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Life in the Chocolate Factory

Life in the Chocolate Factory

Wouldn't IT be sweet if you were the CIO of an information technology company? Find out, as the CIOs of IBM, Compaq and Hewlett-Packard provide a peek inside their candy storesImagine how sweet it must be to work for a company that's incredibly astute about the value of technology, gives you access to an abundance of IT equipment, and has a veritable army of engineers on hand to fast track all your implementations. How many problems can you face when the infrastructure you inherit from your predecessors is largely homogeneous, and where the vast majority of your end users are so technically literate as to be practically immune to hype?For the technology devotee, landing the CIO job at a leading IT company must be a bit like finding that childhood dream of working in a chocolate factory came true, right? Well -- yes . . . and no.

Ask Compaq Computer information services director Kerry Holling, IBM business solutions manager Liz Mathew or Hewlett-Packard Australian IT director Jo Shanks what it's like to be an IT manager for an IT shop and you'll hear very few complaints. But while they all agree it can be a joy to work for a company whose core business is IT, they say there are special challenges too, as CIO found out when we sought their views from the inside.

Kerry Holling reports directly to managing director Ian Penman, and has a direct line to the director of information services in Singapore. His group serves Compaq's needs in Australia and New Zealand, and supports a number of services for the entire Asia Pacific region. It hosts the Asia Pacific Network Operations Centre and the Design and the Support teams for the Asia Pacific NT Exchange infrastructure, does a lot of finance application system support, and some design of management reporting and services quoting tools. There's also a worldwide development team for a finance application deployed by Compaq on a global basis.

Holling, who was Digital Equipment's information services director and retained the position with Compaq, says that even more than most organisations, Compaq faces the key issue of keeping pace with innovation, and is constantly reinventing itself to keep ahead of changes in the industry. "I think we know that no other industry changes as rapidly as the IT industry. Digital had actually reinvented itself many times to keep ahead of those changes. As a provider of IT services to Digital and now Compaq we have to figure out how best to support that. I think when you're providing IT for an IT company it tends to hit you from both sides."Liz Mathew looks after business solutions for both IBM Australia and IBM Global Services Australia. When organisations enter into a joint venture or alliance with IBM, one of Mathew's groups is responsible for transitioning technology support staff, providing the communications and IT infrastructure they need to communicate both with the client and with IBM. A second group looks after the business solution needs of staff on IBM sites and inside the IBM network environment. This group is also spearheading IBM's moves towards e-business, Lotus Notes and the Internet under the company's strategy for 1998. A third, known as the Transformation Group, is in charge of CIO-type programs such as Y2K, and end-to-end application and systems architecture. A Process Implementation Group verifies the required infrastructure is in place to roll out processes. Another looks after network and information security, while yet another, just getting off the ground, looks after intellectual capital and knowledge management.

Despite the large number of groups under her wing, altogether Mathew's team comprises just 22 people, who outsource the bulk of the work to the Global Service providers that service IBM customers. Mathew's team works closely with CIOs from other Asia Pacific countries to lobby the US, or find workarounds when the corporately-imposed solutions that come out of the US prove unsuitable for the Asia Pacific region.

She says the team often needs the skills of a diplomat to help absorb newcomers to the IBM Global Services alliance whose loyalty to their original employee may be strong. "When we first build an alliance and the people who come over from that alliance become Global Services people, they are still associated very closely with their client. You have got to convince them that you're not trying to take away what they already have, but that they are now with IBM and have to communicate to their new IBM management. I would say 50 per cent of my day is [spent] trying to be diplomatic."Jo Shanks says Hewlett-Packard's IT organisation is multi-level, with the CIO based in the United States, and IT organised corporately by region (such as Asia Pacific) and country. She reports directly to the Finance and Administration manager for Hewlett-Packard Australia. Much of the focus of her efforts is thus on providing services, infrastructure and support to the Australian operation. Many of the solutions come "corporately blessed", at least in framework if not in detail, and it is her team's job to turn that framework into a reality.

Issues for her group at the moment include Y2K and the compliance business readiness issues in Australia, the new technologies associated with the company voice and data networks, and providing the infrastructure for e-commerce.

Life on the Edge

Like cobblers' children forced to run barefoot, computer companies aren't always in a position to deploy all the hot new technologies they tout to their customers. But most are prepared to invest heavily in training staff, and the IT-literacy level is typically high.

Only half flippantly, Mathew says that high level of literacy can be one of the biggest drawbacks of the job -- "more than 50 per cent of the organisation knows more than you do and 25 per cent of those think they can do a better job than you". "Generally, if you've got common sense and you're open to their ideas, that's okay," she says. "I find it is actually quite helpful having half the organisation know more than you, because then the CIO office is quite huge.

If you've been with the organisation a while your [personal] networking is also huge, so you're able to get a lot more assistance and advice."Mathew frequently turns to the technical people who provide services to customers for advice on tricky issues. For instance, working now on improving IBM's disaster recovery plan, she is calling in a number of IBM's consultants to look at the existing plans and advise on whether to throw the plans out and start again or simply improve them. "We do have a very good offering to clients for working with them on their business recovery and disaster recovery plans, so it seems to make sense for me to draw on that knowledge," she says.

At Compaq too, Holling says there are many people who have more knowledge than the IS staff about the particular technologies they promote to customers. That raises expectations that can't always be met, since Compaq is a business like any other, suffering exactly the same constraints as other businesses. The company simply doesn't always have the luxury of implementing the leading edge technology it is providing to the marketplace.

And members of staff often pressure his group to use the production environment as a test bed for beta products, ignoring the imperative to provide 24 x 7 availability of critical services.

