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Being Bartholomew Cubbins September 16, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
Tags: , ,

Consider an ice cream company.  They make great ice cream and have enjoyed much success over the years.  But lately, their market share is slipping, and they are feeling heat of the competition.  They decide they need a new product line, a complete new set of frozen treats that will reshape the ice cream market.  To whom do they turn for product design and development?

Their CIO, of course!  Who better to know the vagaries of ice cream eaters?

Wrong. We all know this is wrong.  They would no more ask the CIO to design ice cream than they would the CFO or their general counsel.

Why, then, do companies that develop more technical products turn to the CIO to develop and market those products?  Why would anyone think that  a CIO, with their deep knowledge of systems, infrastructure, and service delivery, is able to build and sell a product at a profit?

Many CIOs these days are suddenly wearing several hats: CIO, Product Development, Web Marketing, and the like.  Some CIOs even have a P&L and are expected to make money for the company!  Who ever got it into their head that CIOs are also savvy marketers and salesmen?

As technology pervades every aspect of our lives, computing is becoming intertwined with almost every product bought and sold.  Desperate for help with all this technology, companies are turning to the only people they have on hand that seem to understand how to make all this stuff work: the CIO.  If a widget suddenly has a computer in it, the CIO is called in to help design, build, market, and sell the widget.  In some cases, they put the CIO completely in charge of the entire widget division!

This is a big mistake.  I take great pride in being a CIO, and I work hard to be a good one.  I have lots of experiences with computers and building software systems. I have no experience with developing and marketing products, whether they have computers in them or not.  I should not wear that hat.

I can provide lots of advice to a product developer who has little computing experience.  A person who understands the market space and has a brilliant idea, but has little understanding how computers might be used in that product, would do well to consult with a good CIO to understand the benefits and risks of the technology aspects of the product. Together, we could do great things.  Separately, we’re on the verge of disaster.

When you talk about very non-technical products, like ice cream or lawn fertilizer, this seems like an easy argument to make.  When the products involve lots of technology, like online banking or web-based shopping, people have a harder time seeing the distinction.  I think the problem is compounded by the fact that lots of CIOs are itching to do other things and gladly accept these other hats, all with the best of intentions.

I think a CIO can get in a lot of trouble by wearing too many hats.  If you want to be a CIO, wear that hat.  If you want to be a product designer or marketer, wear that hat.  But, like Bartholomew Cubbins, CIOs with too many hats are going to find themselves, sooner or later, all sorts of difficulties.

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