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Virtual Mentor

Virtual Mentor

During the 14 years Roger McDougall spent as CIO of Bankers Trust, there wasn't a single technology failure in any of the applications his IT department built. Even now, three years after he successfully streamlined himself out of the job, Bankers Trust still runs its operation on the bulk of those apps. McDougall says he joined an organisation that was not particularly process-focused and used his own keen focus on processes - developed over years of grinding experience - to deliver it from numerous potential pitfalls.

However, years before that high time, McDougall endured a low point that all but shattered his self-confidence. At 28, in South Africa, McDougall found himself thrust into a major management role well before he was ready for it. Suddenly, from managing a team of 10 people, he was expected to manage 80. It proved a devastating experience. "I just didn't handle it," McDougall says.

"I made all sorts of fundamental mistakes. And it was devastating because you go in with enthusiasm, self-confidence, self-esteem, a little bit of arrogance, and six months later you're a mere shadow of your former self, having made all these fundamental mistakes that you then internalise. Internalisation is a bad thing because you personalise it and think you've failed when in fact you haven't; the organisation has failed you by putting you into a role that you're not ready for."

While a useful lesson, he says it was extremely painful and took him a long time to get over.

If you could bottle and sell the kind of knowledge and experience that McDougall deployed to keep Bankers Trust out of trouble in recent years, you could push out McDougall CIO-type clones by the dozen and fewer organisations would fall victim to technological disasters. Likewise, if you could ensure that every budding CIO had access to a mentor, McDougall himself would never have had to endure what he candidly describes as the worst time of his career in South Africa years ago.

That's why now, with years of hard-won experience behind him, and semi-retired and working as general manager for technical services at Vodafone, McDougall has joined a new e-mail-based mentoring service set up to guide young professionals through the various challenges in their career. Far from a moneymaking opportunity, he says he sees it as a chance to put something back into the industry that's sustained him for the majority of his professional life.

It's also given him an opening to crystallise his thoughts about what it takes to become a good CIO and the best ways for technologists to further their IT careers. McDougall believes that senior IT positions require professionals capable of making few or no mistakes, even when under intense amounts of pressure.

School of Hard Knocks

"In any business, you have to learn from your mistakes," says McDougall, "but as a CIO, mistakes can be an enormous expense on both your career and your employer. While we all make a lot of them, if having a mentor can help you avoid just one of those mistakes, you could save your employer considerable expense and maybe even save your job."

For instance, McDougall would urge all budding CIOs to understand that moving into a management position is nothing like heading up a small team and demands entirely different skills. Know your limitations, he cautions, and never take on new roles until you're ready.

There's no going past experience, McDougall says. The best CIOs all entered the field when they were young and have made numerous mistakes along the way. However, if there's one thing he's noticed during an IT career spanning 35-plus years, it's that like the organisations that employ them, new CIOs tend to make the same mistakes over and over again.

"Take the way projects are managed, for instance," he says. "You'll see a new company or a new individual going into the role and making exactly the same fundamental mistakes in terms of understanding what project management is about and the people issues associated with project management. They'll forget that project management is all about management, that it's not really about reporting and controls but much more about the people side of it."

The same thing happens with organisations as they grow into technology, McDougall says. In terms of their pro-cesses, their controls and their ability to understand the people issues, those organisations will make the same mistakes time and time again. "I've actually seen companies go through the process where they've made a mistake, learned [from it], fixed it, and then the management has changed and then they've gone back to square one, effectively."

Certainly the kind of knowledge that could keep CIOs out of hot water is captured in textbooks, as well as in processes and methodologies. Unfor-tunately, he says, people aren't usually in a position to take advantage of such captured learning because it tends to mean little until experience makes it meaningful. "They still have to go back and learn the mistake themselves and then go back to the textbooks and say ‘oh is that what they meant?'," he says.

That's the strength of the mentoring process. It gives those with the experience the chance to articulate exactly their experiences through the years, so that they can warn others when they're at risk of going wrong.

Proven Credentials

As an experienced leader in technology and team development, McDougall says potential CIOs have to get their hands dirty and they have to be prepared to learn from others.

