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Moving Up, Selling Out

Moving Up, Selling Out

There are days when I'd do this job for free and others when I'm sure they're not paying me enough. There are days when I feel like Superman, convinced that I'm the only thing standing between my company's success and its certain destruction, and days when I feel like a sell-out.

As I write this, sales reps from a large software company are sitting in my conference room waiting to see me. From here it looks like there's eight or nine, all sporting gang colours (dark suit, white shirt, bad tie), arranged around the table in proper pecking order and warming up their best Willie Loman impersonations. The empty seat, the one they want me to sit in, is next to the most senior guy. The Ray Martin hair is always a dead give-away.

Can you guess what kind of day I'm having? I knew you could.

One morning you wake up and realise that being promoted up the ranks of an information technology organisation, while doing great things for your bank account, has the effect of moving you further and further from the things that attracted you to the profession in the first place (programming in my case), just so the God of Promotions might eventually reveal to the world the precise point on the ladder where you suddenly become a complete incompetent.

What seemed at the beginning of my career to be a very purposeful, straightforward, somewhat ordinary job as a craftsman somehow morphed into a weird amalgam of administrator, strategist, bureaucrat, referee and all-seeing oracle with the life span of a mayfly and the most confusing possible array of customers and masters to answer to.

In 25 years, I've worked for four major companies and have always been associated in one way or another with the information technology department. In 12 years as a chief information officer, I've interacted with perhaps 200 CIOs from companies ranging widely in size and industry. In all that time, across all those IT departments, there is one bit of conventional wisdom so universal it has almost achieved "law of nature" status. Every CIO knows, in the deepest recesses of his or her dread-ridden subconscious, that internal customers, the users of their systems, are generally dissatisfied with IT's performance and unsure about their organisation's ability to deliver. They're also well aware that IT consistently ranks as one of the least admired corporate functions.

How is it possible, I wonder, that I have never come across an exception to this rule?

I'm beginning to suspect that one of the reasons is sitting in my conference room. A few days ago, this bunch sent me a stack of printed material including a copy of an advertisement they've been running in one magazine or another. It reads:

"Unlock IT's Potential to Propel Your Business into the 21st Century."

Nobody will ever accuse these guys of being subtle. What other discipline is subjected to this kind of constant bombardment from as many well-oiled marketing machines all delivering the same message?

"Your IT organisation isn't living up to its potential, but hire us or buy our product and we'll straighten them out for you. We can help your information technology department win the rat race!"

One life lesson CIOs learn pretty early is that in this particular rat race, even if you're lucky enough to win, you're still a rat! Why doesn't Keane run an ad that says "We Get Bean Counting Done" just once and give us all a break?

This is wealth creation through the marketing of vapourware and repackaged versions of last year's failed hocus-pocus. The endless barrage from the dark legions of "solution providers" is meant to accomplish one thing: shake my company's confidence in my department's ability to plan and perform by ratcheting up expectations beyond anyone's capability to deliver. Damn their black hearts. Combine this with the phenomenon known as corporate herd mentality, and we're all condemned to ride wave after wave of never-ending, overhyped "solution cycles", in which motion is viewed as action and consultants' astronomic hourly rates are seen as proof of expertise.

Enterprise resource planning, or ERP, is the most recent "wave" appealing to companies sold on the notion that IT should produce truly innovative solutions with the regularity and reliability of a Swiss watch. Unfortunately for CIOs, most companies completely misunderstand the creative process needed to establish profound and long-lasting competitive differentiation. And ERP is nothing compared with the next great silver bullet - software in support of knowledge management. This gem is currently being marketed as the be-all and end-all to "empower" employees by making available - at the simple touch of a button - performance standards and processes deemed best-of-class or best practices. While it sounds great in theory, knowledge management isn't about empowering people at all, and it certainly isn't about innovation. It is, in fact, nothing more than a very expensive and particularly blunt weapon in the struggle to enforce employee compliance with organisational norms.

Guess who'll get blamed for this one after the revolution? Here's a hint: Not the CFO or the CEO.

The conference room door is open, and I can tell they're getting restless. I wonder if my administrative assistant would be willing to help me fake my own death. I don't need to meet with these guys; I know what they want. Today is the day they introduce me to my new "account executive". Too bad. I'm sure we're not nearly as angry and frustrated with our current AE as we would be if he'd hung around a few more months. But that, after all, is the point of this constant shuffling, isn't it? Software companies know they can never leave a salesman in an account so long that he might have to answer for the promises his company never intended to keep or, perhaps, never even knew about. Communication from these guys is an adventure where great delivery and flashy multimedia backfill for accurate, candid content. They deftly skirt the real issues by falling back on a lexicon of euphemisms and soothing gobbledegook to filter every last bit of useful information that might be in any way construed as negative. They're not looking to sell me anything (as if there was something wrong with wanting to sell me something); they're looking for a "partnering opportunity"!

There, but for the grace of God . . .

Here's a joke that's been circulating around my office. Labs testing medicines and other consumer products like cosmetics have forsaken the use of animals in favour of using software salesmen. The change has had two effects: It's got the animal-rights activists off their backs, and technicians have become less emotionally attached to their test subjects.

Still, you have to give these guys their due. As hard as my job is sometimes, it's difficult to conceive of anything harder than selling software. Imagine making your living selling broken stuff, code with more bugs than a cathouse mattress. Or having to routinely promise features that don't yet and may never exist, a practice known as "overhanging the market", at astronomical prices that inexplicably drop like a bad habit the last week of every quarter and then just as mysteriously rise again.

Only a bunch of nincompoops would actually let them get away with this nonsense! CIOs have accepted and internalised this incompetence and dishonesty as "just the way it is". Even worse, these same vendors have bullied us into thinking that any problems are our own fault.

Microsoft, SAP, Oracle and the rest of the software industry have, through their architecture and arrogance, built themselves (and us, unfortunately) into a corner we may never be able to get out of. This is an industry ripe for disruption by the first company that offers bug-free software and has the integrity to sell only what it can deliver. Let's hope that company appears sooner rather than later, and when it does, let's promise one another to reward it handsomely.

Well, it's time to put my game face on and get this meeting over with. I wonder if I could get up the nerve to pull the fire alarm?

Anonymous has been a CIO for over 12 years at household-name companies in various industries. He'd love to hear from you at confidential@cio.com.

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