Veteran CIO To MES West Attendees: 'If You're A Pure IT Person, You're A Dinosaur'

A veteran CIO delivered the opening keynote Sunday at The Channel Company's Midsize Enterprise Summit West conference, telling a room full of senior IT leaders that their job isn't so much about administering technology as it is understanding business initiatives.

Jim Noble, who has headed IT departments at some of the world's largest corporations, told IT pros from midmarket enterprises who converged on Los Angeles for MES West that the challenges they face are common among companies big and small -- and those challenges are rapidly changing.

Noble now serves as CEO of The Advisory Council International, a nonprofit group of IT luminaries that includes more than 20 now-retired CIOs from Fortune 100 companies.

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"Your role is to understand the business imperatives and come up with quick and affordable solutions," Noble told attendees. "If you’re a pure IT person, you're a dinosaur."

Running operations in the back room is no longer a sustainable role for a modern CIO, he said. Instead, CIOs should have a trusted lieutenant overseeing infrastructure and services while they focus on keeping open lines of communication with business leaders.

In his own career, Noble has shepherded IT operations through times of great corporate upheaval. He was CIO of America Online when the company merged with Time Warner; and at Merrill Lynch during the financial meltdown of 2008.

One thing he's learned from those experiences, he said, it that business leaders don't care about the details of IT plans. They primarily just want to know how the technology will realize a core priority.

At AOL-Time Warner, for Noble's team that meant protecting the company's vast library of intellectual property. At General Motors, what was really important was building a connected car (Noble's team invented OnStar, an early foray into Internet of Things technologies).

For CIOs to succeed at that level, they must not only change their mind-set, but also their behavior and speech, becoming well-versed in business terminology, and abandoning tech jargon.

"Speak the language that your business leaders speak," Noble said, adding that doesn't mean IT pros should abandon using numbers and other metrics that keep them accountable.

"We talk about costs. They're interested in benefits," he said, which is one reason why so-called Shadow IT has penetrated the enterprise.

Similarly, CIOs talk about uptime, but "all [business leaders] are interested in are unplanned outages," he said. "We talk about disaster recovery and continuity; they're interested in business risk. We talk about disruption; they're interested in what their competitors are doing."

One concept that all business leaders understand is return on investment. A CIO who can demonstrate "you understand the return on IT" will find a more receptive audience, he said.

Bruce Weinberg, senior IT director at Commercial Metals Company, told CRN that Noble's keynote nicely summed up the major issues he's dealing with -- and he's pretty sure all the other MES attendees are dealing with as well.

Noble is such a giant in the field that it surprised Weinberg that "someone with his credentials and experience can relate to what all of us are doing."

'"I work for a hundred-year-old company and we've been going through that transition the last couple years," Weinberg said of the Irving, Texas-based steel producer.

Noble accurately expressed the challenge of effectively communicating with business leaders, Weinberg told CRN. "To them it's not about IT, but about offering a solution to drive sales or closer relationships."

One trend that's complicated that dialogue, Weinberg said, is that cloud vendors such as Salesforce and Amazon Web Services have changed the perception of IT by commoditizing software and computing resources.

"CEOs, CFOs, business leaders are all watching the same TV we're watching, they're reading the same magazine," Weinberg said, and they know that computing resources can be provisioned rapidly and with flexibility. At the same time, they fear the IT director "is going to talk to them about three-letter acronyms and security" and other technical topics.

In his keynote, Noble emphasized that IT leaders must learn the "soft skills" that improve their relationships with their nontechnical peers -- interpersonal and social traits that tech pros have typically never been trained in.

"They don’t come comfortably to us geeks," Noble said.

And the CIO must be creative in getting face time with business-side leaders, identifying influential executives and seizing opportunities to grab their ears.

Right now, the industry is giving them a unique chance to succeed on that front, he said.

"The cloud is a great opportunity for everyone in this room to have that conversation and make their boss look smart," Noble said in closing his keynote.

Those business leaders don't understand the cloud, they just talk like they do, Noble has learned. They realize cloud presents a big opportunity, but one that comes at significant risk.

"The IT profession has never stood up for the benefits of the initiatives we implement," Noble said. "The cloud offers us that chance now."