Mornin’ Cup: Hands-on, Hands-off

karatekid.jpgI had a rather interesting discussion this week with the chief executive of a small, but growing tech firm here in Atlanta. He informed me that he was looking to hire a “hands-on” CIO. Intrigued, I dug in a little more.

He had originally called me to gauge my interest as a potential candidate for this role. As it turned out, I was not a good fit for the position, as the industry involved was not something I had direct experience in. I did, however, offer to learn more about the position, in hopes of turning him on to someone who would be a better fit.

When I asked him to describe the responsibilities he envisioned for this person, he initially told me that the CIO would need to really be able to jump into the fire and help the development team with the day-to-day development effort. I told him that it sounded to me like he needed to hire a “software development manager”, not a CIO. Hiring a good development manager would provide more focus on his software engineering efforts. Additionally, it would be more cost effective than hiring a CIO, and the savings could then be put back into the budget for other things.

He pondered this for a moment, and proceeded to inform me that this person would also need to be responsible for keeping the network and data center up and running. This would involve network availability monitoring, and management of all of the routers, switches, servers and other big glowy boxy-looking thingamajigs in the data center. I told him that it sounded to me like he needed to hire a “network operations manager” to work in conjunction with his software development manager.

He muffled a small sigh, and replied that he was also looking for this person to manage the strategic alignment with their technology partners, and provide architectural oversight for the company’s core software product line. I told him that it sounded to me like he needed a “chief technology officer”, or CTO, to work in side-by-side with the network ops manager and the development manager.

I thought about his burgeoning list of needs for a moment, and realized that his expectations were a wee bit out of skew. I posed the questions “what are the priorities here? Which tasks are more important than others?” He replied that they were all equally important, and that he was hoping to find them all in the same person, as he only had room in the budget for a single hire. Suffice it to say, I don’t think he liked my advice.

I realize that smaller firms need employees that are able to wear many hats, but in this day and age they can’t conceivably wear them all at once. I suppose that it is possible to find someone capable of doing all of the things he wants, it just isn’t very probable. 10 or 15 years ago, it wasn’t only probable, it was easy. That is simply no longer the case.

Back then, you could wear all of those hats with very little effort, as the technical environments we worked within back then were not as sophisticated and as complex as what we have today. Technology folks back then, even at the executive or managerial levels, were not required to become intimate with the business drivers – no longer the case. In addition, the standards against which we had to adhere were sparse or nonexistant (for example, HIPAA & Sarbanes Oxley).

In situations like this, it is probably more advantageous to prioritize your needs by aligning them with your overall business strategy, and hire accordingly. At some point, it may make sense to bring on a CIO-level hire, however a tighter focus on operational-level hires is probably going to have a better ROI in the short-term. In addition, you avoid the risk of putting someone too junior in a role that will eventually require someone more senior (as your business scales).

Cheers.

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