All of us in IT are in the unfortunate position of having to justify our existence.
Recently, I assembled a group of CTOs at the InfoWorld (U.S.) home office to discuss some of the challenges that CTOs face. The talk quickly turned to the role of the CTO in the current IT environment, one that has changed drastically since the CTO position emerged in the late 1990s. It even changed since I wrote about the difference between CIOs and CTOs just three years ago.
The past three years in IT have been marked by outsourcing, consolidation, and doing more with fewer people and dwindling resources. CTOs have been forced to adjust to this new environment. While CTOs have been busy realigning IT to the new business environment, the relevance of IT has been questioned in some business circles, ostensibly targeting CTOs in the crosshairs of business irrelevance.
I don’t buy it. To the contrary, after a day of talking shop with a group of talented CTOs, I’m convinced CTOs are increasingly relevant as businesses become ever more reliant on IT and the competitive insights that CTOs can offer. During the boom, CTOs were rightfully proud of how quickly they were able to ramp up systems to serve their businesses, even the ones with flawed business models. When I think back on the dot-com craze, I recall lots of nutty business models, but I also recall a lot of systems that worked quite well. Webvan and Pets.com were bad business models that crashed and burned, but as a customer, I never had problems with their systems.
CTOs have tackled a different and almost opposite problem in the intervening years: simplifying the complex infrastructure and business processes that were created in the boom years and right-sizing the large systems they were asked to build out. Regardless of how you look at it, throughout the boom and the subsequent bust, CTOs largely delivered key systems that met the needs of the business side. There were certainly failures along the way, but on balance, it’s amazing how well everything worked, considering the insanity of the times.
As I listened to the CTOs in our group, I didn’t sense any fear that the march of IT commoditization threatened the viability of their occupation. In fact, the idea that IT has been commoditized seems almost laughable. I would argue that, overall, IT commodification is a purely humorous proposition until IT project success rates consistently close in on 100 per cent. As one CTO noted, despite the simplification of certain aspects of IT, it’s still miles away from the point where setting up a content management or CRM system is as simple as setting up a kitchen appliance, despite what big vendor ads in the Wall Street Journal might suggest. Each IT environment is different, and the existence of cheap commodity servers and other hardware doesn’t mean that IT strategy is any easier.
A CTO might assemble a complex system out of commodity parts, but the intelligence and technical insight that goes into building systems that serve business needs will never be a commodity. By the time a technical solution is commodified, the CTO has already moved on to the next difficult technical problem that has no commodity solution. That’s what CTOs do: attack the tough problems. Until tough problems go out of fashion, the CTO will remain on the front lines of business.