Step up and lead

Step Up and Lead

John J. Ciulla, chief information officer at content management provider Vignette Corp., shares his career path story.

When I first joined the elite ranks of the basement dwellers back in 1981, the term CIO didn’t even exist. In fact, we didn’t even use the term information technology-first it was data processing, then it was management information systems (MIS). And looking back, it seems like we really did spend an awful lot of time down in the basement, just trying to keep our network up and running.

Even in 1993, when I landed my first CIO gig at Entex, our infrastructure gave me many sleepless nights. I was constantly worrying about uptime and putting out fires. Granted, it was my first time performing the CIO role, but it seemed like I just never had a chance to take off the pocket protector and become a part of the culture of my company.

Yet while I may not have been able to feel it at the time, by then a transformation was beginning, and technology was starting to catch up to the speed of business. Today the systems and management tools out there are so good that to say I have nearly 100 percent uptime doesn’t seem like much of an accomplishment. Uptime today is like dial tone-you simply expect it to be there. These days I spend less than 50 percent of my time on the traditional CIO task of managing information systems. But I’m busier than ever.

A Strategic Player

We all know that the role of the chief information officer is dramatically different now from what it was 10 years ago or even two years ago. Today’s CIO has moved out of the basement and into the boardroom, becoming a key figure in purchasing decisions, operational strategy, even marketing and sales. Whether we’re creating the next killer app to keep our company one step ahead of the competition or strategizing with the marketing group about how to appeal to other IT decision makers, today the CIO is a vital piece of any company’s strategic puzzle. The question is, how do we convince our business peers of that?

For me it all began to change during my second stint as a CIO, at Tivoli Systems. I was more comfortable with the challenges of the position by then, and the technology was already reliable enough to free me up for some actual management work.

I began to look at my IT department as an organization in and of itself. After all, we had an infrastructure. We developed products. We had a plan and a strategy. We had to align ourselves with the needs of our internal customers. The only thing we were lacking was a marketing and sales component. So we decided to create one and promote our organization within the company.

We began a series of three six-month campaigns to reach out from our IT group to the rest of the company with something that everyone could relate to. Our slogan for the first campaign was, “We’re All in the Same Boat,” and to kick it off, we painted a canoe with Tivoli colours, filled it with ice and beer, and presented it to the rest of the company at a Friday afternoon beer bash. During the next months we put up posters to generate awareness and excitement for the follow-up campaigns-“Row the Boat” and “Win the Race.”

In the end those campaigns were a huge success for us, and they really helped the people in my division feel like they were part of something unique. The effort brought us together as a team, and in the mid-1990s, happy employees were a major business imperative.

But the campaigns were also for the folks outside the IT department. The effort got people from all over the organization to notice who we were and what we stood for within the company. I soon found that not only were members of my team more satisfied with their jobs, but I started getting invited to lead other initiatives beyond IT, eventually heading up the company’s leadership and communications task force and some other cool activities outside of the traditional CIO role. My responsibility grew, and thus I began reporting directly to the CEO.

Now, not every corporate culture would allow an executive to tote a canoe full of beer into a Friday afternoon gathering, but our campaign at Tivoli was just one example of how today’s CIO is more than the alpha geek.

Chief information officers today are true C-level executives, and as such they are being asked to display real business skills and strategic insights that can benefit the company as a whole. The opportunities for CIOs to provide new kinds of value for their businesses-and enhance their own careers in the process-are greater than ever before.

Running the Business

Today at Vignette, I’m involved in many aspects of the company outside of IT. Since Vignette is a software maker, my IT department is not only creating the next killer app to drive our CRM systems forward, but we’re using our own software. That in turn helps our sales guys go out and prove to the world that what we’re selling works.

On the other hand, as a CIO, I’m constantly getting spammed by solicitations from other software companies. Most of these e-mails and letters are ineffective for one reason or another, and I end up deleting dozens of them every week. I’ve started talking to our marketing folks about why that is-I am, after all, the spammers’ target audience. By all accounts my experience has proven invaluable to our marketing staff, and I now meet regularly with them to strategize and offer feedback on their approach for our company. Similarly, I’ve used some of my own contacts within the CIO world to help our sales guys get a foot in the door.

The extra activities have continued to grow to the point where I’m now running around quite a bit. Last week I was on the East Coast meeting with major client prospects. Next week I’m off on another, similar junket. It’s hectic but challenging, and very rewarding. I’m helping to run a business at the highest level. It’s hard to believe this is the same job I had at Entex nearly 10 years ago. Today I’m all over our company and all over the country. Back then, I was in the basement.

It’s partly that technology itself has come so far-it’s more reliable and more valued companywide. But it’s also largely because I made a conscious effort to step out of the CIO mold and lead my organization.

The role of the chief information officer is changing in many ways, and that’s due at least in part to the fact that we are changing it. There’s been a shift in perception that’s opened the door for all of us to expand our responsibilities and our careers. Maybe you won’t end up wooing the company with a canoe full of beer, but with the business skills, experience and insight that CIOs possess today, there are endless opportunities for you to bring new value and new leadership to any organization.