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IT Takes Two

IT Takes Two

Jon Harris was about to politely say good-bye and hang up the phone after a hiring official from the city of Austin, Texas, informed him that the CIO job he'd been interviewing for had been filled. What the official asked next threw him for a loop: Would he come on board as deputy CIO instead? The senior IT veteran was taken aback. I'm not used to being number two, he thought. But when he learned that the new CIO was an old colleague - whom, ironically, had reported to Harris 16 years earlier - he reconsidered.

Fourteen months later, Harris and CIO Brownlee Bowmer work hand in glove, running the IT operations and strategy for Austin's sprawling high-tech community. Bowmer spends his days navigating the politics of city government to line up support for his e-government initiative and other enterprisewide initiatives, while Harris serves as chief of operations, rallying an IT group of 200, leading major projects, and orchestrating everything from budgets and hiring to upgrades of the city's fiber-optic network. Winding down from a 35-year career in IT, Harris is no longer sore about losing the CIO job. In fact, he enjoys working (and occasionally socializing) with Bowmer so much, he wouldn't have it any other way. He and Bowmer spend at least two hours a day working through decisions and problems together. "It sounds like we're in love with each other," Harris jokes, "but we're not."

Harris and Bowmer arrived at their respective roles by accident: City officials decided that two CIOs with complementary skills are better than one. But some CIOs are intentionally creating operations-centered deputy CIO positions because they desperately need a senior executive who can run the shop and fight fires so that they can focus on business strategy. These CIOs - or their bosses - realize that the expanding scope of the CIO role is often too big for one person; running a tight IT outfit and leading corporate IT strategy at the same time is exceedingly difficult.

The stretched-too-thin syndrome is an outcome of IT's growth in importance to companies. CIOs long ago moved out of back offices and into executive suites - yet even as they are charged with showing the way toward new, business-critical uses of technology, they nonetheless remain responsible for the day-to-day functioning of internal and external networks, enterprise systems and all those desktop computers. The sheer logistics of the CIO job are overwhelming, for one thing. "CIOs die on the vine of meeting management," says Patrick Jordan, an assistant director in Austin's IS department who works with both Bowmer and Harris.

It's also rare to find what PricewaterhouseCoopers Consultant Chris Gardner call double majors - IT executives who can effectively wear both a strategy hat and a technical or operational hat. Those who appear to shine in both areas are often snatched up by consultancies or vendors dangling sky-high compensation packages, says Gardner, a partner and New York group leader for PricewaterhouseCoopers' management consulting IT strategy practice. Most CIOs instead succumb to fire fighting and crisis management, their best-laid plans for prioritisation shelved by events, says Jerry Gregoire, former CIO and senior vice president of Dell Computer. "Every year they all say they plan to spend 75 percent of their time on strategy and 25 percent on operations, and then they end up having to do it the other way around."

A deputy CIO can overcome this planning predicament. An operationally focused number two complements the strategy-centered CIO - much like a corporate COO does the CEO - and typically oversees technology execution and maintenance, personnel and the budget. The presence of an operational chief has allowed Alan Hughes, president of business services and CIO of Deutsche Financial Services in St. Louis, to make speedy progress on organisationwide priorities. Earlier this year, he developed a new architecture framework in a matter of months - a plan he believes will provide flexibility and cost savings for the company. Meanwhile Hughes's number two, CTO Dennis Halloran, kept the trains running on time.

Although seconds-in-command are still unusual in IS groups, the CIOs who have created number-two positions - termed deputy CIO, CTO or other title - report that they have more time to do what they love: craft big ideas and work with customers, flex their leadership muscles, and hone relationships with senior management. But there is a price to pay for this luxury: namely, dividing responsibilities and managing the ensuing internal politics and confusion. Not to mention that the CIO, not the number two, remains accountable for the technology breakdowns and blowups.

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