CTO ethics 101

During the past several weeks, it has been difficult to ignore the dark cloud of endless corporate scandals hanging over American business. As I write this column, members of Congress in the U.S. have just agreed on a number of key pieces of a corporate fraud bill that they expect to pass to the president for signing in the coming weeks. The “few bad apples” in the business world that President Bush referred to in his speech to Wall Street leaders early last month will now be punished with jail time and stiffer penalties. Most Americans agree that this is the right thing to do. (Although I will note that most Americans weren’t asking any questions when their investments made eye-popping gains in the late ’90s, but that’s another subject altogether.)

Although most of the popular pressure to follow the straight-and-narrow path is falling on CEOs and CFOs, I think CTOs should stand up and be counted as well. CTOs are in a unique position to provide ethical leadership for their companies in a new environment that demands it. I’ve written many times that the CTO works at the intersection of business and technology, but the recent scandals made me realize that CTOs can also uniquely operate on another plane that has little to do with technology specifically: the intersection of business and integrity. I use the word “uniquely” because I have observed aspects of a general CTO mentality that encourage a certain level of honesty and plain dealing in the business world. This is not to say that all CTOs are inherently honest – there are bad apples in every profession – but the nature of the position itself generally means you need to be accountable for what you do, good or bad.

As I’ve written in the past, CTOs are masters of detail. Understanding the crucial details of a business generally prevents one from later claiming a complete lack of knowledge of operational detail; a claim to which someone like Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom Inc. desperately clings. The days of “above the fray” leadership are gone – if you are in a position of leadership within a company, you had better understand what is going on inside your business in significant detail.

This is nothing new to CTOs who know that a minor detail such as what database vendor you choose can have a major impact on the quality of service you offer and at what cost. Talk to any CTO about his or her business and you will generally be treated to as much detail as you can handle about what technology configurations have been employed to solve specific business problems and to what degree of success. Accountability is more or less a built-in feature of the job.

CTOs are also highly skeptical of quick-fix solutions to difficult problems, which encourages no-nonsense forthrightness in attacking business and technology problems. I think this has something to do with many CTOs’ prior experience in software development, where they read sobering advice from people such as Frederick Brooks for years. In 1986, Brooks wrote an essay entitled “No Silver Bullet” in which he noted the inherent pains of software development and concluded, “As we look to the horizon of a decade hence, we see no silver bullet.” There can be a certain faddishness in the technology world – “object-oriented programming, Web services, insert-new-thing-here will change the world” – but most CTOs with whom I associate ignore the waves of hype about any particular technology and go about their business, applying what works and discarding what doesn’t.

The doggedly pragmatic core of the CTO mentality encourages a basic honesty that the business world truly needs these days.

Dickerson is InfoWorld‘s CTO. You can reach him at [email protected].

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