CTOs of the future

A lot of e-mails I have gotten from readers lately ask me what it takes for a young staff technologist to position himself or herself for eventual promotion to the CTO's office. Last year I wrote a column suggesting three keys to this goal: Love your sales team; trust others to do the tech heavy-lifting; and stay close to the technology (see "Tips on becoming a CTO"). Although these are certainly important, upon further reflection I realized a more singular key to becoming a CTO: Take informed -- and sometimes unpopular -- risks as a means of demonstrating your ability to lead with vision.

On a superficial level, the easiest thing to do within a basically well-functioning technology organization is nothing. If things are running smoothly, why rock the boat? This mentality stifles innovation and creativity; it is rooted in a fear of failure and worry about what might happen if you try something new. Leadership in a technology organization is not about minimizing complaints and simply keeping the trains running on time -- that is technology administration, not technology leadership. True technology leadership is about proactively anticipating the needs of your organization and taking calculated and often unpopular risks to satisfy those needs for the present and for the future you visualize, sometimes making decisions that seem insane to others.

Three years ago, at a previous company, I inherited a messy back-end Web infrastructure that failed frequently, was expensive to maintain, and kept pagers and cell phones ringing into the night, making everyone's lives miserable. At the time, the budget for correcting this nightmare was extremely tight. I quickly made the decision to migrate our back end from Windows NT to Linux. We already had the hardware we needed, I knew the OS was stable, and there were no licensing issues, giving us the ability to move quickly and cost-effectively.

The push toward Linux alienated some existing IT staff; there were defections, and it was obvious that some of those staffers thought I was reckless, even slightly unbalanced. Based on my own research and confidence in actually working with the technology, I was convinced that Linux was the right way to go for our company at that time and in the long term. But it was a bold decision that I put my personal reputation behind, making myself fully accountable to my management and staff for the results of my decision. During the migration, I even met with our marketing director and CEO and convinced them to issue a press release announcing that we had adopted Linux as our enterprise platform -- there was no hiding behind the decision.

You probably can guess how that decision played out. The implementation was a success and that company has continued to grow and scale its operations with Linux since then. Just last month at LinuxWorld, Oracle's Larry Ellison said, "We'll be on Linux no later than the summer, so we'll be running our whole business on Linux." Oracle is adopting Linux as its enterprise operating system, and stalwart companies such as IBM continue to pour money and resources into developing Linux applications. For me, the decision to adopt Linux early was a calculated risk based on my knowledge of our business needs, our constraints, and the available technology. Three years later, the decision seems visionary, if I do say so myself. But to get there I had to face the fear and doubt of people within and outside my company.

In the end, do your homework on the tough decisions, but don't let failure and fear prevent you from taking bold steps because those are the ones that pay off most handsomely.

Chad Dickerson is InfoWorld's CTO. Contact him at chad_dickerson@infoworld.com.

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