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Crossing into vendorland

Crossing into vendorland

How is it like to work for an IT user organisation, and then switch to a technology vendor, or vice versa? Darren Greenwood talks to IS executives whose CVs include leadership stints in both sectors.

John Gould is a rare beast. He is one of perhaps a handful of IT executives within the vendor community that has the title "chief information officer". Others hold the title chief technology officer or simply IT manager, but then again, what's in a name?

Gould is CIO at Infinity, a Wellington-based systems integrator. He has worked at the former Department of Justice as a business analyst, primarily on computer processing with the Wanganui computer.

Gould moved to Corrections as a business analyst and project manager when the department was split up. He then joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in a similar role, and finally in 1999, he joined Comtex (which later became Infinity).

"Having spent a number of years dealing with vendors, I wanted to see what it was like on the other side of the fence. The imperatives are clearer and the successes more rewarding."

While Gould's role in charge of the company's internal IT systems is similar to any other IT management role, he says the operational differences are quite extreme.

"CIOs in the customer community are the oracle for all things IT. They manage and govern all the IT knowledge and customer expertise. In an organisation where almost all the internal customers have in-depth IT skills of one sort or another, there is always somebody who thinks they know a better way, have a better angle, or a better piece of software. On rare occasions is this helpful."

Furthermore, customer CIOs have more of a free hand in selecting the best products, whereas a vendor CIO has to use what it is selling, to gain experience as users. But this often means they can identify and resolve issues before a customer experiences them.

A readily available pool of skilled staff lessens risks so it can mean using technology first, say in beta testing. While this is not a common approach for customer CIOs, for a vendor CIO, this is an acceptable method for adding value to external services.

Furthermore, such a wider availability of skills means vendor CIOs may also take more risks with projects, knowing they have these skilled people to fall back on.

However, the biggest downside to being a vendor CIO is "the much maligned 'internal project'", says Gould. While typically well-resourced compared to other organisations, customer-based activities come first, so projects can and will slip.

Gould says he brought to Infinity a structured approach to strategy, planning, development and implementation. He also focused on the need for a "client-like" focus, and on value propositions based on a strong cost-benefit analysis.

"What is required of a CIO in IT vendor organisations is agility and a fine sense of balance," says Gould. "Balance the desires of internal customers (and their fondness for installing what they sell) with financial proprietary and systematic reality; balance internal system resource needs with customer imperatives; balance maintaining a stable information systems environment with working at the technical edge for the advantage of our customers."

If a CIO is happier in a structured and formal environment, then a vendor environment would be a different challenge.

"All CIOs have their crosses to bear, but if they like the idea of their service suppliers also being customers, or competitors, or maybe all three at the same time, then they should consider it if the opportunity arises," he concludes.

Making life easier

Dean Cooper is program manager and senior architect at Christchurch-based Jade Software Corporation, having spent years in software development and research.

His job involves developing knowledge of specific markets and customer needs/strategies to direct research and development for the JADE platform, working with customers to develop JADE solutions, and facilitating JADE positioning, pricing, promotion and distribution.

"CIOs in the corporate/business IT world have to become marketers - they must understand the business vision of our customers and their challenges, strategies and directions (and promote our products accordingly)," says Cooper. "But often our requirement for detail is more in depth across the market, rather than depth, although detailed understanding of key customers is critical."

He says the issues faced by CIOs in both sectors are very similar. "In both spaces, it is essential to be able to communicate and translate IT/product capabilities into business benefits to support a business vision. In both spaces, the distinction between technology and business has evaporated.

"Corporate/business CIOs must understand IT product/service capabilities in their area in order to apply them to achieve their business goals. In vendorland, we must understand the needs of our customers and their CIOs in order to deliver capabilities to help them achieve their goals. In many ways, we're flip sides of the same coin," he continues.

