The Adventures of an IT Leader - Review Part II

Last updated  January 15, 2016 by Steven Jordan

Don’t be discouraged by the cover of The Adventures of an IT Leader.  The motif is a cross between a Marvel comic book and Japanese animation.  I was immediately drawn to the story precisely because of the unique style of the cover.  The story also provided a welcome relief from both work and studies.  There were a number of times I laughed out loud as I read about situations that mirrored my professional experience (minus the part of the main character as the CIO).

Adventures of an IT Leader Q&A

Although I was hooked, I worry it may otherwise turn off a serious minded audience.  My other fear is the book will be taken lightly because it is a fictional piece (although reality based) and reads as an adventure.  How can a business manager find value in a “made up” story?  One that is reads well, nonetheless?    

After reading the book skeptics may reconsider.  The authors, Robert Austin, Richard Nolan, and Shannon O’Donnell present a unique learning opportunity with the inclusion of questions at the end of each chapter.  I found it useful, as well as fun, to answer key “reflections” for this review.  The questions refocus the material (albeit entertaining fiction) and provide thought provoking lessons.  It is an additional platform to digest the material, rather than regurgitate it.  The experience was so worthwhile, that I found myself casually discussing its scenarios with my coworkers.  The following is a sample of the authors’ reflections and my related considerations:
Chapter 10 - Crisis

How should Barton handle the meeting with the analysts?  What questions should he be prepared to answer and how should he answer them? (p171).

The story’s protagonist, CIO Jim Barton, traveled to New York City to attend an analysts meeting.  He was chosen to speak because of his experience as head of the Loan and Operations department and because of his current role as head of the IT department.  The meeting was important because his public comments could have a direct impact on IVK’s stock price.

Barton was put in a difficult situation because IT disaster struck hours before his big speech.  Both the public facing web site and customer service database were down.   There was a strong possibility that the analysts may catch wind of the situation before the big meeting.
I was torn when asked to consider which path was the right choice.  My gut instinct leaned toward keeping quiet; however Barton had an ethical and legal obligation to not mislead the public.  Under the circumstances, I thought it best Barton focused on the many positives of IVK.  I hoped he would minimize the rumors and present the situation as under control.  I would also advise to not volunteer unnecessary information.

Chapter 11- Damage

Which option for securing IVK in the aftermath of the security incident would you choose? (p186).

Barton presented the senior leadership members three options on how IVK should handle the aftermath of the server disruptions:
  1. Full disclosure.  Admit publicly that IVK wasn’t prepared but will rectify the situation.
  2. Partial disclosure to customers that may have been affected by the outage.
  3. No disclosure at all.  This strategy could work but it was a gamble.
As I previously mentioned, I would have chosen the no disclosure strategy.  Barton however, wisely advocated for partial disclosure.  Was our decision discrepancy my big red “scruples” flag?  I was genuinely disappointed because Barton proved to be a thoughtful leader.  Both Barton, as well as the legal team, made a compelling argument that, at the very least, partial disclosure was the most ethical decision.  To add further insult to the situation, the lunatic CEO Brain Williams, made the same decision as I would have.

The reason I was against disclosure was because there was no “smoking gun”.  The website outage was caused because of an external Denial of Service attack.  The internal customer service database outage was caused because an important index file had been renamed.   The IT staff suspected that a hacker was responsible for the file rename but they could not prove it.  Other possibilities included an employee mistake or another unknown.  Because the reputation of IVK was at risk I considered it imprudent to disclose anything negative without being 100% certain customers were at risk.    

Chapter 12 - Communication

Conventional Wisdom suggests that it’s important to “manage your boss.”  As a CIO, what is the best approach to managing your boss?  How should Barton handle the “advice” coming from Williams? (p202).

There had been serious fall out because of the unplanned outages at IVK.  Two executives had been fired and Barton had barely dodged a bullet.  He was still in charge of the IT department but his relationship with his boss had suffered.  Williams was repeatedly “too busy” to meet with Barton.  Barton suffered further indignity as Williams regularly forwarded Barton articles on IT department management practices.  Barton believed he had three options on how to handle the situation: 

  • Go away.  Fix things.  Come back and claim progress. 
  • Request more frequent meetings to provide incremental updates.  
  • Ignore the situation and things may settle down.
I believe the previous IT manager, Bill Davies, would have advocated the first solution.  Davies was technically knowledgeable and was used to “putting out fires”.  I found Davies more reactive rather than proactive.

 Without reading further, I’d bet Barton would continue to ask for additional meetings.  Good managers communicate.  If Barton got his foot in the door it would be unlikely he would make the situation any worse.  The most likely scenario is that the relationship would improve.

I have also considered what I would do in Barton’s shoes.  If it were earlier in my career (very early) I honestly might have ignored the situation and hoped for the best.  Somehow it feels natural (not right though) to stick your head in the sand when trouble arises.  At my job now, at the minimum, things are taken care of and I report progress.  The real challenge is planning ahead and having an open dialogue with management.

