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Life after being a CIO

Chris Yates
Chris Yates is the former CIO of Tennis Australia, where he oversaw the IT strategy for organisation and led the IT team for tournaments such as the Australian Open and Davis Cup. He has worked across various industries, including financial services, marketing and advertising.

Is there life after being a CIO? That was the question posed to me by my good friends at CIO Australia as I return to the world of consulting after my very enjoyable three and a half years at Tennis Australia.

I have found the periods between my tenures of running IT departments very important to my own development. And, if good fortune permits, they are often precursors to even better CIO roles.

This is the fourth time I have moved from running IT for a company to consulting. Looking back, all the longer-term periods I have spent with companies began with me consulting for them. I must come across as a 'try before you buy' type of person!

I have always found it a more comfortable way to start as one can get a good feeling for culture and the issues within a company. It certainly allows you to hit the ground running when you sign a three-year contract and need to start delivering.

Working in new places, new environments and potentially completely different types of businesses is both interesting and challenging, however. I think I am up to about my fifth different industry and I always enjoy the initial detective work that you have to do when you start at a new company. I really enjoy doing the research and putting together the pieces of the puzzle that will enable a solution. It is a skill that always needs sharpening.

IT as a career

I admire people who are able to stay in one position for many years, yet IT is an industry that requires change and disruptive influences. Several studies peg the average tenure of a CIO at between 3-5 years, which I originally thought meant that this was a position that became less tenable with the passing of time at a company. I have begun to realise, however, that many CIOs leave of their own accord, moving on in the search for new challenges.

Are we a group that needs to be continually challenged, slaves to our desire to problem solve?

I have always held the view that introducing change in IT runs a three-year cycle:

  • The first year is about addressing problems
  • The second year is about enhancing the environment
  • The third year leads to consolidation.

Many IT professionals find that after this they are ready for another challenge, rather than continuing in the consolidation role. Perhaps this is where the life of a person in IT management can be different to other management roles in that it is more cyclical, moving through development phases and returning to take on another challenge.

A good book

I have also found this period a good time to expand my knowledge, especially reading books not about IT.

I have just read Genius, a biography on Richard Feyman the physicist — which made me feel like an idiot! Just a glimpse of his brilliant thought processes and problem solving techniques was fascinating.

Basically, if he had to solve a problem, he would never use previous work to help solve it; he always worked out the problem from the start, even if other physicists had already worked out equations that would have helped. It led to him not only solving problems, but coming up with more elegant solutions and alternate methods for solving issues.

It is a simple yet alternate way of looking at problems — and don't we in IT often start from the problem rather than going all the way back to beginning? I like to read about problem solving outside of IT so I can learn about alternate approaches to the myriad of issues that we face. It was such an interesting read I have purchased The Information by the same author, a history of how data has been used and should be used. Perhaps a review in a future blog?

A time to reflect

One of the more interesting aspects I find myself going through during this period is the self-critique. Could things have been done better, could I have communicated more, was this done the best way possible?

The questions have to be asked. Nobody gets it exactly right but I think it is critical that one goes through the process because this is where the real learning takes place.

Many moons ago, when I lectured in software development, I would claim I was one of the world's greatest experts — it was always met with resounding silence from the students. I pointed out that I had achieved this lofty title by making more mistakes programming than any other person I knew. The good news, however, was that I had learnt from my mistakes — and I could duplicate them perfectly! I would recount an example of my brilliantly bad programming and how they could learn from it. But at the same time, I was reviewing my work with an objective eye with a plan to document the issues and draw up strategies for the future. A somewhat daunting but essential exercise.

Last of all, several staff members who have worked with me during my CIO engagements say they noticed I had a better perspective when I returned to the role. I think it is due to my return to the consulting 'coalface'. Consulting ensures I return to project management or IT strategy roles, focus on the day-to-day business requirements and deal with business people on a more regular basis. It also reminds me of what it is required to make things happen at this level, the amount of communication and negotiation that has to take place and the pressures that one is under.

Far be it from me to say that CIOs may become a bit disconnected from the day-to-day tribulations (cough)...however, I have found that getting back to good solid project management and/or IT strategy really sharpens your skills and reminds you of what is required from a CIO to create an environment that is conducive to success.

Perhaps it can be thought of as CIO pre-season training? It has always been a great time to remind myself that being in charge is about creating the right environment for staff. I have always liked the quote from Dee Hock, founder of Visa: "If you don't understand that you work for your mislabeled 'subordinates,' then you know nothing of leadership. You know only tyranny."

I must get back to work. The two best pieces of advice I was given on consulting was, "Have twenty irons in the fire — one will pay off" and "When you get some consulting work, celebrate for 15 minutes — then it is time to start looking for the next job!".

Chris Yates is the former CIO of Tennis Australia. He has worked across various industries, including financial services, marketing and advertising. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

Tags: leadership, consulting, CIO

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