Mike Blake didn't start out as a geek.
As an accountant with an MBA in economics from the University of Chicago, he was about as pure finance as you can get. But in 1995, when United Airlines plucked him from its corporate planning department and dropped him into its IT shop, his life changed completely.
"I probably knew less about IT than anybody else in the strategic planning department," Blake says. "I had a hard time spelling 'IT.' But I soon began to realize that the whole world of United could be understood by how its systems were utilized."
After three-plus years as IT controller at United and a short stint at a b-to-b startup, Blake moved to Sears, where he became IT director of finance. Bitten by the technology bug, Blake went back to school and got a master's degree in computer science.
"I understood the IT projects, and a lot of business people at Sears didn't," Blake says. "I was able to start bridging the gap between technology and finance and tell them what those numbers really meant."
Now, as the CFO of IT at Kaiser Permanente, Blake oversees an annual IT budget of US$1.2 billion. But he's more than just a techie in a suit or a number cruncher who can go deep on networking protocols. He's a new kind of employee: one who balances deep technical know-how with an equally solid understanding of the bottom line.
Be it in finance, marketing, operations, or other key corporate functions, individuals who blend tech skills with business acumen will enjoy the greatest opportunities for advancement. Those who don't may find themselves on the chopping block, and as job descriptions embrace technology as a matter of course, the notion of IT as a separate department may soon be a relic as well.
Bridging two worlds
When the dot-com boom went bust, it took a lot of creative job titles along with it. Positions like "evangelist," "guru," and "gladiator" were quietly replaced with old-school titles like "product manager" and "vice president of sales."
The handful of relatively new titles that have emerged in the post-dot-com era -- such as CFO of IT, chief process officer, or compliance officer -- reflect an environment in which technology exists to support core business values. If you want to rise to the top of the IT food chain, you need to know more than just IT.
"I saw a title last year I loved -- 'senior vice president of operational effectiveness,' " says Paul Groce, a partner at Christian & Timbers, an executive recruiter. "It brings IT, front and back office together into one role. It's about leveraging technology to automate and improve your processes, so you can develop products faster and better. If a corporation came to us and said, 'Find us the perfect VP of OE,' chances are we'd look for someone who's both very IT- and business-savvy."
"Companies are totally focused on the bottom line," agrees Jeff Markham, division director at Robert Half Technology (RHT), an IT staffing provider. "They don't care if their Web site looks pretty if they can't analyze the click-through rate and get that intelligence into the hands of the VP of marketing."
In many corporations, employees with technical chops to match their business savvy act as ambassadors between two disparate and sometimes hostile cultures. Bruce Murison, a consultant based in Ontario, Canada, has worked as a database developer, a business transformation architect, a systems engineer, a teacher, and a cabinetmaker, among other roles. Murison jokingly describes himself as "a generalist -- expert at nothing, dangerous at many things." For 12 years at Nortel and 10 as a private consultant, however, he's been a kind of unofficial diplomat between the geeks and the suits.
"At Nortel, people called me the 'glue,' " Murison says. "I was able to talk to the president of the company, the scientists, the database developers, the guys on the shop floor, and the janitors in the clean room. It's important to know how each camp thinks, understand what they want and need to perform their function well, and have the ability to implement change so the company works well as a whole."
Borland's Chief Process Officer Bill Curtis describes his role in similarly adhesive terms. "The classic CPO sits halfway between the CIO and the business VPs and integrates workflows across business functions," says Curtis, who works out of a home office in Fort Worth, Texas. "We can be the glue that helps the CIO knit together the organization's business processes with its technology."
Curtis says he spends most of his time talking to the IT departments at Borland's customers, making sure they implement the same professional business processes employed elsewhere in the enterprise. "The critical role is to integrate the two worlds inside the company -- the side that wants to move forward with Six Sigma and continuous improvement, and the side that wants to go in with large-scale automation systems [such as] SAP and Oracle," Curtis says. "You'll often find that both worlds aren't talking to each other."
One geek, many hats
In some cases, companies solve the business/tech conundrum by looking for one person who can fill multiple roles, like The Gale Company's Ian Marlow. Marlow, the commercial realtor's 30-year-old wunderkind, sports three titles -- but still collects only one salary, he notes ruefully.
As executive vice president in charge of facilities, Marlow manages 54 million square feet of client office space spanning 48 states and 32 countries. As Gale's chief operating officer, he's in charge of all the services that make the back end of the company tick. In his capacity as CIO, he supports a network of more than 1,300 users in 19 offices across the world. In his spare time, Marlow says, he sleeps.
