Present at the creation

"Every decade has a fad," says Charlie Feld. "I've been there the whole 35 years [since the birth of Computerworld]. People swing from one thing to another to another. We've got 40 years of archaeology lying around. You can almost peel back the layers and see what was going on in the '70s, '80s, '90s."

Computerworld asked four longtime CIOs -- Feld, president of The Feld Group; Paul A. Strassmann, acting CIO at NASA; Ralph Szygenda, CIO at General Motors Corp.; and Ron Ponder, CIO at WellPoint Health Networks Inc. -- to do just that. Here's what they told us.

What was your first job that today would be called "CIO"?
In '61, I was the director of corporate information services at General Foods. I was trying to pull together disparate accounting systems and, most important, to spearhead the move from tabulating equipment to computers.
Ponder: In the late '70s, I was data processing director at Helena Chemical, a fairly large distributor of agrichemicals in the South and Southeast.

What was the IT landscape like in those days?
In the '60s and first half of the '70s, we were DP [data processing] managers. We worked for the controller and did all the back-office stuff. Nobody in the company even knew where we were.
Strassmann: The CIO worked for the CFO to install systems, which allowed the CFO to increasingly have this ability to know all about cost, production and shipment.

So it was a technical role?
There is no such thing as a technical role. Even a technical role is political, because information is power, and computers are information, so computers are power.
The CIO always worked with the controller. That has been a very important cultural and political aspect. There's been an unholy alliance between the controller and technology. IBM got the power to dominate business because it catered to the need of the financial executive to increase power. The CFO was the first to figure out that information technology gave him unbelievable power because he could know the results from the factories before the factory manager. Computers have always been political power.

What was IT like in the '70s?
IT was very internally focused, primarily automating manual functions for efficiency, especially in finance and transaction processing. It was characterized by centralized mainframe computing, and there was still a lot of time-sharing. The words glass house arose to describe the controlled environment. I was called "director of data processing," and I reported to the CFO. Up into the '80s, people often thought of this function as a utility for the corporation. It added little external or informational value.

How did things begin to change?
Suddenly the production and marketing people started rebelling against the power of the CFO, and since the CFO controlled the IBM mainframe, these guys went to guerrilla warfare and bought DEC equipment, and minicomputers came in. Suddenly we had a devolution of power. On top of that, engineers -- who wanted no part of the CFO -- started buying scientific computers. The landscape was scattered with disjointed computing.

Feld: In the late '70s through the '80s, we became VPs of MIS, or whatever IT was called. And we didn't just work for accounting anymore. All the function heads began to realize they could improve productivity by using technology. We did work for the VPs of manufacturing, distribution, sales, HR. During those years, most companies -- though not Frito-Lay -- built the functional stovepipes: systems for manufacturing, systems for distribution -- everybody was working in functional silos.

How was the CIO's role changing?
In the early part, the best technician got the job. Then they moved away from that because the best technician wasn't necessarily the best business person, leader, communicator, manager of people. We moved away from technical folks and started bringing people in that didn't have technical skill but had leadership and business acumen.
A lot of companies got into big-time trouble because IT is a technical business. CIOs made some really bad choices, because they didn't understand technology and jumped on the fads. Then management realized they had to find reasonable technology skills and great business skills. It's no longer an either/or. That's why the profession is in so much turmoil now. People haven't done the right things to develop the business and leadership skills in technical people.

How did the PC revolution affect the CIO?
There's total chaos. Most of the computing capacity shifts from a mainframe, central monopoly into the distributed never-never land where you can't even tell what the budget is anymore. By the end of the '80s, it was just out of control. Everybody was programming. Everybody with an Apple thought he was a computer expert. That's when the term CIO was pitched in a casual remark by a guy named Bob Synnott, who was a director of systems for a leading Boston bank. The challenge then was to control the chaos.

And what were companies looking for in a CIO as we approached the '90s?
Somebody of executive timber who can come in and look at costs and integration. Basically they want muscle, someone who can force change. In major corporations as in the government, the CIO is suddenly brought to the top of the organization and is viewed as a senior executive. This is when the hoopla begins and the CIO magazine that caters to the egos of their readers. There's lots of gear to be bought, and vendors want to have a place to influence because they're looking for consolidated purchasing. By 1990, when the big boom begins, we've had enterprise systems and client/server and all these fads. Every four years there's a new fad, and every one costs another trillion dollars. But CIOs are now big-time. I have a budget of $12 billion at DOD. (Now I only have $2.5 billion in NASA, but it's a very cool place and we have more good toys than anybody else.)
Szygenda: My first official job as CIO was probably at TI, when I was information officer of the defense systems business and later CIO of all of Texas Instruments. That was 1989.

