Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: Hire a chief information officer before it's too late

March 9, 2013

If there’s one big mistake I see growing companies make around their technology, it’s the failure to hire a chief information officer early on.

They might be called CIO, IT manager, or something similar, but the position is meant to be more than a glorified support desk. It should be the office where infrastructure growth is planned and merged with the company’s overall goals. Most often, though, that doesn’t happen until growth has already overwhelmed the company.

As with most other things in a growing, young company, the use of technology in the workplace starts out more ad hoc than strategic. “The computer guy” is a local computer science major. Equipment is purchased secondhand or on sale. Network cables are dropped haphazardly, or wireless is spotty. The website is the brainchild of the Internet company next door.

As the company grows, more gear is piled on. Some people will use Macs; others will use Windows. File sharing becomes a problem. It’s exciting, but limiting. Eventually, the whole thing becomes a mass of incompatibility that’s severely curtailing further organized growth, and management finally decides to do something to plan instead of react. But by then, it’s often too late to do it elegantly. Even strategy becomes ad hoc.

What prompted this column was a coffee meeting with Doug Theis of local Lifeline Data Centers LLC. He interacts with a lot of growing companies, so I asked him at what point in their growth he’d seen those companies hire a CIO, somebody who could plan for expansion. He said “when the pain gets bad enough.” If there’s a better phrase to describe most small-company decision-making, I have yet to hear it.

It shouldn’t be surprising that pain would drive decision-making. Entrepreneurs are constantly scrambling. There’s little time to plan your journey when you’re already hurtling down the mountainside on slick pavement with no guard rails.

But those who want to succeed long term need to pull over and take a breather. A CIO isn’t just the guy who installs antivirus software and kicks the wireless router in just the right place to get it going again. A CIO paves the way for a smoother future, making driving there much easier.

Traditionally, of course, that hasn’t happened until the pain reaches migraine levels. The sort of person you need for that position may be priced far beyond the budget, so the office remains unfilled until money allows. And then it becomes a matter of finding the right person.

Not every technician has the makings of a CIO. The position requires a constant balancing act. The CIO must be willing to change things, but not too fast. She must be a good communicator, a strong leader, and a sort of restrained visionary. A few years ago, wireless was a pipe dream for most companies, but the CIO should have at least been exploring it. The CIO must go beyond technical expertise and understand how phones, computers and other equipment either empower or restrict business activities.

Most CIOs are in larger organizations, on the order of $200 million in sales and up. But I’d advocate for hiring somebody with the makings of a CIO even if your company is still as small as a dozen people. Or you can use what’s being termed today a “vCIO,” an outside consultant who can be hired part time to act as CIO.

Chances are that if you’re a small, medium- or micro-sized business, you’ve used some kind of IT outsourcing for everyday needs, but a vCIO is a bit different. A vCIO analyzes your company strategically and recommends roadmaps as well as advises on purchases and installations. A vCIO can also take on project-management duties and mentor IT employees. You might also be able to find inexpensive CIO help from SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives.

Before you step up from “an IT guy” to a CIO, you need to do a little soul-searching. A good CIO will likely take one look at the hydra-headed thing that passes for your infrastructure and recommend changes that will not only cost money but create some temporary chaos as well.

Surgery always entails some pain. Employees may rebel. Management may balk at layering uncertainty on top of everyday frustrations. And founders aren’t always happy with big-company strategic thinking. But done right, technology planning can be a competitive advantage, and the CIO is the key. That person doesn’t have to be an expert in your industry, but he does need to be a change agent, because technology itself is constantly moving on.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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