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Crossing to the dark side

Crossing to the dark side

A stint in a vendor organisation can round out your CV and fast-track your career – even though many IT executives discard the idea outright.

As chief information officer for companies like Air New Zealand and Progressive Enterprises, Garth Biggs had accountability for millions of dollars of annual expenditure. But Biggs knew being in charge of information systems for the country’s biggest organisations did not necessarily expose him to other important aspects of management. “What I didn’t have was revenue accountability and profit accountability. Those were challenges I really wanted to test myself against.”

When he accepted the post of chief executive officer of IT integrator Gen-i, not all thought this obvious leap up the corporate hierarchy was good. “People said to me you are going over to the dark side,” he recalls. Biggs has no regrets. “I have previously done things like marketing, finance, logistics and so on. Here, I have pretty much crossed off all of those things and it’s how to make it work together which is very interesting and quite challenging.”

While Biggs may brush off the Star Wars analogy in his professional choices, many IT executives consider moving to a position in vendorland as an unnatural career step. But MIS spoke to those who have been there and finds, for the right person, the strategy has a lot to offer.

There are some IT directors who have simply never considered a vendor organisation as a potential career move. But, according to executive recruitment agency Hamilton James & Bruce’s manager of technology recruitment, Euan Mackay, there are also it directors who refuse to entertain the idea.

He says there is often a perception there aren’t many careers to be had in vendor companies for IT directors. While this can be true in some regards, he says some IT directors he meets are just too dismissive.

“It’s not a move I would naturally suggest to an IT director but, when I have done, there have been a couple of negative reactions,” says Mackay. “Some CIOs feel a vendor organisation is a bit beneath them; they tend to be those who have recently left blue-chip end users and view vendors as a bit dodgy. They don’t really want to hear about the role. It is just old-fashioned thinking. You do sometimes get a lot of ego wrapped up in these guys and they can therefore be a bit closed-minded in terms of thinking laterally about their careers.”

Aaron Kumove, former chief information officer of New Zealand Post, says the analogy to joining the dark side is “funny but probably not entirely accurate”.

His view stems from his extensive experience in both user and vendor organisations.

“Having some perspective on the other side of the coin is never a bad thing,” says Kumove, now managing director of Horizon Consulting.

“It certainly helps a lot knowing how the game is played on the other side of the fence. It gives you some very useful leverage when you are at the bargaining table.”

Damian Swaffield, general manager information services at Sky City, agrees being close-minded about career options in the vendor community may not be beneficial.

There is an element of sales and business development in a vendor background, says Swaffield. “These are key components of what I believe an IS organisations in a modern corporation should be about.”

Swaffield looks positively at staff who have had stints in vendor and consulting organisations. “They tend to be quite well-rounded individuals and on a number of fronts,” including working with customers from a broad range of industries. “The more business models you are exposed to, the more business knowledge you develop,” says Swaffield, who was with consulting firm KPMG prior to his current post. “Having that breadth of industry exposure is quite important.”

Joanne Bos, information services manager, healthAlliance, shares this view. Bos, who has worked for both vendor and user organisations, has met people who maintained they would never go to vendorland. They made their feelings known to her when she was asked to apply for a role at Unisys while working at Air New Zealand.

“A couple of people said, ‘Are you sure you know what you are doing?’ You can never win with customers.” Her response to the offer was “an easy yes”.

“I have been working for the other end, in manufacturing and air travel, and I wanted to round-up what I understand of the IT industry.”

Bos started as service level manager at Unisys and eventually became program manager responsible for a $3 million annual outsourcing contract with Placemakers. After Unisys, she joined Waitemata District Health Board, moving up to the role of IT manager.

Her current employer, healthAlliance, is a shared services company owned by Waitemata and Counties Manukau District Health Boards. Her stint with Unisys certainly aided her when she moved to the health sector. “It is really helpful to be on the other side of the fence, being in vendorland. It gives you a customer services focus and it really helps to understand that you are not just delivering a function.”

Swaffield feels negative perceptions of moving from user organisations into vendorland are due to scant knowledge about what work on the other side entails. “I think it’s experience,” he says, “If you haven’t done it, you may look at it negatively, but those who have been through the rounds understand the benefits.”