I was very different from the traditional CIO. I had come from running a business environment at TI. When I took over at defense systems, [they wanted] someone who knew technology but mostly who understood the business environment. But this was not a typical CIO job. At that time, most CIOs were more mainframe and networking. They were no longer the DP managers, but the first CIOs were very tech-driven. They still developed applications for the marketing organizations and engineering and so on. And they were mostly independent applications; they weren't integrated. I brought more of a business process change focus -- trying to change the defense systems business because peace had started to break out and the defense business was going through major changes.

That brings us into the '90s.
In the early '90s, CIOs went from being technologists to being business guys with no technology. That didn't work because technology companies overwhelmed them, and projects got in trouble. So then they went back to the point where they still want someone that can integrate into the business and be a part of the CEO, CFO, CIO team -- and technology is a given. Those people are given an opportunity to change the company, not just the technology. I'd have to say probably there's still only a small percentage that can do that, but that's where everyone wants to be: a technologist with a Harvard MBA.
Ponder: The '90s was when a lot of things began to change. The CIO role behaved like an accordion -- starting one way, then changing to another way. In the beginning of the '90s, the mainframe was still doing the heavy lifting, but two very important concepts began to emerge: the role of the server and the entrenchment of the PC. We begin to enter the era of the end-user interface [and] drift into a distributed model of computing: client/server. This was a very exciting thing, and it had profound implications for the role of CIO.

How so?
As a distributed model, client/server began to dominate, with the mainframe still in the background. You begin to see a significant rise in costs and in IT investment across corporations. When this began to happen, it reinforced the CIO as a centralized role, not only because of the level of planning and architecture needed to roll out this distributed model, but also because cost and investment were rising. So while cost considerations pulled toward centralizing the function, distributed computing and the rollout of the client/server world pulled toward distributed.
Meanwhile, the Internet evolved, so by the end of the '90s, most IT had moved to a more centralized model. The CIO is trying to drive cross-functional synergies and rationalize the IT investment at the enterprise level.
Strassmann: Now it's a power position. Unfortunately, the CIO still doesn't have the legitimacy of a CFO. The CFO can go to jail -- and many will be going there very soon. The CIO has no fiduciary responsibility to this day. Fire him and he gets another job elsewhere. There's no body of knowledge, no standards board, nothing. So despite the title, it does not compare to the CFO. The desktop is owned by Microsoft, not by the CIO.

What do you see as the future of the CIO?
The CIO is at the senior management table [and] has to be totally aligned to the business. The IT worldview must be in sync with the business worldview. The CIO has to understand how to leverage IT for differentiation and added value. The CIO has to focus on the customer, on time to market, on the competition. And he has to be able to communicate all that. The CIO has to be a technologist, a strategist and a very good financial business person at the enterprise and global levels.
Strassmann: We ought to be like the CFO, to have a recognized discipline. I hope it will happen; otherwise, the whole thing will get discredited because corporations, with minor exceptions, don't trust the IT world anymore. The CFO certifies that all the furniture has been tagged and all the tangible assets accounted for, but most of the intangible assets of corporations are either on computers or supported by computers. Who certifies that certain standards of security assurance have been met? Nobody. In the next evolution, the CIO will be accountable for the productivity of the information workforce and also accountable for security and preservation of data integrity and corporate knowledge assets. In other words, he will do exactly what the CFO does but with the intellectual property of the company.
Szygenda: There will be CIOs that understand business and technology, that can define the business transformation and changes, architect systems and implementations and run operations that are outsourced. Outsourcing can do it better, and offshore is going to drive a big movement to lower-cost labor.
Our model at GM is a smaller group of people -- 1,500 -- but there are thousands outsourced, and they are integrated into the business. They report to me and to the presidents of the business units. They spend the majority of their time understanding business change and how to do it, then brokering the technology, but that's a secondary issue. That's the model: No one is programming inside GM. We're architecting systems and overseeing it all, but the rest is done by others.
Feld: I think there's a great future for the CIO. I don't see the fad where there are no people working for them because they've outsourced everything and the rest is Web services. Those ideas are driven more by companies that have enough money to advertise and by professors who write books that executives read.
The CIO will be a thoughtful executive who will run the function in a more professional way, deliver more consistent and better results than in the past with some degree of outsourcing, some offshore development, some internal development, some packages. I feel the tool kit is so rich because there are so many options out there -- it will all be a matter of putting it together thoughtfully. My goal would be to help professionalize IT leadership and have it arrive at the table with professionalism and principle-based operations as opposed to fads.
Melymuka is a freelance writer in Duxbury, Mass. Contact her at

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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