Opinion by Bart Perkins

The best of jobs, the worst of jobs

The CIO at a mid-tier organization faces a unique set of challenges

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One of the most challenging — and rewarding — jobs in IT is CIO in a mid-tier organization ($100 million to $1.2 billion in revenue). Many mid-tier organizations are like middle school students, acting very childishly one minute and incredibly sophisticated the next. Management styles, process formality and organizational practices vary widely. Mid-tier organizations are large enough to require the robust systems, formal operating policies and mature governance structures of larger companies, while still needing to approach many tasks with the informality and flexibility of a small company.

As a result, mid-tier organizations present a unique set of challenges to the CIO and his or her staff, including:

  • The CIO requires a broad range of expertise. While most Fortune 500 CIOs have a technology background, they delegate the majority of technology issues and hands-on operational work. Few Fortune 500 CIOs are actively involved in implementing internal IT management processes. By contrast, mid-tier CIOs who wish to introduce ITIL, COBIT ISO27000, or any other standard will need a strong working knowledge of the topic and will probably be actively involved in creating these new processes. And when systems fail, the mid-tier CIO is often a major contributor to the investigation and recovery efforts.

All CIOs need the gravitas to be perceived as a peer of the other executives. Without it, they will not garner the respect necessary to manage the corporate project prioritization process. But with many fewer staff than their Fortune 500 counterparts, mid-tier CIOs also need enough technology expertise to be respected by their IT staff and to avoid being viewed simply as a “suit.” The best mid-tier CIOs have a broad set of skills. They are equally comfortable discussing detailed technology options, project management methodologies and shareholder value.

  • The IT budget has little flexibility. Mid-tier IT budgets are small, and every line item can be challenged, reduced or eliminated. Moreover, budget limitations make it difficult to fund needed experimentation with new technologies. While all IT budgets are under pressure, business units in large IT organizations can choose to fund critical IT projects from their own budgets. And the complexity of large budgets makes it more difficult for management to eliminate all contingency funds. In addition, public scrutiny of large organizations creates negative publicity when training and development monies are eliminated.

As a result of budget constraints, very few mid-tier organizations have enough people to staff the service desk or server center for 24/7 operations. Hours of support are frequently shorter than the business would like, and after-hours support is often provided by a single person, with backup from on-call staff. Vacations and holidays create scheduling nightmares. But the CIO is still accountable to unhappy customers.

  • IT career paths are limited. Mid-tier firms have a small number of available positions. This severely limits career opportunities, particularly for individuals who want a strictly technical career. The workload at mid-tier organizations rarely requires or allows for full-time technical specialists. These services are usually obtained from services firms or IT staff who also serve as part-time technical leads. Employees in mid-tier organizations must be generalists with multiple responsibilities, and are likely to remain so. Furthermore, minimal training budgets make it difficult for staff to gain the additional skills required to move into other jobs or advance to the next level.
  • Vendors ignore mid-tier CIOs. IT suppliers at large trade shows and conferences are usually more interested in meeting people from large organizations. Since it typically takes sales staff almost as much time to make a small sale as it takes to make a large sale, vendors feel that it makes more sense to hunt “elephants.” Even between shows, some mid-tier CIOs complain that salespeople are reluctant to visit. Frequently, mid-tier CIOs spend precious time trying to identify sales force staff who focus on mid-tier organizations. Even when they get the supplier’s attention, they usually lack the buying power to get the best prices.
  • A mid-tier CIO is a terminal job. Mid-tier organizations only have a handful of senior management positions. With more available positions, large organizations have more flexibility to offer successful CIOs the opportunity to migrate to management roles across the enterprise. Since very few mid-tier CIOs get the same opportunity, additional career advancement frequently requires moving to a different corporation.

Even with all of the IT challenges, most mid-tier organizations are great places to work. The best ones are very nimble and have far less bureaucracy than large organizations. During a single afternoon meeting, two or three people can make a decision that would take a large, bureaucratic organization six months. Since there are fewer levels between customers and decision makers, mid-tier organizations can change direction quickly when presented with new information. People who wish to avoid travel may prefer mid-tier organizations, which usually have a smaller geographic footprint and require far less long-term or global travel assignments.

Mid-tier CIOs face unique challenges and enjoy unique benefits. They must be willing to determine the root cause of a server failure one minute then discuss business strategy the next. They’re the ultimate jack-of-all-trades: project manager, business strategist, technology specialist, vendor manager, IT architect — and fire hydrant. But for individuals with broad expertise and a desire to do something different every day, this may be the ultimate dream job.

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