Cooper says this has given him some say in how Jade approaches the CIO or decision-maker. He recommends the firm to concentrate on its "frustration points"; the targeted problems that are causing it business-wide pressure, like complex data models and complex business rules.

"We're always looking for ways to make a CIO's life easier - how can we help them to help their business," he says. "The most successful systems are built on a healthy combination of mutual trust, shared enthusiasm and rigorous pragmatism."

Indeed, Cooper believes this knowledge of the business and its products coupled with growing customer contact that is fuelling a growth in CIOs switching sides. And maintaining much customer contact is essential to those considering it.

"That's what keeps you in touch with the market and with what your customers want," he states. "It keeps you in touch with the corporate/business IT world from where you came (the experience of which was what made you so valuable to vendorland in the first place) and it maintains a bridge for you to leap back to corporate/business land should you want to."

Peter Finch is head of Gen-i's ICT Solutions business, responsible for taking ICT systems and services to market and managing the business outcome from them. Before joining Gen-i five years ago, he worked at Telecom New Zealand's internal IS division, with titles including GM of IS and GM of IS delivery.

Finch says the roles are "similar but different" with vendorland being much more competitive

.

His background of understanding what drives users of IT services has been invaluable to Gen-i. "The detailed experience I gained from negotiating and implementing Telecom's outsourcing contract as the user has been valuable in helping me, as service provider, to put outsourcing arrangements in place with our customers that meet both their and our needs successfully."

Finch admits he had had to learn more about partnerships with other IT vendors but such inexperience has been overcome.

On reflection, Finch says he has found switching sides stimulating and not particularly hard. He also believes it is good for one's career as it helps you gain a better understanding of customer-vendor relationships.

"I have found vendorland, on balance, to be harder work than the user side, to be more emotionally variable (with the competition, wins and losses), but significantly more exciting. You need to love customers and be willing and able to take the bad with the good because not all customers know how to manage vendors well!"

He observes: "Great customer-vendor relationships are built on a shared, common understanding on both sides. Consider getting someone on your team that can bring experience from both sides. They will help to strengthen the relationships."

Warwick Wright, chief information officer for the State Services Commission (SSC), spent 18 years with IBM in various roles before joining CCL Computing (now Datacom) as software manager, and INL newspapers (now Fairfax). Other technical roles followed at Capital and Coast Health and eventually the NZ Racing Board as GM technical services for nearly five years.

Wright says while the roles are similar, the vendor CIO is concerned with generating revenue for the company, while the customer CIO is perhaps more concerned with improving productivity. "The people don't really change as you have the same issues with relationships and challenges at either side of the fence."

Wright believes technically-minded manag-ers will fare better in vendorland, whereas for a management-minded person, it makes no difference.

"An expert in switches and routers will have more opportunities with Unisys or Datacom than say, the SSC," he states.

Wright believes his experience at both sides of the fence was invaluable in him getting more senior roles at the NZ Racing Board and SSC.

When he was working with a vendor, Wright says he hated dealing with what he called "inconsiderate tenders". Now on the other side of the fence, he says he would never dream of issuing RFIs on December 20 with a deadline for mid-January. This would force vendor staff to give up part of their Christmas holidays to prepare for it.

Similarly, he says vendors need to have a similar understanding of the CIO's schedule and priorities. They are not awaiting a vendor's call, he states. Thus, vendors need to understand and learn about a business and its problems before approaching a CIO.

Wright notes that while a vendor CIO may have more emphasis on marketing, even customer CIOs need to market internally.

"Anything that broadens experience is good," he says to those considering a shift. "But such a decision is based on many factors, not if the employer is a vendor or not."

From SMEs to big government

Bill McKinnon is both finance manager and IT manager at services company Axon. He sees a traditional side to his role in managing the internal IT. He has no say in marketing campaigns because that's what the sales staff are for. And he approaches his own vendors, like HP, just as he would if

Making life easier

Dean Cooper is program manager and senior architect at Christchurch-based Jade Software Corporation, having spent years in software development and research.

