Book review: The Adventures of an IT Leader

One of the criticisms that reviewers have labelled against management books for IT directors and CIOs is that while they are often great on the theory – the dos and don’ts of running a large IT organisation – they always fail when it comes to concrete examples.

Case studies of IT management decision-making and its consequences, the challenges of executing IT strategy, the attempts to transform the business with IT are typically insipid, thin on detail and invariably positive in their outcome. The reasons are obvious: CIOs don’t like to tell their war stories in public.

That presents a dilemma for analysts, academics, consultants and journalists and even other CIOs. The only way to get an IT leader to open up is off the record. The Dutch bank which employs students in the summer to spend each day hosing its roof-top air conditioning coils to stop its basement data centre from melting; the CTO who outsourced print management only to have his CEO calling him day and night every time his printer jammed; the data centre that went offline after its staff were held hostage by armed thieves. The CIOs who had sleepless nights over those situations wouldn’t have shared any details unless their comments were unattributed and their companies left anonymous.

That lack of transparency into the real business lives of CIOs is why an esteemed group of academics have turned into novelists. The Adventures of an IT Leader by Robert Austin of Harvard and Copenhagen Business Schools, Richard Nolan, a professor at the University of Washington and Harvard, and Shannon O’Donnell from the Cutter Consortium Innovation Practice, is a fictional profile of the life of a CIO, set up to portray many of the trials and tribulations that the authors have seen over their years in the field and to provide some best practice analysis and guidelines on what course of action produces optimal result.

The story begins as the fictional IVK Corp struggles to recover from a period of slowing growth and falling stock prices. The new CEO hand-picks Jim Barton, formerly head of the company’s loan operations, to be CIO. The trouble is Barton has no background in IT; in fact he has been chosen because he has been one of the biggest antagonists of the IT organisation.

When he takes the reins, Barton painfully learns to navigate this strange new world, while trying to meet at least some of the inflated expectations of his CEO, board of directors, users and warring staff.

What he learns in his first year in the job illustrates why the role of CIO is seen as one of the most volatile, high-turnover jobs in business. Readers follow Barton’s actions, interactions and inner thoughts as he discovers what effective IT management is all about, deals with the everyday challenges of the job, responds to major crises and remakes the company’s technology capabilities into a vital asset.

The scenarios will come across as all too familiar to many IT leaders. After the opening section raises all kinds of questions about what constitutes good IT leadership, the ‘Road of Trials’ pits Barton against the challenges of managing IT costs, establishing IT’s value within the business, and coping with the horrors of runaway projects and the setting of IT priorities. Then comes ‘The Hero’s Ordeal’, a blow-by-blow account of a major IT crisis. Eventually the trial-by-fire ends and Barton begins to create a stable, well-managed, low-risk, high-value IT organisation that is highly responsive to the business.

The fictional vehicle works well – not least of all because the prose, characterisation and pace are all skillfully handled. For example, the sense of threat that engulfs the organisation as a denial-of-service attack tries to bring IVK to its knees is as gripping as it is authentic.

But such drama is counterbalanced by some hard analysis: each chapter is followed by a discussion on the IT management principles that might be useful for the situations Barton finds himself in. After Barton struggles with project management, the discussion dives into the merits of Agile Project Management and how these could have been applied. In the dialogue of how to handle the board of directors, the authors present several pages of detailed PowerPoint slides as an example of how to communicate IT’s relevant and importance to that group.

As an exploration of the challenges of the CIO, the book succeeds in these goals on almost every level. IT leaders and management seeking to understand the role of their IT organisation would do well to absorb its contents. They also might want to replace the cover of a more business-like dust jacket as they are unlikely to want to be seen in their office – or even in public – reading a book which looks like a gaudy, cheap comic.

The Adventures of an IT Leader. By Robert D Austin, Richard L Nolan, and Shannon O’Donnell. Published by Harvard Business School Press. ISBN: 142214660X. Price: £19.99.

David Cliff

David Cliff is managing director of Houghton le Spring-based Gedanken, a company specialising in coaching-based support and personal development. Cliff is an experienced trainer, manager and therapist,...

Related Topics