At E-Mentor, he's working with other highly skilled and internationally successful business leaders who have banded together to provide the e-mail-based mentoring service for corporations. They include former CRA general manager Dr Colin Seaborn, Minerals Tertiary Education Council executive director Dr Kevin Tuckwell and associate professor Dr Robert Burke, CEO of the Australian Centre for Leadership and Innovation Management (Aclaim).

E-Mentor founder and Innovation@Work managing director Lyn Mason-Norman says the benefits inherent in an Internet mentor relationship include mobility and, if desired, anonymity for the protégé, easy access to a business leader who has a proven track record, and a flexible time and location for all communications.

Mason-Norman says the service links today's corporate leaders with tomorrow's, giving protégés Internet-based access to business leaders with proven track records. "E-Mentor is based on business leaders who have earned their stripes and who are providing the service because they want to give something back to their industry," she says.

Earn his stripes McDougall undoubtedly has. Before becoming CIO of Bankers Trust, he climbed through the South African IT ranks in traditional fashion, from computer programmer to systems analyst, development manager and then on to chief information officer. He also took a business degree. In 1978, he came out to Australia with Harry Miller's short-lived CompuTicket before joining Datapoint and then Bankers Trust.

There he stayed until "retrenched" in 1997, a function of his own success. McDougall says from 1990 Bankers Trust under his guidance decentralised its technology, in the process developing some powerful business people who managed their units exceptionally well. So well, indeed, that the strategy was the germ of McDougall's own demise. "By about 1995, there was no reason to have a centralised CIO so I did myself out of a job; but I still feel very warm towards Bankers Trust and still have a lot of good friends there," he says.

It was at Bankers Trust that he says he could have most urgently done with the services of a mentor himself, at least in the early days. There was something about being a technologist surrounded by high-powered bankers that abruptly made him feel totally inadequate. "I found I had to be able to talk their language. I had my own vocabulary, they had theirs, and we couldn't communicate.

"I started to fill the holes in my business understanding properly when I got into Bankers Trust because there a business degree was just the starting point - you did need to understand the business," he says. "I actually went on the Securities Industry course for bankers, and I did that the minute I joined Bankers Trust. That gave me the theoretical background about merchant banking."

Experience Wanted

McDougall reckons hard experience has taught him a thing or two about what it takes to be a good CIO. For years it was politically correct to suggest CIOs didn't really need to understand technology, they just needed good people under them who did. There's still an element of that kind of thinking around, McDougall says, but he's one CIO prepared to reject it out of hand.

"I think a good CIO is a combination of somebody who understands the business and somebody who has come up through the technology ranks and has learned what technology is all about," he says. "I don't believe a good CIO today is somebody who doesn't understand technology. I've seen too many of them who come in and try to run it from a business background. Maybe because I'm just an old-school CIO type person, I don't believe that and I never have."

However, if a technological back-ground is vital, so is an understanding of business fundamentals. "What makes a good CIO today? I suppose increasingly it's understanding the business. In the early days as a CIO, you had to be a good technologist, and that would suffice. Now you've got to understand the business and understand how the technology relates to the business."

McDougall says for today's crop of CIOs a business degree is essential, particularly if they've come from a strong technology background. There are still far too many CIOs out there who don't have any grasp of the fundamentals of business, with many not even understanding the fundamentals of basic accounting.

"You need that knowledge to relate to and communicate with your business peers and partners. After all, if the board asks you a question and you stand there with a mouth full of teeth, you look like an idiot. So I think a business degree is absolutely essential. I think for a CIO it's probably more important than any form of technology degree."

During the course of his career, McDougall has watched CIOs move from reporting to the finance controller or finance director to reporting directly to the managing director, before going back to once again reporting to the finance director. He explains the pattern as a movement from a cost-driven approach to an investment-driven approach and back into a cost-driven approach. None of it affected the CIOs themselves too much, he says, other than in dictating what they could do.

"Then there was this movement towards non-technical CIOs. I think that really had an impact: it had a difficult impact on me too, because certainly as a technical CIO you felt yourself being threatened, and in the late 80s there was a lot of discussion amongst the CIOs about this feeling of being threatened by business people."

