IT and the negligent CEO

One of the big telcos out here is running (and running, and running) a TV ad for its network services offering that makes me grit my teeth every time I see it.

It’s not that I have any problem with the company, or even what it sells (in this case, network service reliability), but the actor in the ad, or rather what he represents, must drive well-intentioned IT professionals mad.

Here’s a synopsis: a well-coifed and power-suited executive, fiftiesh, is reading a paper in the back seat of a cab as it weaves its way in and out of traffic one dark, rainy, ominous looking day. Sombre announcer tells us (I’m paraphrasing here) that we’re “about to witness a crash that will seriously affect this president, his family and his company.”

We’re supposed to expect the cab to slam into the bicycle courier we see briefly, but instead the cab stops in time, and the president’s cell phone rings. OK so far.

He answers: “Yeah?” (Does anybody with manners really say “yeah” when they pick up a ringing phone?) A pause while he listens. A very concerned look clouds the face of this corporate titan. Then he utters the words that drive me nuts: “What do you mean it’s down?”

OK, we get the point — in today’s business environment, a network crash can be as catastrophic as any other unpleasant business event you care to name. Big telco guarantees 99 per cent uptime, please call big telco to buy reliable network services. All OK — it’s the dim president I’m having trouble with.

“What do you mean it’s down?” he says. If network reliability is so critically important to the smooth operation of his company, why does this clown ask such a stupid question? If he’s supposed to be the president, and network services are supposed to be so important to his business, shouldn’t he know a little bit more about them? He may as well have said, “I haven’t a clue what you technology types are telling me.”

I’ve often come down on IT people who spend all their time playing with the newest toys, who forget why the technology is there, that it only exists for the purposes of leveraging business advantage.

That being said, the fault for the gap in communication, trust, and understanding between IT and the business clients they work with is also partly the fault of the business side, especially if they’re like the clueless president in the back of the cab.

Senior executives can’t delegate the responsibility for understanding, sponsoring and supporting technology initiatives in their organizations. Computer and communications technology has become too important not to pay close attention. Any senior executive who doesn’t make an effort to understand the power, potential and limitations of systems technology is doing the organization and shareholders a disservice.

I hope the days of the CEO who refuses to have a PC on the desk (“That’s for the staff, not me”) are gone, along with executives who couldn’t open and answer an e-mail message if their lives depended on it.

I’ve had the good fortune to work with a number of executives who have taken it upon themselves to understand what IT can do, and to get a solid appreciation of the issues that IT people handle. They know that an understanding of IT, even at a high level, has become a necessary part of their corporate governance responsibilities — can you say Y2K?

Let’s hope that none of us have to deal with an executive like the one in the back of the cab. If we do, let’s get them some technology education quickly, or hope they retire quickly.

Hanley is an IS professional living in Calgary. He can be reached at