How to tackle Ballmer and other CIO challenges

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How to tackle Ballmer and other CIO challenges

Five tips for IT leaders from former Qantas/Telstra CIO Fiona Balfour

This week iTnews talks to Fiona Balfour - who for 14 years led the technology strategy at Australia's largest airline Qantas, before a very brief stint as CIO of Telstra.

During Balfour's tenure at Qantas she oversaw the signing of massive outsourcing contracts and negotiated some tough deals, including one challenge with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

Today Balfour gave iTnews five quick tips about how to negotiate with vendors, other senior executives and your staff.

- Pursue upgrades on your own terms, not your vendors.

Balfour's first tip is to ensure that you as CIO control your production environment, pursuing software upgrades on your timetable rather than to suit the roadmaps of vendors.

"If you've purchased [a license] commercially then you will have upgrades that will come as part of your ongoing relationship," she said.

"Your vendors will always say "push these immediately". You need to make sure that they're not going to disrupt your environment too much and they're not going to impact something else. The more complex your environment, the more hazardous that can be."

Balfour recommended that CIO's stagger updates, staying at least one version behind. She added that the major exception to this was security software, which should be deployed as soon as patches or new versions are released.

"It's just more proven," she said. "Say you've got a new version of SAP for example. If you're the very first person in the world to deploy it you'll find things that they haven't found in testing. You will still find bugs."

Balfour recalled a tussle with Microsoft's CEO Steve Balmer over an expected software upgrade.

"He basically said 'you know, you gotta just lie down and just accept it'," Balfour said.

"I said, 'I'm really sorry, but that's going to drive my business cost up in my organisation and change that I can't absorb'.

"I think what they do is immoral and I've told them that."

- Manage upgrade cycles as part of your maintenance.

Balfour said IT upgrades should be considered in the business just as any other asset is.

"In terms of planning for the work you usually plan you should be looking at an asset, whether it's a PC or a server, and working out how many years you're going to have that for," she said.

Balfour said that by convention, on organisation should keep PCs for either three or five years depending on the type of business.

"These days most businesses would generally operate with PCs [until they are] around about five years old," she said.

But Balfour warned that it is difficult to replace an entire fleet of PCs at once. She recommends implementing a procedure in which a set amount are ripped and replaced each year.

"Economically it's much better to replace about a fifth of your fleet every year," she said. "It's the same with servers and the same with any of your other devices.

"Look at the age of your equipment and make sure that you're keeping at either the three or five and in some cases longer periods of time. You should be able to forecast that out and you should be able to forecast out your expenditure with some accuracy. Your people in finance will love your ability to do that. It also means that the average age of your fleet ... is being kept at the right level."

- Develop relationships at the top

Balfour said many CIO's face the challenge of reporting into the finance department rather than to the organisation's top dog.

"I think everyone has to do their proper job, and in finance, if they have IT or any other function reporting to them, [they] tend to start using them as a bit of the finance function and they also tend to drive down cost without really understanding that it might be good to invest into some new systems to develop some new capabilities," Balfour said.

A better model of engagement, she said, was for "IT to have a seat at the executive table."

"If IT has a seat at the executive table, with the head of HR and the head of finance and the head of marketing, then alignment becomes a misnomer as they would've helped form the strategy anyway," she said.

"I just think from a governance perspective, certainly in my own experience when I've reported directly to chief executives, you get much better governance. Finance can [still] actually do their job which is to make sure they have ... got business cases behind all the investment in IT. That's exactly what they should be doing."

- Develop a mix of business and IT skills among staff

Balfour also recommended giving IT practitioners experience business management and vice versa, to give some balance and perspective to staff.

"Lots of companies have got business analysis roles and sometimes they're in IT and sometimes they're in the business," she said. "I think it's great when they're in the business but those people should be cycled into IT and IT people should be cycled back out to the business.

"I've had senior IT executives go off and run call centres. They do it quite differently than those who have grown up in call centres, but they deploy the technology very, very efficiently and that's just excellent background and business training."

She said that swapping staff between IT and business built a more solid employee.

"There's lots of roles in banks, airlines, and other large organisations including insurance companies and so on where technical skills can help business functional jobs and vice versa. I think it strengthens out and rounds out the professional and allows the professional to do a more comprehensive job. I think it's good for everybody. IT wins, the business wins and shareholders win."

- Look for gender balance within your IT department

Balfour expressed disappointment with the gender balance in most IT departments today.

She said that diversity did exist in the eighties - when consulting practices were made up of about "45 percent woman and 55 percent men", until the dot com crash and the Y2K bug.

"Something happened in the IT industry that caused it to become more like every other industry," she said.

"It was more a specialised industry back in the eighties. It was very unique and my theory is that it is now just another normal industry in society. Now there is nothing particularity special or unique about it.

"All I know is that [he eighties] was a watershed period, I don't know what happened then - I'm not an anthropologist nor a sociologist and I haven't worked it out yet - I wish I knew.

She said that the IT industry and other industries should be doing more to understand and address the lack of gender diversity.

"Women represent nearly 50 percent of the graduates and why shouldn't they? There is nearly 50 percent of women in the population. Over time, my expectation would be that you'd see a return to the more balanced gender environment."

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