Now he says boards and executives are starting to appreciate all over again the importance of having technically-focused CIOs. Partly that's because it's now a much more technical world, he says. Just look at the effect of the Internet in giving managing directors a much better understanding of technology and what it can do. He says that understanding has helped MDs appreciate the need to have someone with really strong technical knowledge behind them.

However, McDougall believes that the traditional career path has changed dramatically, and many IT executives are finding that they lack certain old-school skills that are specific to the role of CIO. In his day CIOs invariable rose through the development ranks. Understanding development was vital. "Today, it is becoming increasingly popular to recruit from the business management side of things. I don't know that this is always such a good idea - managing technologists can be a very different role."

As a result, his advice for budding CIOs is to get themselves into a technical role and into an environment where they can get their hands on technology and get to understand it. "Spend a few years as a technologist of some sort. Then get into application development of some sort, because it's there that they'll really learn technology."

From there he suggests they move into application development management before taking on the CIO role. Finally, they should if at all possible find themselves a mentor. McDougall believes that even as a CIO, it would have been of great benefit to his career if a mentor could have been made accessible.

"The most important thing is to understand the role of the CIO as an organisation matures," he said. "When I started at Bankers Trust, it was a much smaller company than when I left. The growth of the organisation can have a major impact on you. A mentor who has been in that position understands the psychological pressure placed on a CIO, and how difficult it is to cope in such a situation. We can show them how to handle it."

Different Strokes

McDougall also believes that when it comes to making it to the top of the IT careers ladder, industry-specific advice could be the difference that gives you an edge over other candidates.

For instance, banks and telcos are entirely different beasts as far as CIOs are concerned, he says. At a bank, every single transaction has to be 100 per cent secure. You can't afford to drop a single one, and integrity and control of the whole environment is incredibly important. In a telco you can afford to drop a voice billing record because while it may affect revenue to a small degree it won't destroy the integrity of the system.

"The infrastructure and the way you go about it are completely different in those two environments," he says. "But you can't just go out and get that experience. You really have to go and talk to somebody who's gone through the same thing themselves, and there's not too many of those beasts around." That's another value of the mentor process, he adds.

Likewise when it comes to CIOs looking to move their organisations into the e-space, there is no substitute for experience. The e-space is currently dominated by young people, McDougall says, with very limited technology experience but loads of enthusiasm and energy. "My view of that is that CIOs really need to be drawing on their own [Internet] experience to make sure that whatever they put out in the e-space is as robust as anything they would put out in their own organisation.

"When I go on the Internet I get really frustrated when I go in and I access a company's site to do something like [a transaction] and the site is down. There's nothing more frustrating. I'd rather not have access to the site than have an unreliable site. You're not very likely to go back and visit that site and also you're not very likely to go back and sign up and do business with that organisation because you're nervous. If you're going to do a banking transaction, you want to make sure that when you do it, it's done and it's secure."

As a result, he says, the whole rush to market is creating a fragile Internet infrastructure that only hard experience - or the advice of a strong mentor - can help to avoid.

As McDougall waits for the E-Mentor service to take off, he insists he is looking forward to putting something back into the industry that has given him so much over the years.

"If I end up with three or four clients that would be very good, I would be very happy with that," he says. "It's really something that I would do in the evening and something more as a hobby and an interest rather than as a profession."

Mentor Checklist

Find a potential mentor/mentee in

Your own company

Another company

Another industry

Conferences and other networking events

A mentor-matching service

Check for fit in

Experience

Business and personal values

Ability to commit the time

Clarity of purpose

Set agenda with

Goals and objectives

Expectations and ground rules

Communication mechanisms

Time span and frequency of contact

Check in: How's it working in

Meeting objectives?

Meeting commitments?

Honouring the "contract"?

Stepping Into It

For further information or to join, visit the E-Mentor Web site at:www.e-mentor.com.au or contact E-Mentor on 61-2-9544-3930Alternatively, e-mail Lyn Mason Norman on lyn@e-mentor.com.auThose looking to work as a mentor are also welcome to contact E-Mentor.

Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.

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