Technology is everywhere now and we’ve all learned to accept it. You don’t have to be tech-savvy to know about backups or the need for security in your office. Perhaps you find that you're even calling your computer-guy less often these days. After all, you can update your phone on your own and you're comfortable buying a new laptop at Best Buy when needed. The recent Ashley Madison hack may have reminded you that you’re not quite sure what a "hacker" really does: but is that really important?
If you’re part of the majority of people who couldn’t care less about which CPU powers his iPhone (or what those very three letters actually translate to), here’s a tech-article you’ll finally enjoy reading. For once, let’s talk about business, not technology. This editorial aims to reconcile CEOs, CFOs, entrepreneurs and their investors with the technological aspect of the company they’re taking care of.
The Ghost of Information Technology
Information Technology: even the name of this field of expertise is as vague as a name can be. A quick glance at its Wikipedia’s definition confuses more than it helps: "statistical and mathematical methods", "simulation of higher-order thinking", even the Sumerians of Mesopotamia are discussed in the very first paragraphs. In 2015, most professionals associate IT with computer hardware, programs, emails, nerds, servers, and frustrating access restrictions. People who work in Information Technology are expected to be extremely versatile and have high-level knowledge about anything that’s plugged into a wall (or anything blinking green and orange for that matter).
As far as most high-level executives are concerned, the IT guy (read "IT guy" as gender-neutral in this text) is just one cog in the complex machine called The Company. Every employee has a job to do, a task to perform that he or she is expected to complete in the shortest amount of time possible and to the best of his/her abilities. In this sense, an IT specialist is just another staff member, and rightly so. The problem resides in the fact that Information Technology is neither well-understood in many corporate structures, nor well-represented at the top of their organizational chart.
On one side of the issue: the senior management team. It is traditionally composed of a Chief Executive Officer, a Chief Operating Officer and a Chief Financial Officer. Although titles may differ from one company to the next, those three roles encompass most of what’s needed by today’s firms: daily operations, product management, marketing, sales, finances and proper representation on the board of directors. Furthermore (depending on the specific needs of each entity), a myriad of additional C-Level positions can complement the top of the pyramid which brings us to the well-known role of Chief Information Officer.
A CIO is the person in charge of the internal IT infrastructure of a company. In some regards, it is similar to the role of a CTO (Chief Technology Officer) and some companies do not even differentiate one another. In small to medium companies, the job of Chief Information Officer is often misunderstood or simply ignored. Corporate entities who fill this position are primarily interested in controlling the cost of their IT division, forcing their chief to be the most boring and annoying person to be around, both on the board and in the office. This is why security and network infrastructure planning are often considered irrelevant, costly and even a cause of reduced productivity by many higher-ups. Unfortunately, those misconceptions can lead to a variety of problems, ranging from mild annoyances to catastrophic failure. Think I’m exaggerating? Just ask one of the execs at Avid Life Media Inc and look up what their 30+ million users think of them now.
Techno-Liabilities and Innovation
Ashley Madison was planning an IPO on the London Stock Exchange. Their entry in the stock market would have transformed this online-dating business into a billion-dollar company by the end of the year. Many investors and organizations didn’t want to be associated with a company promoting extra-marital affairs and yet, Ashley Madison managed to grow exponentially for more than 10 years. Despite the obvious moral issues surrounding their operations, they never seemed to suffer from a lack of revenue sources or sponsors.
The one thing that ended it all: technology, or more precisely, the lack of technology oversight. How else to explain the presence of unencrypted text files, listing every credit-card transactions ever made by the company’s clients, in an accessible directory on one of the company’s servers? In our physical world, this would be equivalent to keeping all those listings printed on paper in a filing cabinet next to the receptionist's desk in order to ensure those records could be accessed easily, at any time. The full list of clients, their sexual preferences, their discussions: everything was there, ready for the taking.
This story should be told again and again in business schools all over the world. Executives need to ask the right questions about their IT infrastructure and tech-experts need to know how to communicate their concerns properly. CIOs aren’t just about deciding what computers to buy: they are in charge of making sure your business doesn’t sink because of one single fatal mistake. How many C-Level positions can pretend having the same level of responsibility when it comes to a single blunder?
