The China Gambit

The China Gambit

China, starved for executive talent, is importing CIOs. And discovering how IT works - and doesn't - in this emerging factory to the world is supercharging their careers

Last year, Steve Bandrowczak jumped at the chance to take on a new challenge: the top IT job at PC maker Lenovo Group, a Chinese company.

"I've rolled out systems in 200-plus countries," says Bandrowczak, a 25-year IT veteran, describing his experiences as a globe-trotting CIO, including setting up Chinese distribution centres while head of IT for DHL Worldwide. "I've overseen 43 mergers. I've built and shut down data centres around the globe." But now Bandrowczak is poised to tackle a job that few foreign CIOs would have even considered until recently: managing enterprise IT in China.

"It's an exciting - but formidable - challenge," says Bandrowczak. "From a career perspective, it's the first time I've had the opportunity to build the centre of a company's IT capabilities in China. You only get to do something this special once in your career."

Bandrowczak's mission is to build a new data centre and IT development centre in Beijing as the primary pieces of a global IT infrastructure that will support the aspirations of Lenovo, which made its first major move abroad by acquiring IBM's PC division last May. But managing major IT operations in China in some form or another is becoming less of a foreign concept for CIOs.

One reason is simple supply and demand. Experts say there's a shortage of local IT executive and management talent in China, not nearly enough to keep up with local needs in an economy that's been growing at nearly 10 percent annually over the past two decades. Today, China has between 3000 and 5000 executives with experience managing in a multinational environment, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. But given the country's global aspirations, it will need 75,000 leaders who can work effectively in global environments within the next decade. In fact, when Lenovo paid $1US.75 billion for IBM's PC unit, it made no bones about the fact that it was paying mostly for access to Western managerial know-how and best practices.

Today, having experience in China is a bonus - often the key to landing coveted CIO positions like Bandrowczak's. Tomorrow, it may become a necessity. China is growing more and more central to the strategies of multinational corporations, both as supplier and customer. "If you can show that you've taken an organization in massive growth mode in China and managed IT across those different cultures, that's going to be worth a lot. You're going to be able to get that big CIO job," explains Steve Mullinjer, managing partner at executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles in Shanghai. "China is such an increasingly integral part of every company's operations. In the future, if you don't have firsthand experience, you'll be in trouble."

Don't see yourself living in Shanghai? You'll be dealing with Chinese IT in some form or another in the future, be it through outsourcing, working with suppliers or serving customers. Even if you don't spend a week every month in a Beijing hotel as does Bandrowczak, some direct knowledge of China increasingly will be critical to your career prospects.

But for all the talk about the promise of China and its growing importance to Western corporations, the IT environment there remains a challenging one. CIOs heading to China for the first time, either out of opportunity or necessity, should understand the obstacles before they go.

"Managing IT in China isn't seamless at all," says Matt Brennan, interim CIO for Asimco, a $US400 million auto parts distributor based in Beijing. "You have to be prepared for some real challenges. But it can be very satisfying if you persevere."

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