Unlike Kaiser Permanente's Blake, Marlow began with a technology background and gravitated toward the business side. He started out as a chemical engineer, then became an actuary, a database programmer, and eventually chief engineer and marketing officer at Signet Star Reinsurance Company.
"CEMO isn't the neatest acronym in the world," Marlow admits. He found, though, that he could use the statistical analysis skills he'd developed as an actuary to identify which marketing campaigns were the most effective and then funnel company dollars toward those projects.
As EVP/COO/CIO for Gale, Marlow does much the same thing with IT -- trying out new technologies, demonstrating their ability to improve the bottom line, and making the case for expanding a pilot program to the entire enterprise.
"The key is being able to understand the value a product can bring to the organization in both soft and hard dollars," Marlow says. "If you can understand it yourself, you can get corporate buy-in."
If you're truly successful, Marlow adds, they'll ask you to figure out how to take that technology and sell it as a service, turning a cost center into a revenue stream. In another era, he might have been called an evangelist. Today he's just another example of how technical staff must wear many hats to adapt to the changing realities of their jobs.
Perhaps no other area demands a combination of business and tech skills more than regulatory compliance. RHT's Markham says he knows of companies that will pay salaries of $100,000 for someone with no Sarbanes-Oxley experience and $160,000 for someone with a Sarb-Ox background. "Companies are willing to pay a lot more for anyone with a background in compliance, consulting, or data security," he says.
At Protiviti, a subsidiary of RHT that provides internal audit and risk consulting services for Fortune 1000 companies, ensuring Sarb-Ox compliance is a big part of the job. Managing Director Ed Hill says large companies often have chief compliance, security, or privacy officers who are well-grounded in regulatory issues, but those enterprises need individuals who can combine an auditing background and Sarb-Ox knowledge with a solid understanding of IT.
"In accounting, you sign off on schedules and keep paper trails of what you did to reach your conclusions," Hill says. "But this had never been asked of anyone in the IT world before. Who signs off on a new user being added to a certain group? Was it a business person? The right person? That's one of the biggest issues."
The road to CEO
The demand for executives with both technical and business skills is good news for those who believed CIO stood for "career is over." For the first time, techies have a clearly defined path to the big chair, provided they do their homework.
"I don't care what you call that person -- CIO, CTO, head of whatever -- there's a certain set of skills individuals will need in the future, and it's not the same set of skills they needed in the past," says Mark Lutchen, senior partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers and author of Managing IT as a Business. "They need equal amounts of financial know-how, HR experience, communications skills, and the ability to deal with culture change as well as technology. The genetic map for CIO is looking more and more like the genetic map for CEO."
Christian & Timbers' Groce notes that executives who are able to drive better bottom line results via IT have a better chance of reaching the top. "Eventually, these people may eventually get a shot at No. 1, while their peers debate MIPS, bits, and bytes," he says.
So how do you find the right mix of business savvy and tech smarts? For Kaiser Permanente's Blake, the answer was a return to grad school. While working in Sears' IT department, Blake spent his weekends getting a master's in computer science from Northwestern University.
"There was always a point where my questioning failed, and it was in the world of alternatives," Blake says. "The computer science degree enabled me to say, 'Have you looked at X? Are you even thinking about Y?' When you start to deal at that level, it changes the game significantly."
At Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business, they're building business-savvy techies from the ground up. Starting this fall, the school is offering an MBA track that combines business and technology in equal amounts.
"The hardest thing for techies to learn is that the solution to most problems is rarely purely technical," says Bob Monroe, a visiting lecturer in IT and computer science and co-coordinator of the new track. "We're hoping to teach them to do the business and financial analysis to see if the solution makes sense."
As CIOs evolve into well-rounded business managers, the monolithic one-size-fits-all IT department may also become a thing of the past. Jeff Markham notes that some of RHT's biggest clients are creating "mini IT" departments for each of their functional divisions, hiring specialists who understand technology as well as the division's specific needs.
"We see a trend towards people looking for someone with very technical skills and deep understanding of a specific industry, such as automobiles or entertainment," adds Anthony Soohoo, vice president of products and strategy for the popular job search site, Yahoo HotJobs.
One thing is certain: Before long, having great IT skills -- but only IT skills -- will no longer be enough. Geeks will soon need to talk the talk and wear the suit if they wish to survive.
"When technology and business sides collide, there's usually frustration on both sides," Kaiser Permanente's Blake says. "The business side says, 'IT doesn't understand.' IT says, 'Business doesn't understand.' But at the end of the day, business generally breaks the tie. The IT department constantly takes the hit." -- InfoWorld (US)