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Rent-a-CIO

Rent-a-CIO

Three for-hire ICT professionals tell us the skills needed for this career path.

A number of people have decided, or been compelled, to move from the security of a CIO position to the less secure, but more flexible life of a freelance consultant or part-time CIO-for-hire.

Peter Jameson was CIO at Redeal, the back-office support organisation for electronics distributor Rexel, until May last year, when the role was disestablished. "I had been thinking about a move of this kind before the economic climate forced it on me," he says, "and I knew the reorganisation was coming." So he was to some extent forewarned. He saw the change as offering a more flexible lifestyle, with better work-life balance.

Networking skills

The life of a CIO, with its management of several concurrent projects, can be frustrating, though it is also stimulating and rewarding, he says. "I also looked for the mental stimulation of working for different organisations and doing different types of work."

A successful consultant has to sell him/herself on the open market, "you have to become a different kind of person, a self-marketer who gives a lot of time to networking -- a communicator," says Jameson.

Attention should be paid to marketing materials; such as a set of documents that will quickly give a potential client an idea of the consultant's strengths. "You need to have something you can show clients." Preparation of such materials is, naturally, unpaid work, part of the "cost of sale".

However, a CIO is hardly a stranger to communication, networking and selling one's ideas and usefulness; it's just selling to a different audience, Jameson says. "The key positive skill-set I bring from my CIO experience is to look at the problems of the business, rather than technology." Some who have built a career in the consultancy market might be comparatively technical in their approach and this gives him a possible advantage in bidding for work.

Contracting and CIO work may, of course, overlap. With New Zealand's large proportion of small organisations, unable to justify the budget for a full-timer to look after ICT, there is an opportunity in the market for a part-time CIO. A person who can work with a business long enough to translate their ideas into a fully defined ICT project and oversee its implementation, says Jameson.

Asked what "fields" he is involved in now, he jokes, "mostly green ones". He is spending a lot of time on his small farming property, as fulfilment of that more flexible lifestyle he was seeking. In the ICT-related field, he is currently involved in a project to help companies implement the requirements of the Financial Advisors Act, passed in 2008 to improve disclosure and assurance of integrity in the financial advice industry. "That's less a technical job and more about business process," he says.

Before starting business as a consultant, it makes sense to talk to those already in the field about their experiences and their ways of working, Jameson says. There are elements of both co-operation and competition in the consultancy community, he says. "People are quite free with advice, but I do find that in recent economic conditions, they hold their key contacts close."

The relationship dynamics of working with the ICT team in a client company will be different from those of a full-time CIO post. "I don't think your commitment changes," he says. "I have to have a belief that I'm delivering the best I can for an organisation, even though there is a visible limit to my time there."

There will, inevitably, be periods without work, Jameson says and these should be seen as opportunities to gain knowledge. "Whether you're finding work or not, you must be continuously exposing yourself to new learning."

The freelancer

Neil Andrew has worked for both corporate users and ICT vendors. His most recent full-time post was more than two years ago as head of resources and technology for TVNZ. He was responsible for cameras and other equipment that was a daily part of producing and transmitting television as well as the ICT systems. As part of a TVNZ reorganisation, the role was to be split into two and at nearly 60 years of age, he decided a complete change might be no more difficult.

He describes himself as a "freelancer", a term, he notes, with an honourable tradition in the media business. He has worked in that style before, between fulltime jobs, so it was not an unfamiliar world. "While I do consult, I don't take on any permanent roles [and] I believe this is the way more and more people will work in the future."

He does not perceive a problem of "not belonging" in a client organisation. "If I have been appointed, I have sponsorship from the CIO or the business owner. Teams recognise I have that support and they don't mess me around."

To some extent, he says, permanent staff see a consultant's retention as a valuable chance for information exchange. "We have him for this long, they'll say 'let's take the chance to pick his brains'."

The skills-set for freelance and permanent CIO roles in Andrew's view does not differ significantly. "You're still giving people a lot of advice and working strategically with the business." A freelancer's job is inevitably more task-focused as, "there is a lot more clarity about what you're there to achieve and about the value you're providing".

During uncertain economic times, "there's no doubt about it, a permanent role is a lot more comfortable," he concedes. The problem has been not so much the recession itself, as the accompanying sense of uncertainty and drive to cost-containment that means projects get put on hold. The situation is changing for the better now, he says, "as people realise the sky isn't going to fall in".

The most important need for the freelance life is to cultivate one's networks, he says and, in New Zealand's small business community especially, "not to crap in your own nest. Don't bad-mouth people or take them down. You're going to need their goodwill."

Andrew finds the freelance consulting community "very co-operative. A lot of the people in my network are fellow freelancers. I'll put teams together for projects from people I trust."

The virtual CIO

Murray Wills, director of consultancy Maxsys, spends a good proportion of his working life acting as a "virtual CIO" -- for organisations that either cannot justify a full-time CIO or IT manager, or who face a temporary lack of such a person through vacation or delay to a reappointment after the IT chief has left.

A virtual CIO can also be requested to supply for a time high-level skills for a major development or strategic evaluation of IT opportunities, where the regular IT manager is adequate to the day-to-day operational aspects of the business, but lacking in skills for those longer term aims.

The brief must be tightly defined and understood, says Wills. A contract that expects the contractor to make a difference to the ICT system is very different from a holiday stop-gap role, where it would be unfair to the permanent incumbent to make material changes.

A virtual CIO needs to come to grips quickly with both the technical infrastructure and the nature of the business and its corporate objectives, says Wills. He has the business experience to supply this need, he says, with a past career in consultancy and sales having given him the necessary expertise in building and maintaining relationships.

"I've also had an IT governance background", he says. Lack of governance in Wills' view is a major shortcoming of ICT in local companies. It has to be fully integrated with the governance of the business as a whole. "I've been known to get quite vocal about the lack of IT governance skills on boards of directors and among CEOs," he says. Not only does this risk an ICT capability unsatisfactorily integrated with business needs, it often manifests in a poor choice of CIO or IT manager "because the CEO lacks understanding of the CIO position and the talents that such a person should have.

"Given the amount of money that is spent on ICT," he says, "I think there should be more expertise at the top level."

Assignments can last anything from six weeks to eight to nine months. "If I am acting CIO, I will work for that one client, but as a virtual CIO, I will typically have a number of clients concurrently."

Wills has worked with a wide variety of organisations in government and the private sector. He has acted as CIO or IT manager for organisations such The Ministry of Transport, Ministry for Culture and Heritage, Alcohol Advisory Council, and the State Services Commission. In government especially, there is value in taking the experience gained in one agency and transferring it to another that faces similar challenges, he says.

Although a virtual CIO must become involved to a large extent in the business and interpersonal communication of a client organisation, he or she can stay clear of the deeper aspects of office politics. This can mean an ability to make necessary decisions that a full-time CIO or IT manager might have trouble pushing through.

As for the perceived problem of "not belonging", as long as your expertise is evident and your mandate is clearly defined there should be no problem, Wills says. As a capsule demonstration of his knowledge and competence, he can now point to his formal IT Certified Professional qualification, a mark of assured professionalism recently instituted by the NZ Computer Society.

It also helps that Maxsys stays scrupulously neutral in its relationships with vendors. "We don't sell hardware or software," he notes.

Wills expects to see the virtual CIO idea grow as small companies in particular face more ICT challenges and the value of the concept becomes evident.

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