FRAMINGHAM (08/01/2000) - As a high-school kid in the early 1980s, Mintu Bachann wanted to find afterschool work that was a little more exotic than flipping burgers. He was intrigued by his uncle's computer consulting business, so he went to work there changing tapes, looking over cards and codes, learning Cobol and entering data. Last winter Bachann made a similar decision to pursue something more colorful, this time leaving the Fortune 500 environment for the cio position at Equalfooting.com Inc. He got all the color he bargained for and more. In the face of exponential growth, he must draw a rational road map for technology and site development while ensuring 24/7 site availability. It may sound like a perpetual Maalox Moment, but there are strategies that can pull a startup CIO through these most interesting times. Bachann got together recently with Bob Quinn, former CIO of eBay Inc. and now CIO at 2-year-old dotcom Portera, to discuss leadership.
STEPPING INTO IT Bachann: Bob, what did you find when you walked into eBay as CIO, and what did you initially do to enhance the company?
Quinn: When I went into eBay, it was in Internet startup mode and had some very good technical people who just wanted to go off and do things. They didn't necessarily want to work with other people, and they liked the fact that the [company was] small and didn't have a lot of processes and procedures. I quickly found that there was a need for processes and procedures. But what worked in larger and more stable companies would bring everything at eBay to a grinding halt. So I melded the old and the new. I took the best of what we knew about system development and project methodologies and established quick, streamlined templates for project initiation and status tracking. I set the agendas for project meetings, realizing they had to be fast because people didn't have the time or attention to sit through two-hour meetings.
I tried to assimilate myself into the group and focus on an appreciation of what they had accomplished and what their challenges were. Historically, I've seen people come in and the first thing they do is indicate all the flaws they see with the current environment. That derides the people who've been there and lived though something. When I came into eBay, people had their tails between their legs; they were really beat up in engineering and site ops because of the problems they were having. A lot of laypeople didn't understand the challenges involved. Some of it had to do with the fact that they had to mature as a function, but it was also caused by the fact that they were growing so tremendously fast. I made sure they felt I had an appreciation for that. In the first all-hands meeting, I said, "The biggest problem you have is that you've been tremendously successful. This problem is an outcropping of your success.
What you have to do is accept that success is good, but it brings change."
Bachann: When you started putting procedures and methodologies in place, did you meet resistance or resentment?
Quinn: Yes, there were quite a few tree huggers. In fact, the most talented and most technical people were the ones who hugged the hardest. It's a very common situation for a new CIO to come into. So I focused on them individually and tried to sort each of them into several groups. There were (1) the people who bought into my role and my agenda, (2) the people who bought into my role but not necessarily my agenda, (3) the ones who agreed with my agenda but didn't like me, and (4) the ones who were totally against me and my agenda.
You don't want to expend too much energy on that last group because it may not be possible to win them over. For Group 3, I'd go over and ask their opinions, go to lunch with them, build a personal relationship and affinity with them.
For Group 2, I tried to engage them in helping to define the new agenda. I'd say, "These are the problems we need to solve. Can you put your spin on how we can do this?"
This isolates the No. 4s, and they see pretty quickly that they need to get on board.
Bachann: What are some other potential pitfalls of fast growth?
Quinn: You can't let the environment define you. At eBay it seemed like many days I'd say, "Wow, I had all these plans, and I didn't get to any of them." It took control of my life. After a few weeks of that I realized I had to take some level of control and get away from the reaction mode that this environment was throwing me into.
Bachann: What was the first thing you did to get that control?
Quinn: I had my admin put a fictional "John Smith" on my calendar to carve out blocks of time so that I could go somewhere and focus on what I wanted to accomplish that day. I also put together a tight list of high priorities that I needed to be addressing and spending time on each week, and I'd go over that list in a weekly status check. So every week I'd look at both far-reaching goals and what I had to do next week.
STREAMLINE AND SPECIALIZE
Bachann: In order to achieve your goals, have you set or applied a chain of command or streamlined your organization?
Quinn: In smaller companies, you have to flatten the organization and have more direct reports with more specializations. One of the most challenging things in recruiting is when I talk to people who have lots of skills who want to run the whole shop. I tell them that when you're maintaining a house it's OK to have a handyman who can do plumbing and electrical and odd jobs. But when you're building a house, or a startup, you need people with focus. You need senior people who can build a network operations center and someone else focusing on building the technical support function and someone else on network engineering. So I looked for more senior people and segmented them, saying, "You're going to own operations. Yes, I know you've managed people before, but you're going to have your hands full."
