The business CIO

Now more than ever, experience outside IT counts.

Don R. Riley knows what it takes to run a profitable business.

So during the past several months, as his company zeroed in on cash flow and bottom-line earnings to cope with the increasingly shaky economy, Riley knew he had to reorganize his department's priorities. He pushed up projects that delivered the biggest returns at the quickest pace, even if they were more expensive and carried higher risks than other initiatives.

Case in point: his decision to move on a complex $8 million business system implementation with a high return on investment instead of a $3 million one with lower expected returns.

Moving ahead with an expensive project at a time when most companies are tightening their belts might seem counterintuitive, but Riley, CIO at Mohawk Industries Inc., an $8 billion flooring company in Dalton, Ga., says it was right for his business. He knows this because he has experience running a business unit with its own profit-and-loss pressures.

"You have that different viewpoint when your career is on the line if you don't get it right, if you don't connect with the customers, if you don't bring a product that has value," Riley says.

Riley's path to the CIO role has involved much more than IT gigs. He has held business jobs, too, including sales and marketing and product management positions at Electronic Data Systems Corp. He's one of many top IT executives among Computerworld's recent classes of Premier 100 IT Leader honorees who listed business-side jobs as a significant part of their professional experience.

Several of these IT leaders agreed to discuss the benefits of having a background in business. They say it has given them the ability to better understand the challenges and requirements of their companies as a whole, especially in this difficult economy. And that, they say, translates into technology projects that deliver stronger ROI and better support the company's goals and vision.

A Different View

"The opportunities for innovation often are made visible when someone has had different perspectives," says Eden S. Fisher, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and executive director of its Engineering and Technology Innovation Management Program. "People who come from different experiences have the ability to offer new perspectives that could be of value."

That value isn't just esoteric. It can translate into real dollars and cents.

Tim Ramsay, associate vice president for IT at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., used his financial and business experience as the university's former director of business services when considering whether to upgrade a mainframe back in 2005.

During class-registration periods, Ramsay's IT staff saw usage spikes that made computers sluggish. But he resisted pressure to upgrade, opting instead to buy capacity on demand from vendors to cover those spikes. As a result, he says his department avoided incurring a $300,000 annual cost.

"We've been able to avoid major CPU upgrades by simply taking a variable cost approach and rethinking the paradigm of when we need to upgrade and when we don't," says Ramsay.

CEOs are indicating that that's the kind of business-savvy thinking they want in their IT chiefs.

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