Chapter 13 – Emerging Technology

Given near-universal Web access and the wide use of blogs and social networking, can companies still keep their information secret? (p220).

The question came up because Barton discovered an employee of IVK had blogged about the outage.  The staff member spread gossip that viruses or hackers were the source of IVK’s troubles.  It was a touchy situation because Williams had given specific orders to keep quiet.

My personal take is that companies can limit their negative exposure from employee bloggers but not eliminate it.  Many employees have not considered the ramifications of their actions on the Internet.  Before the age of blogs, an employee did not have the virtual soap box that allowed their message to reach thousands.

To limit negative exposure, businesses should consider using an official employee policy.  Ask their staff to agree to it as a condition of employment.  The agreement should include network security guidelines, and explain their responsibility as representatives of the company.  

Chapter 14 – Vendor Partnering

How important is “control” to a company like IVK when outsourcing IT?

The IT staff was instructed to find a new financial software vendor for IVK.  The search led to a discussion about Software as a Service (SaS).  IVK had considered using a vendor that hosted most of their data in the cloud.  The IT staff was divided on whether it was wise to entrust a third party with their sensitive data.

I think the appropriate level of control is dependent on the company.   Financial companies, such as banks, may be reluctant to allow anyone outside their business from handling their data.  There are liability concerns, public reputations, and corporate espionage considerations.  However it is may also be beneficial for other companies to consider using SaS solutions.  Google has won a string of government contracts that save tax dollars and allow for easy public inquiries.

Chapter 15 – Managing Talent

What should Barton and Gordon do about the Ivan Korsky problem?(p253).

Ivan Korsky was the most talented programmer at IVK.  Managers at IVK were aware that Microsoft, as well as other large corporations, had recently attempted to recruit Korsky.  IVK had mostly benefited because many of the interested companies were on the West Coast and Korsky preferred to remain near his family.

Gordon’s dilemma revolved around an important project that was almost due.  Major contracts depended on its on-time completion.  The only way to complete the project on schedule was for Korsky to dedicate his efforts.  Although Korsky had been assigned the project, Gordon discovered that he had not been completing his work.  Instead, Korsky had spent most of his time working on a political “pet project”.

Barton suggested Gordon fire Korsky, but that would jeopardize IVK’s important project goal.  In addition, a termination threat could possibly demotivate Korsky further as he had job options elsewhere.

I had many questions based on the Korsky situation.  Is it ethical to do any personal work on company time?  Are skilled staff members paid for their time or for their knowledge?  If a developer can produce code quicker than any of his peers, should he be expected to continue the frantic pace at all times?  Also, is there a legitimate creative process that is involved with professional development?

After reading this section I immediately thought of a job interview I had a couple years back.  I had met with a leadership team, for a server management position, for the Milwaukee County IT department.

During the discussion, one of the interviewers asked me, “How do you get people to do stuff for you?  What if you ask someone to do something and they don’t do it?”

I mentioned something along the lines of, “We’re all part of a team and we’re all riding the bus together.  If you’re not willing to play ball the bus will leave without you.”

The manager replied, “This is a union shop.  This bus is going nowhere.”

I wish I had put more thought into my knee-jerk answer.  I think a better response would have been, “It depends on the individual and the organization.  What is the situation and what specifically is not getting done?  Does the employee have a track record of other accomplishments?  Perhaps we can find projects that better suit his talents.  Sometimes all it takes is a heart to heart conversation about the situation.  Because he doesn’t have the benefit of management discussions he may not fully understand the value of his contributions.”

Chapter 16 – Standardization and Innovation

Can the IT trend of evermore maintenance be streamlined?(p263).

Barton had a discussion with Williams regarding the distribution of IT resources throughout the company.  They found that nearly two-thirds of the IT budget was spent on keeping things running.  Only one-third was spent on innovation.  Barton found one way to improve the ratio was to focus on standardization and to reduce complexity.

I agree that standardization will improve the IT budget.  When I was with my previous employer the subject of cell phones was a hot topic.  The IT department was not in charge of ordering cell phones but we were expected to support them.  Some business departments used iPhones while others used Blackberries.  We were able to remotely wipe the data from an Android based phone but not with the Apple brand.  In addition, a separate Blackberry server had to be maintained to allow the phones to communicate with the Exchange server.  Without standardization there was both productivity loss and financial waste.
The Adventures of an IT Manager,
was as much about form, as Peter High’s World Class IT, was about function.  It was an opportunity to experience the five principles of World Class IT in the fast paced action of a real (fictional) IT department.  I highly recommend reading both books, one after the other.  

It is also fitting that my report on The Adventures of an IT Manger, coincide with the end of my second semester at UW-Stout.  I have found the ICT graduate program to be a relevant guide on the best practices of running an IT department.  Throughout both semesters I was able to relate every topic we've covered with past experiences at the office.  The Adventures of an IT Manger was an overall great pick because it was an additional piece to the ICT puzzle.

P.S.  In case you missed the first part of my review...

Comments and Questions are Welcome!

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


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