His job involves developing knowledge of specific markets and customer needs/strategies to direct research and development for the JADE platform, working with customers to develop JADE solutions, and facilitating JADE positioning, pricing, promotion and distribution.

"CIOs in the corporate/business IT world have to become marketers - they must understand the business vision of our customers and their challenges, strategies and directions (and promote our products accordingly)," says Cooper. "But often our requirement for detail is more in depth across the market, rather than depth, although detailed understanding of key customers is critical."

He says the issues faced by CIOs in both sectors are very similar. "In both spaces, it is essential to be able to communicate and translate IT/product capabilities into business benefits to support a business vision. In both spaces, the distinction between technology and business has evaporated.

"Corporate/business CIOs must understand IT product/service capabilities in their area in order to apply them to achieve their business goals. In vendorland, we must understand the needs of our customers and their CIOs in order to deliver capabilities to help them achieve their goals. In many ways, we're flip sides of the same coin," he continues.

Cooper says this has given him some say in how Jade approaches the CIO or decision-maker. He recommends the firm to concentrate on its "frustration points"; the targeted problems that are causing it business-wide pressure, like complex data models and complex business rules.

"We're always looking for ways to make a CIO's life easier - how can we help them to help their business," he says. "The most successful systems are built on a healthy combination of mutual trust, shared enthusiasm and rigorous pragmatism."

Indeed, Cooper believes this knowledge of the business and its products coupled with growing customer contact that is fuelling a growth in CIOs switching sides. And maintaining much customer contact is essential to those considering it.

"That's what keeps you in touch with the market and with what your customers want," he states. "It keeps you in touch with the corporate/business IT world from where you came (the experience of which was what made you so valuable to vendorland in the first place) and it maintains a bridge for you to leap back to corporate/business land should you want to."

Peter Finch is head of Gen-i's ICT Solutions business, responsible for taking ICT systems and services to market and managing the business outcome from them. Before joining Gen-i five years ago, he worked at Telecom New Zealand's internal IS division, with titles including GM of IS and GM of IS delivery.

Finch says the roles are "similar but different" with vendorland being much more competitive.

His background of understanding what drives users of IT services has been invaluable to Gen-i. "The detailed experience I gained from negotiating and implementing Telecom's outsourcing contract as the user has been valuable in helping me, as service provider, to put outsourcing arrangements in place with our customers that meet both their and our needs successfully."

Finch admits he had had to learn more about partnerships with other IT vendors but such inexperience has been overcome.

On reflection, Finch says he has found switching sides stimulating and not particularly hard. He also believes it is good for one's career as it helps you gain a better understanding of customer-vendor relationships.

"I have found vendorland, on balance, to be harder work than the user side, to be more emotionally variable (with the competition, wins and losses), but significantly more exciting. You need to love customers and be willing and able to take the bad with the good because not all customers know how to manage vendors well!"

He observes: "Great customer-vendor relationships are built on a shared, common understanding on both sides. Consider getting someone on your team that can bring experience from both sides. They will help to strengthen the relationships."

Warwick Wright, chief information officer for the State Services Commission (SSC), spent 18 years with IBM in various roles before joining CCL Computing (now Datacom) as software manager, and INL newspapers (now Fairfax). Other technical roles followed at Capital and Coast Health and eventually the NZ Racing Board as GM technical services for nearly five years.

Wright says while the roles are similar, the vendor CIO is concerned with generating revenue for the company, while the customer CIO is perhaps more concerned with improving productivity. "The people don't really change as you have the same issues with relationships and challenges at either side of the fence."

Wright believes technically-minded manag-ers will fare better in vendorland, whereas for a management-minded person, it makes no difference.

"An expert in switches and routers will have more opportunities with Unisys or Datacom than say, the SSC," he states.

Wright believes his experience at both sides of the fence was invaluable in him getting more senior roles at the NZ Racing Board and SSC.

