Go-between roles growing in importance

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,” said 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 Ottawa, 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 Networks 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 said. “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,” said Curtis, who works out of a home office in Fort Worth, Tex. “We can be the glue that helps the CIO knit together the organization’s business processes with its technology.”

Curtis said 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 said. “You’ll often find that both worlds aren’t talking to each other.”

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,” said 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 said.

So how do you find the right mix of business savvy and tech smarts? For Mike Blake CFO of IT at Oakland, Calif.-based health care organization Kaiser Permanente, 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 said. “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.”

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