Against the grain

One IT director who decided to go against his instincts and pursue an IT sector career is Richard Armstrong, who is now chief information officer at Dialect Solutions Group in Australia.

Having worked in IT management at a shipping organisation and the Sydney Futures Exchange, he took up an offer to move into vendorland. He says, despite his initial fears, he has been able to apply his end user experience to rapidly further his career.

Initially enticed by Hub Information Technology with the prospect of getting a start-up organisation up and running, he has been promoted and took the top IT position when the organisation merged with two other vendors to form Dialect Solutions.

“I used to swear I would never cross over the line into vendorland, but what I have found is my skills are valuable here,” says Armstrong. “I had the idea it would be a pretty cutthroat environment and that there was not a lot of thought given to what the customer really required … I guess that is where the mental barrier was; you feel that in moving to a vendor, you are becoming the guy that used to sell to you, but the actual value proposition you can put down strikes a lot more of the right notes with the CIOs I now deal with.”

Perhaps one of the main differentiators between a vendor organisation and an end user environment in the eyes of many IT directors is the ethos of a vendor. By nature, a vendor is there to sell a product and IT directors have traditionally been the targets. A job with the element of the salesperson thrown in does not appeal to everyone.

As Kumove notes, “When you are in a vendor organisation, the name of the game is sales. When you are in a user organisation, the name of the game is implementing stuff and making it work.”

Biggs of Gen-i agrees. “The rules of selling internally to an organisation are a lot easier than the rules of selling to an external organisation,” says Biggs.

“If you are an IT manager, you can go to a business user manager and say, ‘I really think you should be doing this with IT.’ If you get knocked back, you can go back again, and go back again.”

This is not the case in an integrator or the rest of the vendor community. “If you make a mess of that first approach, you’re dead,” says Biggs. “Selling is much more crucial, and I think it is much less forgiving.”

Pressure points

Biggs says working in a vendor setting does not necessarily translate into a harder job. “It is just a different set of challenges.” An IT manager in an industry outside IT is impacted by the dynamics of that industry, he says. “If the industry is doing well, they generally get a budget but, if things go badly in that industry, it really comes back to IT in terms of head cuts and frozen capex. It’s a different set of tensions.”

One such tension is what Biggs calls “the rhythm of revenue accountability”.

“At the start of each month you have no revenue, zero dollars, and there is a target you have to meet every month. It is a discipline, a mindset which I don’t think you find much in the user community. I am accountable to a board, there is no excuse, I have to deliver the results. I don’t see that same pressure in a user organisation.”

The move to a vendor or integrator community, however, may not suit all IT directors. Many IT directors came up through the traditional technology route, observes Malcolm Barnes, chief information officer of heavy vehicles supplier Komatsu. “Many have never even met a customer, so the thought of being in an organisation where they are responsible for the deliverables to the customer can be uncomfortable for them.”

As Bos of healthAlliance points out, in a vendor organisation, “You get knocked regularly and people have no hesitation doing that, because they are paying you.” This experience, she says, helped her become more customer- focused when she moved back to user organisations. When there are escalating issues, she says, “I want to do something about it, because I know they [the users raising the issues] are just trying to do their job.”

Komatsu’s Barnes observes the issue of being able to work in a vendor environment comes down to what type of IT manager you are. He believes those used to strategic involvement at a high level should consider the move on its individual merits, whereas the IT directors who function largely as internal service providers should forget it.

Armstrong of Dialect Solutions Group agrees, saying many IT directors already possess a large proportion of the skills necessary to be successful in the IT sector. “A lot of CIOs are much more business savvy than they used to be and they spend a lot of time presenting. Presenting to a board or an audience at a breakfast seminar is becoming a required piece of any CIO’s toolkit and, to that end, the barriers have dropped a lot as we have moved from the 90s to the present. There is not as much trepidation as before.”

Become more flexible

If an IT director has a bit of an entrepreneurial attitude along with a sales edge and a good understanding of what they want to do with an IT strategy, they will find working in a vendor organisation both challenging and rewarding, according to Spherion’s chief information officer Stephen Withnall.