When he was working with a vendor, Wright says he hated dealing with what he called "inconsiderate tenders". Now on the other side of the fence, he says he would never dream of issuing RFIs on December 20 with a deadline for mid-January. This would force vendor staff to give up part of their Christmas holidays to prepare for it.

Similarly, he says vendors need to have a similar understanding of the CIO's schedule and priorities. They are not awaiting a vendor's call, he states. Thus, vendors need to understand and learn about a business and its problems before approaching a CIO.

Wright notes that while a vendor CIO may have more emphasis on marketing, even customer CIOs need to market internally.

"Anything that broadens experience is good," he says to those considering a shift. "But such a decision is based on many factors, not if the employer is a vendor or not."

From SMEs to big government

Bill McKinnon is both finance manager and IT manager at services company Axon. He sees a traditional side to his role in managing the internal IT. He has no say in marketing campaigns because that's what the sales staff are for. And he approaches his own vendors, like HP, just as he would if he were an end user IT manager.

But, he adds, a move to vendorland should pay off for more "immediate access to more technology, and give more options".

Software vendor Greentree has no "real CIO", as this role is split among several people. CEO Peter Dickinson concurs with Infinity's Peter Gould that external projects get priority before internal ones, saying there is perhaps a "cobbler's shoes syndrome" with his own systems not getting enough attention.

"Personally, I believe a vendor CIO position - and I've been witness to some - is an exciting nightmare. Exciting because the vendor organisation is open to do leading edge stuff but a real nightmare in that everyone else in the business is an 'expert' and combine that with strong egos and the CIO can be in a no-win position," he says.

Industry stalwarts Marcel van den Assum and Garth Biggs have also enjoyed stints in both vendor and customer organisations. They agree such movement is good, and both now operate in "governance" roles.

Van Den Assum, who was an executive at Unisys before moving to Fonterra, is now on the board of Simpl as a non-executive director, advising the group on direction and strategy.

"There's a dearth of IS experience at board level," he says.

After leaving Fonterra last year, van den Assum also began advising government departments such as the State Services Commission, Inland Revenue and ACC.

Typically, monthly meetings will feature a structured agenda, looking at issues "objectively and holistically" while leaving the execution to management.

"It's an evolution of the experiences I have had. At Fonterra I presented to the board, so I have a feeling of what they were looking for. The good thing is I can focus on more differentiating factors. In a full-time management position, you are managing a mix of activities, some of which you enjoy more than others.

In governance, you can focus on the differentiation of the critical elements that are going to ensure the organisation is successful. You spend more time thinking and planning and ensuring you have the planning in place, rather than reacting," he says.

"The impact I hope to make centres around the IS business alignment. You talk about optimisation of the IT asset. You can help interpret for CEOs on what CIOs and business leaders are looking for from their investment. It's really about setting direction and committing effort," he adds.

Garth Biggs sits on the board of Optimation, and is executive director of the government's HiGrowth Project. Biggs was CEO for Gen-i and CIO for Air New Zealand and other organisations.

Biggs likens shifting from IT user to vendor organisations to that of journalists moving into public relations. Your experience of your industry helps you serve your new employer, he states.

At Gen-i, IT executives would be involved in marketing and they would test their sales talk on him. When he was with customer CIOs, Biggs was not just a sympathetic sales person, but a CIO who understood their problems.

Switching sides is a valuable dynamic for the whole industry, he says. It increases the vendor's knowledge of their customers and industry's knowledge of what IT can do. "It's really good for bringing the IT industry closer to other businesses."

Biggs recalls life in vendorland used to be much more fun, with vendors going on trips to Bali as rewards, but as business got tougher, managers now get a pat on the back and a bottle of bubbly to take home. "There are (now) no instant riches in vendorland. But there are more IT people around you than in a non-IT business and that can be energising and quite fun," he concludes.

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