Experience Counts: How To Be A Turnaround CIO

Some years ago, I was hired to turn around a failing IT department at a midsize retailer in the U.S. Midwest. The company had an IT budget of US$10 million and more than 50 IT associates, but there was no CIO or IT director; the most senior IT person was a homegrown senior programmer with no professional technical training or experience. So the company hired me as a temporary CIO, which was a pretty radical concept back then.

Unfortunately, as is common among growth companies, this organization had charged its controller with making the critical IT decisions and setting strategic direction. I say unfortunately because, while sometimes necessary in a pinch and occasionally effective, that strategy usually doesn’t work for long. Sure enough, the enormity of the responsibility soon overwhelmed this controller. IT problems abounded. Senior management blamed everyone from “prima donna programmers” to vendors who could not be trusted. Finally the company recognized that it needed some outside help. My original agreement was for six months, but it ended up being a year at the client’s request.

It was an interesting assignment, to say the least. Let me share what I learned about being a turnaround CIO.

Survey the Beast

Upon joining, I found morale to be horrid and turnover in excess of 50 per cent. Spending was out of control because of several false starts on some large systems, and no one in IT was accountable for managing the budget. Users had no confidence in the department’s ability to bring a project in on time, and 30 per cent of the IT organization (about half the IT budget) consisted of consultants who basically ran the show. Hardware would crash daily, and users had no confidence in the validity of information they got from the system. Programmers spent their day fixing data corrupted by aborting programs.

Last, I found that the technical infrastructure was essentially undocumented. The processes to perform back-ups and restores were tucked away in someone’s head or on Post-it notes on the tape cabinet. I still get chills when I think about it.

Draw Your Sword

My first real task was to meet with the IT staffers. I was certain their r