CIO Confidential: Time Warped

FRAMINGHAM (08/15/2000) - You are about to be put into a time machine and sent back 1,100 years, never to return. You must make your way in a hostile, alien environment, armed only with your wits and three books. You can choose any books you like--as long as you've actually read them sometime in the last five years. What three books do you take?

It's a trick question, of course. You probably haven't had time to read three real books in the last five years, and if you have, you've got to wonder how useful some claptrap about, "The Seven Most Effective Habits" or "The Millionaire Next Door" is going to be as you struggle to light a cooking fire while rearranging your body lice. Perhaps that Viking coming over the hill will be so impressed by your grasp of paradigm shifts and killer apps that he'll drop his sword and offer you a danish.

Face it, we won't take the time to indulge ourselves by reading what we love, what moves us, or what might, God forbid, in some way enhance a more practical understanding of the world around us. Long before you've achieved that exalted, exhausted rank of CIO, you realize that everything is work--a caffeine-fueled jitterbug interrupted by stop-and-go dashes in the Range Rovers for visits to the family McMansion lasting just long enough to stay married (or not) and get six hours of fitful sleep. Work invades our private lives in ways our private lives could never invade our work--strictly a one-way valve. We are members of a generation perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow's end, chronically short on patience and kindness, rarely happy, sacrificing the real gifts of the present on the altar of the future. We grind pencils to nubs until we are nubs ourselves, and watch our lives flash by faster than a rental car over speed bumps.

Surely, there are some who wouldn't have it any other way. Those addicted to accumulating wealth as a means of keeping score, those who love administration and wire-pulling for its own sake and aren't in the least interested in what it's all about, and even the rest of us who on those rare and glorious occasions are blessed with a project so compelling, challenging or just plain important we forget to go home at night. Occasions when time is most elastic and sleep suddenly seems a poor substitute for pots of coffee.

(If you're a CIO, it's probably been a long time since you had one of these.) Years ago, I worked for a global conglomerate made up of divisions in a wide range of industries, sizes and profit contributions. I started out as the CIO of one of the smaller, poorer divisions, leading a department chronically short of budget, work space and perks. In our comparatively small group, everyone wore two or three hats, programmers worked closely with the users without the filtering layers of functional analysts, and in the interest of time, every job was stripped down to its essential steps. The hours were long, the pay was lousy, the office was a sty, and every year we scored highest among all the divisions in job satisfaction and lowest in turnover. My reward, if you can call it that, was to be catapulted to the other end of the spectrum as the CIO of the corporation's largest (richest) division, an operation so obscenely profitable we flew the Jolly Roger just below the American flag.

You'll have to trust me that what follows is in no way an exaggeration.

The headquarters building was a classically architected structure overlooking gardens, lakes and forests. Inside, marble floors, paneled walls, bank, dry cleaner, tailor, fitness center, bike and running trails (complete with mountain bikes), white-tablecloth dining rooms, a guy (I'm not kidding) who would come to your desk to shine your shoes and as you might have guessed, an IT department with the lowest job satisfaction scores, lowest productivity and highest turnover among all the divisions.

Now, I knew all this before I accepted the job, but as I considered my new surroundings and what I had just come from, I was, nonetheless, stunned. The long and painful process to fix this (to the extent that we could) taught us a lot about what makes effective IT organizations gel in a time when demand for human resources outruns supply; and it taught us even more about the subtleties of leadership and leadership's fundamental imperative in the face of the impersonal texture of modern working life, as experienced by the professional-level migrant family holding down multiple jobs. In a word, we learned patience. We learned that maintaining a balance between the drive to achieve results and how those results were achieved, ensuring that our actions were consistent with our purpose, was the only way to bring about the alchemy we needed.

We realized pretty quickly that the company had managed to provide everything that the average employee could want (high salaries, good benefits, great facilities) and none of the things that IT professionals need. Few skills are as portable or as valuable as the skills these people possess, few jobs as critical to daily operations as the ones these people fill, and few functions within a company as reviled and misunderstood as the one these people report to, and yet, all they ask in return for their loyalty and 14-hour workday is for us to give them a few simple things: a sense of mission, an intellectual challenge and time. Time to contemplate, time to innovate, time to make the inevitable mistakes and recover without penalty or recrimination, and time to deliver as good a finished product as possible.

Tell us why. Don't tell us how. We'll tell you when.

No doubt, someone reading this column is saying to themselves, "Yeah, but what about having fun?" To them I say, "Get a grip!" The reason we pay people to be here is because work is work, the ultimate four-letter word. If we could really provide any kind of sustained fun, we'd charge admission to these cubicles.

The tempo of life continues to quicken. We don't think of time as a gift; we think of it as a commodity. We save it, spend it, stretch it, lose it, make it, waste it, everything but experience it. In the early 1800s, a business trip from New England to California would have taken us two or three punishing, dangerous months. After 1870, once the transcontinental railroad was finished, we could have made that same journey in seven days. So quick, one newspaper reported at the time, "You didn't even have time to take a bath."

And this was in the days before those little pine-tree-shaped air fresheners!

While we don't consider travel at that speed the miracle that our great-great grandparents did, consider how much time we would have had during that week for thinking and reading, designing and inventing--not to mention sight-seeing--compared to our experiences traveling today. Sadly and inexplicably, telling people how busy we are, that we have no time to spare, that our calendars are completely booked, somehow makes us feel important instead of embarrassed by our inability to successfully manage this precious resource (we being professional managers and all).

So, what three books would I take with me? I was afraid you'd ask.

I suppose my first choice would be the Bible. Even for those of us who count themselves among the less pious, the Bible may be the closest thing to common intellectual ground you're liable to find with the natives (assuming the time machine deposits you in Europe)--something akin to commiserating about the Red Sox around the watercooler.

Book two would be The Official Boy Scout Handbook (yes, I was a scout leader for two thrilling, malarial summers). It may not be much help with marauding Vikings, but it's first-rate when starting cooking fires and may come in handy should I decide to raise an army of belligerent, hyperactive midgets.

Book three would be an SAP implementation guide. Sure, the content will be just as confusing and pointless in 900 A.D. as it is today, but as a cure for homesickness, well, need I say more?

What three books would you take back to the Dark Ages, and why? Let Anonymous know at Anonymous has been a CIO at household-name companies in various industries for over 12 years.

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