The Adventures of an IT Leader - Review 1 of 2

Review:  The Adventures of an IT Leader (2009), written by Robert D. Austin, Richard L. Nolan, and Shannon O’Donnell , is a fictional story of Jim Barton and the challenges he faced as the new CIO of the IVK Corporation.

The story began with Barton’s ascension to the head of the IT department.  IVK Corporation had recently experienced tremendous growth.  Annual sales for IVK Corporation had increased from $41 Million, to $233 Million, over a 3 year period.  Sales however, had leveled off, and growth was flat compared to the previous year.  The board of directors had let go of IVK’s previous CEO, and hired the new CEO, Carl Williams.
Williams decided to shake things up and he reorganized roles within the company.  Williams fired Bill Davies, the IT manager, and offered the new position to Barton.  The news came as shock to Barton because he had no technical background; although he had a great reputation has the head of the Loan Operations department.

Besides Barton’s reputation a good manager, he was chosen because he was vocal in identifying problems with the IT department at executive meetings.  Williams was also looking for leadership qualities that were the exact opposite of Davies.  Davies was very knowledgeable regarding computer networks but he seemed overwhelmed and was a poor communicator.

Because of Barton’s limited IT experience, he began a knowledge quest, to quickly get up to speed on everything related IT.  Barton sought answers from his girlfriend, Maggie Landis, who also happened to be a management consultant.  She suggested that Barton start by meeting with leaders from the other business units, and ask them how their business needs were being met by IT.  Barton also befriended “the kid”, a wise twenty something year old, at a bar near his condo.  The kid’s first advice was to quickly identify the best talent and a cryptic, “know what you don’t know“.   By strange coincidence, Barton also ran into Davies, during a jog.   Davies told Barton that no one could manage the mad house and left him with a parting, “You’ll be gone in under a year”.

When Barton first began his role as CIO he held a 5 minute meeting with the IT managers.  He requested that they formally schedule a management meeting to set direction for the department.  The managers requested additional staff to help with discussions but Barton preferred it be management only.  Barton wondered why they had to lean on their “tech-nerd sidekicks” and worried his management staff was not qualified.

Throughout the story Barton discovered that IT was very complex and that it was nearly impossible to be a specialist in every field.  At one point Barton went to the books store and bought $1,200 worth of IT books to get up to speed.  He read throughout the night and realized that IT was “complicated as hell”.  When he was head of the Loan and Operations he had the skill and knowledge to do the job of any employee that worked in his department.  In contrast, an IT manager could not possibly master every technology at IVK.  The Exchange specialist may not know anything about .Net programming.  The programmers may not know anything about routers and switches, etc…   Barton’s managers would also learn that not every IT meeting involved all things technical.

In the course of Barton’s duties he had been asked to participate in a leadership meeting by the CEO.  Each department was asked about spending and the bottom line.  Barton had to justify the cost of the IT department.  Through the process he discovered the IT department was funded through a complicated charge-back system that subjectively billed the other departments for their IT related services.  In addition IT was generally viewed as an unwelcome expense from the other business units.  Barton also found that because of IVK’s rapid period of growth, they were forced to provide the same services to more and more customers with the same limited resources.   Barton’s goal was to demonstrate the value of IT.

Landis introduced Barton to competing philosophies regarding IT value.  She suggested an article called, “IT Doesn't Matter” by Nicolas Carr.  Carr argued that IT investment did not create value.  IT was a commodity and did not provide a competitive advantage.   However, MIT professor, Erick Brynjolfsson argued IT created value in a number of ways:
  • Firms that invested heavily in IT deployed business processes quickly
  • Competition was able to copy new innovations quickly.
  • Firms that invested heavily in IT had increased market share.
Barton also learned from one of his managers, Bernie Ruben, the concept of “competes” versus “qualifiers”.  If IT was a race, the “qualifier” was something that needed to be done, simply to participate in the event.  The “compete” was an innovation that helped win the race.  Barton thought if he could document each IT service as either a compete or a qualifier, he may be able to demonstrate IT’s value.

Ruben also touched on service-oriented architectures (SOA) and business intelligence (BI) concepts.  SOA is a foundation that is used to combine different application services that can be combined to deliver new functionality.  Web based portals that support business objectives can be considered SOA.

Business Intelligence involves data mining.  BI analyzes all available data, such as customers, sales, completion, and identifies trends.   Landis gave an example of BI from a Spanish company called Zara.  The clothing retailer used its point-of-sale data to identify their hottest selling items.  The process automated the order process and allowed them to re-supply the best-selling inventory before their competition.

Accompanying Barton’s research on the value of IT was the role of project management within the IT department.   Barton had to figure out how to plan for the unexpected.  Barton discovered an article by Jim Highsmith, called “Agile Project Management:  Principles and Tools”.  He learned that APM teams expect the initial plan to be wrong.  Prototypes or quick release of specific features is important with APM.

Barton also learned from “the kid” about the book The Death March, by Ed Yourdon.  A death march is a bad project managers are determined to stick to.  After Barton took charge he discovered a runaway project that IVK had already invested over $3 Million into.  The project was sold and run by an outside consultant.  It was initially pushed from a business unit over the objections of the IT staff.  Rather than waste further company resources Barton decided to kill the project.

I am impressed with the relevance of the content.  I was able to identify real life situations from my work experience in every chapter.  After the first couple chapters I thought the authors had specifically written about the previous company I worked for.  I had been hired at the tail end of their explosive growth.  Just like IVK, they went from a $10 Million company to a $100 Million company in a 3 year period.

When I was first brought on board the IT department was too informal.  The IT manager was “computer” smart and hands on.  I found my manager was similar to the Davies character in the book.  He enjoyed working with every technology, and because of that, he liked to micro manage every project.  As a result IT was always behind on help desk requests and big ticket projects.  We did good work but I don’t think we kept up with the needs of all the business departments.

Similar to the situation in the book, growth had leveled off, and the IT relationship with the other business departments suffered.  Directors looked at IT as very expensive and they did not understand the multitude of services we had supported.  In addition, the IT budget and staffing, had not kept up with the growth of the other business departments.   We were expected to serve 800 additional network users with the same resources as before the growth.

My original IT manager was let go and a new IT “Director” was brought on.  By the time I left the company I had seen a big difference in the level of service we offered.  My new boss had implemented a series of changes, similar to how Barton had.   My new manager was quick to identify our strengths and delegated responsibility; that resulted in quick workflow and turnaround.

The book’s CEO, Williams, also advocated for an IT leader with business experience instead of one with only technical knowledge.  When my boss had first been hired I remember thinking he had an acute lack of technical knowledge.  I wasn't sure what to expect but I didn't think it was a good thing.  After my experience working with him I found my initial reaction was wrong.  His technical skills were stronger than I first suspected; more important was his managerial experience helped the company move forward.

After reading the first half of The Adventures of an IT Leader, I found comfort knowing the situation I experienced was not unique to my previous employer.  The advice and examples from the book are based on first-hand experience of someone that had worked for many IT departments.  It should also be used as a wake-up call to all IT professionals; raw technical skills will not cut it in the modern business environment.   It is just as important to consider other ICT philosophies such as the organization, management, end users, and communication lines.  

The second part to this review can be found at:

P.S.  This post has been surprisingly popular.  Please leave a comment if you found it helpful.
Thanks!  -SMJ

Robert A., Nolan, A., O’Donnell, S., (2009).  The Adventures of an IT Leader.  Boston Massachusetts: Harvard Business Press.

Last updated  July 16th, 2013 by Steven Jordan


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