However, he cautions others the scrutiny of a vendor chief information officer’s performance is even more rigorous than in an end-user environment. If the user with a little knowledge is a dangerous thing in any industry, then it has the potential to be a nightmare in an organisation demanding IT knowledge for virtually every job function.

“There is little sympathy for IT in vendor organisations; it is more the view of, ‘Yeah, you have a tough job to do, but I know that stuff too and I could do it’,” says Withnall. “People will always be able to tell you how easy it is to do, and the people on the shop floor will often know a lot more about the technology than you do. You have to be more flexible in a faster moving industry like this though, and that means you develop more skills quickly … if you are really interested in a particular area of technology, then working for a vendor in that space also means you can be at the front edge.”

Hamilton James & Bruce’s Mackay also stresses that, for an IT director, time spent in the vendor community genuinely sharpens their business focus. Even if it is not a long-term career goal, a period in a vendor organisation will build skills for future positions. Internal positions tend to have a customer-facing element and internal IT costs are ferociously enforced.

As Kumove notes, the skill sets required may be common or different depending on the nature of the role, the enterprise and the breadth the role offers. “When you are an internal IT director your customers are the internal organisation.

If you go to a vendor organisation as a CIO you still have internal customers, but if you take a job managing a professional services arm of the vendor organisation then you start using sales skills you didn’t have to worry about in the same way when you were a CIO in a user or vendor organisation, especially if your remuneration is comprised of a sales component.”

Plan your career

If the past couple of years has taught people in the IT industry anything, it is that the job for life no longer exists; IT directors often tell MIS about the need to regularly assess their career paths and prospects. If an IT director realistically expects to be in the job market on a more regular basis, then adding new strings to their bow undoubtedly improves the value proposition.

Even if it’s not considered a long-term move, Mackay says a stint on the other side of the fence does absolutely no career harm.

He says some senior IT executives he has spoken to rubbish the idea of working for a vendor, as they believe they already possess all of the knowledge they could gain from that experience. But CFOs and CEOs he has dealt with often look for an IT director who has experienced more than just running an internal IT shop.

For his part, Swaffield of Sky City says the reason he is able to hold down his current role is the “accelerated learning process” he got as a KPMG consultant. At KPMG, he also had a “unique” experience as an IS professional. “I was responsible for business development and revenue streams associated with service line models (people services, not products). It helped me develop a very good perspective on business, and I have applied that understanding as part of the executive management team in assisting in growing revenues in this organisation.”

Swaffield says an IT executive in a user organisation considering a move to a vendor organisation should consider the same factors as in any other job opportunity. These include the culture of the organisation, the size of the business, the complexities of the business and what the job entails in terms of strategy and people.

Biggs points out a factor he would consider is the type of organisation offering the job. “There are organisations that I can’t particularly respect, that might not be good for your career.”

At the same time, a major consideration for Biggs would also be where you would want to position yourself in the IT sector. “For IT people, being a vendor or an integrator puts us in our industry. In any other industry, we are just implants in their business,” he says. “I’ve been in industries where, because you have not done 12 or 20 years, or because you did not start in the industry, your ideas are not respected as much as people who have, regardless of the quality of their ideas. IT people’s ideas would have much more respect in an IT organisation.”

This is the same for Komatsu’s Barnes. “Make sure the role is right and it is a move forward in the direction you want to go. I am a CIO at the moment, because I happen to think that is where you can have the greatest impact on business and because I believe it is going to be a very necessary skill to know how to run technology in the future. I use every role to learn and position me for the future.”

SHOULD YOU MAKE A CHANGE?

Assess your own personal strengths. If you are a strong presenter and entrepreneurial by nature, it is an option worth considering.

Approach decisions lucidly. The traditional ‘them and us’ mentality could be holding you back; assess a vendor organisation in the same way you would any other organisation.

Think of future career objectives. A period in a vendor organisation sharpens up business focus and demonstrates commercial acumen to future employers.

Develop a thick skin. If you work as a technology executive in a technology company, you can expect your authority to be questioned. The company will be populated by those who think they could do your job.

Join the CIO New Zealand group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.

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