Opinion: Rediscovering start-up technologies

Last week in New York, a group of 70 CIOs and soon-to-be-CIOs were asked how they were spending their time by the CIO Posse, a collection of active, transitioning and just-retired Forbes 1,000 CIOs. Only one person from that group of 70 mentioned spending any time evaluating new technologies. I know times are hard. I know the primary focus of the past two years has been cost reduction, infrastructure optimization and virtualization, and vendor consolidation. But are we done with new technologies? Have we reached à la Francis Fukuyama The End of Technology?

Edward Gibbons in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Frederick Jackson Turner in The Frontier in American History and more recently Jonathan Zittrain in The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It all wax eloquently about the implications of a society losing its interest in the frontier, in the new and the next. Has an obsession with cost killed our capacity for exploration? Are we doomed to partake in a homogenized, standardized, commoditized lemming death march to no-cost, undifferentiated computing?

The good news is that despite the episodic ignoring of emerging technologies by the mainstream, technology entrepreneurship is not dead in America. There exist a brave cadre of early to mid-stage technology start-ups that are beavering away creating technologies to solve the pressing problems of today and the challenges forecast for tomorrow. The bad news is that the process of bringing the suppliers of new technologies (that is, entrepreneurs and start-ups) together with the appliers of new technologies (the CIO and the IT shop) is very broken.

On paper, venture capitalists are supposed to bridge this gap. In reality, venture capitalists and CIOs live on two different planets, speak totally different languages and worship very different gods.

I like venture capitalists. In my next life I might want to be a venture capitalist. They are smart. The good ones are very rich. They are hyperarticulate regarding macro-trends, technology disruptions and the financial aspects of corporate structure. They combine the very best bits of investment banking and market and technology research with a nuanced feel for organizational design. The very best VCs are scary-good at reading people and blending personalities to create corporate cultures suitable for the mission at hand. But sadly, most VCs have a critical failing. They don't like, don't understand and -- worst of all -- don't really care about CIOs. (I am not making this up -- I have moderated the off-site meetings of some of the premier venture capital firms in the world and am shocked at the total disregard the VC tribe has for the CIO tribe.)

To be totally fair, venture capitalists at least know CIOs exist. Most CIOs are not even aware of the existence of the venture community.

Computerworld does a fabulous job explaining the weltanschauung of the modern IT leader. Rarely however do we ever hear about the world view, aspirations, or orientations of a very important but semi-invisible creature in the value oasis -- the start-up company CEO. These folks are the Navy SEALs of entrepreneurship. They have passion. They have professionalism. They have intellect. Most of all they have courage. They are working without a net. And they almost never bump into CIOs. This has to change.

I challenge all readers to find and hug a technology start-up CEO during the holidays.

Thornton A. May is a longtime industry observer, management consultant and commentator. You can contact him at thorntonamay@aol.com.

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