Opinion: Summertime reflection

As summer draws to a close, I’m thinking about what I would present in a hypothetical “what I did on my summer vacation” spiel on the first day of school, and how that relates to what other CTOs did during their summers.

First of all, I did take a vacation. This might seem like an obvious thing to do during the summer, something unworthy of mention, but I think vacation sometimes gets short shrift in the world of many CTOs. Before last year, I went through a self-imposed five-year vacation drought. I was working in the New Economy, no time for vacation. Many of my fellow CTOs and I were too busy reinventing American business and participating in the seemingly endless economic growth of the times.

We were undertaking huge projects, constantly hiring new talent in a tough market, and doing it all at lightning speed. Many of us were also pale, tired, sluggish, and generally unhealthy. Looking back, I think we all should have insisted on taking a little more vacation to spend valuable time with our friends and families, recharge our batteries, and generally be healthy and balanced human beings. There is certainly more to life than stock prices and earnings. (Admission: While on vacation I did keep up with e-mail, write two columns, and make a few work-related phone calls. Some old habits die hard.)

On the business side, summer is also a good time for fresh reflection and analysis. As business slows and others are on vacation, it’s an ideal time to step back and look at the competitive context of your business. How has the competitive climate changed in the past few months? What new competitors have emerged? What changes need to occur in your technology environment to deal with new competitive threats and challenges? Have any disruptive technologies been introduced that change the way you look at your business?

One common problem I have observed – particularly in older, traditionally well-run companies – is that experienced executives stay so focused on serving their existing customers and watching their traditional competitors that they ignore emerging competitors that are leveraging new technologies to gain market share in unique ways.

This phenomenon is well-documented in Clayton Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Dilemma, which gave us the term “disruptive technology.” This book has been around a few years, but I still consider it a must-read for anyone involved in business strategy. In my work at InfoWorld, Christensen’s book reminds me that we need to keep an eye on dozens of non-traditional online information services in addition to our traditional print publishing competitors.

Finally, I am reminded of the admonishment one of my managers gave me when I worked in a retail store the summer after I graduated from high school. On my first day, when the store was momentarily empty, I leaned against the counter, gazed out the window, and immediately was told, “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.”

If things are slow in the office, you have time to take a look at some unexciting but critical housekeeping matters. Is your development group still adhering to the source code control procedures implemented last winter? Are systems being backed up? Are all of your key systems and software properly patched to deal with the latest reported security vulnerabilities? Are your published escalation procedures still valid and working well? Mundane tactical issues can kill strategic plans quickly, so it’s never a waste of time to take a look at these things.

After you’ve spent some time housekeeping, maybe it’s time to take your staff out for ice cream and some sunshine. It is summer after all.

Dickerson is I nfoWorld (U.S.)’s CTO. Contact him at chad_dickerson@infoworld.com