Then again, having high user expectations isn't necessarily just a negative, he says. It certainly drives the IT staff to excel.

To Shanks, working with IT-literate staff is both a joy and a challenge. Yes, user expectations are higher than those of users in non-IT organisations, but those expectations are also tempered with reality. "They can be extremely demanding; but at one point they actually know where the industry is, and so while they might expect you to extract the maximum out of what is available, they don't expect you to deliver what is not available," she says.

What is the biggest drawback of working for a computer vendor? Shanks says it's the challenge of dealing with so many highly IT-literate people, "but if that is my worst drawback I don't have too much in the way of drawbacks".

Pressure Point

Constantly trying to keep pace with an organisation that is constantly reinventing itself presents its own challenges. Compaq has a range of global strategies to roll out a refresh on key components of the infrastructure.

"While that may not happen as quickly as the industry as a whole is changing, I think we do it often enough. And we play catch up probably once in every five years in terms of the infrastructure that we actually have within the company," Holling says.

Is working for a computer vendor an advantage in building that infrastructure, or does it restrict your choices? Holling says it's a bit of both. "Personally, because I have a bias towards Compaq's [previously Digital's] equipment, I really don't have an issue with the fact that we are running our entire environment on Compaq-supplied hardware and software or those of our alliance partners. In fact, I think that works very effectively for us.

"It means we probably have a more homogeneous environment than other companies do, and that actually makes IT management a lot easier. And because we get lead information on new technologies but aren't snowed by some of the more exaggerated claims that may come out, I think we're very selective in what we might choose to deploy." If the company doesn't open itself to the broadest possible range of solutions in implementing its global strategy, Holling has found the solutions from alliance partners more than adequate. "Yes, it's still slightly constraining in terms of our total options, but I don't find that frustrating because I'm happy with the solutions that we've chosen. It hasn't proven to be a problem so far."And having the luxury of direct access to the engineering groups for Compaq's products means Holling can fast-track a lot of implementations, a very significant benefit.

Shanks would certainly second that. Having joined Hewlett-Packard about 16 months ago after spending three years seconded to a cross-university project involving 19 universities, Shanks says she is delighted to be working in a company in the business of making and selling technology. "The technology is fabulous. There is an abundance of the HP equipment that is available to us.

There's also an astuteness about the value technology can add to the business, which I think perhaps isn't always seen in other organisations. So that is a particular joy," she says.

"In the IT role there is always the challenge of knowing that you could deploy state-of the-art technology versus the cost of IT as part of the cost of doing business, and that's sometimes a fine line to tread. We all know what's feasible technically. When it comes to assessing the costs of that and whether we are prepared to wear these costs in doing business -- there's a business equation there that has to be calculated."Eat UpIBM's e-business strategy involves providing customers with a total economic business service including electronic mail, electronic collaboration, intranets and use of the Internet, as well as e-commerce. And corporate CEO Lou Gerstner frequently tells country level CIOs that they should "eat their own cooking".

"For me right at the moment that means making sure that the infrastructure is in place so that we internally can use this e-business ourselves," says Mathew.

"I'm building the infrastructure so that we can use what we sell to customers.

Right now we have rolled out Lotus Notes and moved away from mainframe communications with each other internally. We've got our own intranet and Internet and now I'm slowly building suites of applications that we can use to collaborate and share information." But if the strategy is prescribed, the technology underpinnings are not.

"Because Global Services supports customers, we can do anything; we can support any environment. We're not restricted to anything in particular," Mathew says.

Employees in non-IT companies tend to look to the IS department to deliver all of their technology needs. On the other side of the coin, employees within computer companies don't necessarily do that because of the expertise they have themselves. That can be liberating. Holling says he sees his responsibility as looking after what is mission-critical for the company, rather than as "owning" 100 per cent of the entire IT infrastructure used to support our business.

"It's really an approach where we set guidelines and directions, but not necessarily try and take ownership, except where we see there is risk and exposure to the business," he says.

While Holling's team can't hope to snow management with a lot of IT techno-jargon, senior management is keenly aware of the capabilities of IT and open to new proposals. "We have to put forward solid and reasonable and well-costed proposals. But if we do that, then I think it is easier to sell the benefits of IT to the senior management team than it might be amongst a group of non-IT managers," he says.

"The best strategy we have found is to actually leverage the input the [senior management team] get from their own staff. While we have proactive strategies for expensive things like network upgrades, you always get a buildup in demand and you end up at sort of a cusp where the demand and the need for the service tend to outweigh the cost. When the IT-literate staff within their own groups start making it known that something needs to be done, I can effectively use that to bolster the case that I'm putting."Icing on the CakeFor Mathew too, the biggest reward from working at IBM comes from dealing with leading technology and watching it make a difference to the business. "I believe that what I put in for infrastructure enhances the business offerings for the good, because we can go to customers and say: 'We use this and in fact we can expand it a bit and let you hook on to the system and join us in using it'."For Shanks that is a major plus, but it is also the corporate values in place at Hewlett-Packard that make the work so rewarding. "Hewlett-Packard is a very special organisation," she says. "It has close to 60 years of corporate values which are in themselves very sound corporate values. A company like this has a lot of scope for employees to develop themselves in a whole range of different areas, whether on the research, the delivery or the business sides, because of its size. And people tend to move across the different levels of the business so there is a lot of opportunity for career development in IT in an organisation such as this."Shanks says she finds a "sweet simplicity" about working for a profit-making company after the highly politicised university environment. And like the others, she relishes the opportunities to show leadership in a high-tech company, and thoroughly enjoys the work.

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