Whether he/she’s called Chief Information Officer, CTO, Director of IT or simply "Bob", the role of a technology leader can never be ignored. If you’re currently in charge of a company that uses computers or emails for its daily operations, you need such a person. The attitude often seems to be that if a given company is not a "tech company", it doesn’t require proper IT services. Ashley Madison may have qualified as being highly technology-dependant but their downfall resulted in the leak of sensitive information about their clients, not their computers. Their nightmare would have been identical if, instead of running a web site, they operated a brick & mortar dating agency.
And there’s plenty of blame to throw around, don’t think business executives are the only ones at fault here: techno-specialists tend to frame problems in terms of hardware and software requirements. In today’s competitive world, they need to start talking about liabilities and competitive advantages if they want their voice to be heard. If you recognize yourself here, here’s an advice: don’t send an email to your boss about your next idea. Ask for a meeting, get a shave, dress appropriately and expose the problem in terms that will spark genuine interest from your interlocutor. Being a geek is fun, I know, I’m one myself. But a business has to make money to exist and if your concerns don’t ultimately relate to that simple fact, they will probably be quickly forgotten.
Returning to Common Sense
Why is it so difficult for geeks to find common ground with the rest of their colleagues? For one thing, IT people are almost by definition very enthusiastic about their job. You’ll hear them talk about new gadgets in the morning, look at the latest Android phones during lunch break and argue about Bitcoin security in the afternoon. Unfortunately, what should be a positive attribute for this profession often comes with a heavy burden most tech-savvy people have been told, at least once in their work life, that they’re "playing with computers". For some, IT is not work: configuring a computer is a joyful act, wondering why the printer is not functioning is delightful and debugging a program is almost equivalent to making love to a beautiful woman. Suddenly, the computer guy is not a co-worker anymore, he’s simply someone who alternates between his Xbox and the routers the company is graciously providing during the day.
I would prefer to think I’m exaggerating with these analogies but experience has proven me otherwise. The fact is: computer experts must be passionate about their job, at least to some extent. There’s simply no alternative in a world where everything changes all the time. You can’t simply "not know" about a new wireless standard. Admitting this would be comparable to an accountant learning about a new tax code amendment from the human resources department. The key difference: tax code amendments are proposed a couple of times a year at most. Techno-blogs are filled with tens of new posts day after day. An IT specialist who does not enjoy his/her line of work simply can’t function past a certain point, especially if he/she is at a decision-making level in the organization.
Going back to business issues, experienced managers and entrepreneurs may now see where the problem lies at this point of the discussion: somebody who is passionate about a project may tend to distort some facts to fit his personal views or to imply an urgency when there is none. Such a person may be very talented and knowledgeable, but he may not necessarily align his vision with the company’s ultimate best interest... right? Wrong. This analogy has no place in a workplace environment. Computers are not toys, they are tools. Network cables are comparable to the electric cables that run into your walls. If an electrician tells you that a newer/safer transformer is recommended for a project, do you simply dismiss his idea thinking he loves electrons too much to give a balanced recommendation? Why not apply the same logic to your complete IT infrastructure, web site, databases and emails then?
Dialog between the business world and the technological world needs to be established on solid ground. CEOs must pay close attention to their Director of IT and in turn, IT professionals need to convey the importance of their requirements without expecting their audience to share the excitement of their actual implementation. Forget about the very real threat of potential hackers when discussing SSL requirements: it’s unlikely to resonate well with higher-ups who never had to deal with such issues. Instead, focus on what the clients on the other side of the transaction will think about your company if their own people notice a blatant disrespect for standard security practices. Who may get sued if sensitive information is leaked? How about checking with the sales department to see if your proposition could help the company distance itself from its competitors and gain a marketable advantage?
IT is an integral part of modern businesses, it is not a periodic maintenance task equivalent to changing a light bulb or cleaning the coffee-maker. Whether you’re in charge of an entire company or a single division, next time you have an idea, ask your IT department how they may be of help: chances are you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the result. Technology is a wonderful way to gain a competitive advantage in an overcrowded market. It’s also what enables most businesses to be efficient internally and attractive externally while keeping most of their sensitive information away from prying eyes. Business strategy, finances, human resources and technology: they all have a part to play in the success of an enterprise. You don’t have to like it, professionals rarely enjoy dealing with things they don’t fully understand: just accept it, and move forward.