Career Counsel

FRAMINGHAM (08/15/2000) - The Lost World Q: I am an IT executive with more than 10 years of experience, most of it managing mission-critical units for large credit card banks. In September, I resigned my director-level position at one of the largest credit card issuers in the world to take on the role of CTO at a company that is building e-commerce toolsets for B2C merchants. However, I feel that the company's vision has become diluted. I'm concerned about our ability to acquire additional funding in the future, and I estimate that we'll be out of funds within the next three months.

At my previous job, recruitment calls were a daily part of my life. However, the startup that I'm involved with now is quite secretive, and I no longer get the recruitment calls that I used to. I am uncomfortable with just dropping my name on the doorsteps of executive recruiters, but I would like to get back into the recruitment network. Is there a discreet and professional way to get plugged back in to Rolodexes of executive recruiters?

Also, could you offer any further advice on how to make this transition back into the world of the known from the world of the unknown?

A: In addition to the stealth nature of your startup employer, you are also not getting some recruitment calls because of the presumed equity position that you may have there. Given both of these factors, you must be proactive in getting onto the radar screens of other startup companies as well as search firms prior to the word getting out that you're going out of business. I can't tell why you would be uncomfortable with just dropping your name on executive recruiters' doorsteps, but there isn't really any other way to let my colleagues and me know that you are actively considering employment alternatives to your current situation.

CFO Advocate Q: I am a controller at a Fortune 500 company. I have worked hard to get to this point, including getting my CPA and MBA. I will hopefully one day be a CFO and am concerned about getting more IT knowledge. In most of the organizations I have worked, the CIO has reported to the CFO. What I am interested in is how to get the knowledge to be a stronger advocate and visionary of an IS organization.

A: If you are a regular reader of this column, you have no doubt been exposed to the issue of CIOs reporting to general management--the CEO, COO, president or general manager--rather than to the CFO. If you find yourself in a smaller company or less progressive company where the CIO does indeed fall under the CFO on the organization chart, then you can be a real hero by encouraging and promoting the more strategic application of IT across the enterprise.

The ultimate move is to get yourself out of the IT management business by proposing the elevation of your head (director?) of IT to report at a higher level as your peer.

Meanwhile, focus your vision and advocacy of IT in your area of expertise--finance. There is much upside potential for leveraging technology to help you better manage the financial performance of the company through cost reduction and process and service improvement.

How can I refuse? Q: I have an offer to move from vice president of IT operations in a 2,000-employee regional company to director of data center operations in a 10,000-employee national company that has acquired my present employer. The compensation is equivalent, and although the scope is reduced, the staff and budget are increased. Does this seem like an acceptable offer?

A: Yes, it seems like a very acceptable offer including some good upside potential. The move you describe is basically the smaller fish (lower-level job) in a bigger pond. While executing a set of responsibilities that are easily within your range of competence, you will have a chance to challenge and grow the depth of your management skills with a larger staff and budget. And since you have already held the higher-level position, once you establish that you can handle the greater size and scope of the new company, you should be first in line for promotion when the time comes to backfill your new boss or step into some other, bigger job. Your glass is more than half full if you look at it in this very positive way.

Downsized and Confused Q: I have recently been downsized after a merger and a divisional reorganization. I have 30 years' experience in information technology audit and general IT management. My last three years have been as the implementation director for PeopleSoft HR and finance products for the health insurance industry. I have a master's in public administration and consider myself PC literate.

I have been searching for a new position as an information technology applications director or IT audit director for the past three months. I have put no limits on my search, yet I am not getting any interviews with hiring managers. I have reduced my rsum to direct attention from the fact that I am 59 years old (the rsum ends in 1982) and many people believe I am only in my early 50s. I am working with an international outplacement company, so I have to believe I have a good rsum. I work my personal network, Internet job sites and recruiters every day. Any advice?

A: There are a number of issues here, so let's look at the primary ones. First, regarding your rsum and your age, it is sadly true that there are still a great many people and companies that will not eagerly welcome someone your age, despite all the equal opportunity programs and rhetoric. You should know that your abbreviated rsum will not fool an experienced reader. A job history that seems to start midstream, college degrees with no year stated and especially functionally oriented rsums intended to draw attention away from the chronology are all very recognizable to a trained eye. You simply cannot change the facts, so you need to work double-time to make up for the doors that are closed to you. Don't overlook consulting, government, academia and the nonprofit sectors, as they tend to be much more accepting of all types of diversity, including age.

