graduates’ competitive edge. “We are starting a program with the business school in which students are able to complete the computer science and the business program in five years,” says Lee. “We are also offering programs that combine computer science with other science programs.”

“The question from a university standpoint is, what kind of person do we need to send into the marketplace?” says Philip Bronner, a Washington, D.C.-based venture capitalist and Carnegie Mellon graduate who serves on the alumni advisory board of the university’s school of computer sciences. “The notion that you can take someone with software expertise and couple them with domain expertise makes them very marketable. Domain expertise can be business expertise, but it can also be expertise in, say, biology.”

Penske’s Pickett sits on the technological advisory boards of Oakland University and the University of Michigan at Dearborn. “The MIS program at Oakland University, for instance, is now becoming adjunct to the business schools,” he says. “So you graduate a student who can speak business and knows enough about IT.”

This “upscaling” of the profession, as Pickett calls it, should lead to more-efficient communication among CFOs, CIOs, and other executives who formulate IT strategy. And that may mean that soft skills translate into hard-dollar savings.

Gay Jervey is a freelance writer based in New York.