Second, in today's business environment of severe information technology workforce shortage, even in light of a merger and reorganization, an outplaced employee is often viewed as a castoff or deadwood. So don't unnecessarily broadcast your outplacement status and don't use their very recognizable formula cover letters.

Third, while it's hard to tell from what little you have said about your background and past experiences, you may be hurt by a very long tenure at your current employer or some other flaw in your career progression. And you may be aiming too high at the director level. Seek and listen to some objective advice in this regard.

Lastly, you said that you are PC literate. This may be the telling factor--that you consider yourself to be only PC literate, and have not worked in Web-enabled, intranet/Internet or e-business development. This significantly limits your market appeal, especially at the director level. While you can't change that right away, do your homework, and be ready to interview intelligently about new technologies and the new economy.

Play to Your Strengths Q: I am the CFO of a nonprofit law firm. Most of my work-related experience has been in nonprofits, but it also includes a short time with a defense industry company. I am working on an MBA in technology management to be completed within two years. I am considering a transition into a CIO role. What opportunities exist for a person of my professional background? How can I best prepare myself to make such a transition? What CIO career progression opportunities can I seek now to prepare me for seeking a CIO position once I graduate?

A: As always, lead with your strengths and use what you have to get what you want--especially when a change or redirection of career is your objective. The good news is that you have three very significant cards to play: financial expertise in addition to IT, and both law firm and nonprofit experience.

In the first case, you will be a very attractive candidate in an environment, usually a smaller one, where the CFO is also responsible for IT and where you can wear both hats, perhaps with the title chief administrative officer. Don't shy away from using both competencies but take care to assess the level of importance the enterprise places on IT. Does the organization value technology as strategic, or does the company view IT as simply an operational necessity?

In the second case, your knowledge of how law firms operate and how their internal business management works will make you a very attractive candidate there as well. And the same is true of the broader nonprofit world. Your knowledge of their alternative funding, decision-making, leadership and management models, and their culture will likewise make you attractive to these organizations.

The not-as-good news is that you are not yet prepared for significant IT employment in another industry, and outside the legal and nonprofit worlds you may find yourself working your way back up the ladder. I suggest that you approach your current employer to explore a combination of finance and IT responsibilities, or selectively explore what other opportunities might exist for you in the current seller's job market. You can start now, while completing the MBA, and work up to becoming a CIO.

Career Track Q: I am currently a college senior getting ready to make the leap into the real world. For the past two years I have been an intern at a small IT consulting firm. I have been learning all aspects of the business, including support, networking, management and so on. At this point I plan to go to work for this consulting firm after graduation. My big question is if my long-term plans are to be a CIO or a senior IT manager, what types of experience/certifications should I focus on? Should I try to get into a bigger firm, obtain some MCSE/Cisco/CISSP certifications, or am I already on a decent path?

A: You are indeed on a very good track. Your internship and impending full-time employment in a consulting environment has allowed and will continue to allow you to concentrate on developing and honing your technical skills. In general, consulting is a very good place to start out because the variety of assignments usually yields a broader perspective than working at a single company, and the consistent pressures of delivering to clients results in concentrated experience over the time invested there.

It is these technical skills that you are acquiring now, in the early part of your career, that will form the foundation for IT management--and perhaps a CIO position in the future. With this career goal in mind, you should be looking for all future opportunities: to maximize your technical knowledge of the field while not necessarily becoming the expert at any particular piece of technology; to develop people and project leadership skills; to develop your analytical, problem solving, communication and interpersonal skills; to learn about business, perhaps through an MBA; and how to align IT with the strategic goals of the business and in doing so, create a value proposition based on operational effectiveness and competitive advantage through the effective use of information technology at a nonconsulting company.

Mark Polansky is a managing director and member of the advanced technology practice of Korn/Ferry International in New York City. He is also the chairman of the Greater New York Chapter of the Society for Information Management. The Web-based Executive Career Counselor column is edited by Web Research Editor Kathleen Kotwica. She can be reached at kkotwica@cio.com.

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