Mostly I looked for people who had worked in different environments. Some people who come from Fortune 500 IT shops just can't make the transition to the Internet space because they're used to relying on a lot of infrastructure. They don't know how to come in and define a lot of their objectives and manage their time between short term and long term.
Bachann: We have a lot of bright and talented people who believe they can do lots of things. How do you establish a strong working relationship with them, and what was the reaction when you started streamlining their responsibilities?
Quinn: I told folks that I could give them three functions, but then the likelihood was that they weren't going to nail any one of them. They'd be juggling responsibilities across the three functions and not getting much accomplished. Then I'd say, "Or you can focus your talents in one area, accomplish something that moves this business forward and is more mission critical to the business success than what you experienced in a Fortune 500."
That worked. It appealed to people's sense of success instead of their sense of personal achievement.
UP ALL NIGHT
Bachann: One challenge of operating a Web store that's open 24 hours a day is making sure it stays open 24 hours a day. What do you do to ensure that?
Quinn: I carry a pager and a cell phone wherever I go, and I came to the realization early on that being a CIO is what I am for life, not just eight hours a day. And when I do take a break, I always have very clear, responsible backup. I've gotten to the point (and my wife understands it) where I can't just leave town. Our schedules and things are very tied to the site. If it's a mission-critical site operating around the clock, you've got to get to a 24-hour onsite monitoring capability, and you have to hire people who are willing to carry that pager and get up quickly in the middle of the night and respond to it.
At eBay I made certain to get high-availability server clustering and redundancy in place with automatic failover on all major components. That is the main reason eBay isn't having problems anymore. They didn't have redundancy, and they figured, "We've got to maintain profitability, and you want to set up a whole second system that's just going to sit there and wait for something to go wrong?"
And the answer was, "Yes, that's right. Because when it goes wrong you'll be glad you have it. You don't fly over the Atlantic Ocean with one engine. If you want to run this as if the site going down is like a plane going down, you have to have it." When eBay lost $10 billion off its market cap because of outages, it got the idea that a few million dollars for a redundant server was a good idea.
Bachann: How do you measure your success?
Quinn: When I go into a company, I design in what my measurements and metrics are going to be. It can be availability and performance and response time and how I'm going to measure and track those, or budget versus actual figures. I put together that package and then hire someone who just follows those measures so that we have a scorecard that we're monitoring closely. The facts won't lie as long as you're looking at the right facts.
Bachann: What do you think the company and the board looks to a CIO for? Do you evaluate your success from what you think their perspective is or from strategic and tactical directions you've set up?
Quinn: Do you mean how I think they think I'm doing?
Quinn: I am paranoid (laughs). Every CIO I've met who I think is really good has a certain degree of paranoia.
What ends up happening at every single job I've gone into is this: They say in the interview process, "Things aren't so good, and that's why we need you." And then you get there and within a week that's all forgotten. Then the fact that there are problems is your problem. What I've found is that it's an uphill climb. You find yourself in the swamp and you have to figure out how to drain the swamp without getting eaten by alligators.
Bachann: And there are plenty out there!
Quinn: From the time you are in the swamp you are in the swamp, and they view you as being in there. And success depends on whether you're getting any drainage or whether the swamp is overcoming you.
THREE WEEKS LATER
In a second meeting, the two startup CIOs switch roles as Quinn asks Bachann's advice on staffing.
Quinn: I'm in a situation now where I'm trying to build a team from scratch very quickly in a tough job market. I'm running into two dilemmas: some young, technically oriented people here have never worked in a big company before.
They have a good understanding of the architecture and environment here, so I'm somewhat dependent on them. But they tend to want the group to remain small so that they can hold on to their power. They really understand the systems and in some ways don't want to see them grow. I've tried to spend a lot of one-on-one time with them and tell them the fact that the group is growing will be a real opportunity for them. But it's hard because they're looking at the fun (without the pressure) that they had before I arrived.
Also, when I look to recruit from my outside contacts, they are people who've worked at big companies, and I worry about their ability to scale down into a startup environment. These kinds of managers tend to rely on a lot of process and structure and other people doing the actual work while they manage. They're not ready for a lot of hands-on work they'd be doing with a startup.
Did you find that at all?
Bachann: Yes. When I came in there were some people who had been here from the start and knew how everything worked. In this new economy, the junior people are often extraordinarily talented. They may have technical knowledge, but you must make sure they have the necessary people, communication and managerial skills. Since you need all those qualities to be a successful manager and make things grow, I've tried to impress on those junior people what we're trying to do through coaching and teaching sessions.
If that doesn't work, you may have to streamline roles to keep everyone working on a manageable workload as the technology balloons. Sure, this can cause them some frustration, but from the company's perspective it's what's needed.
They're looking at the tree while you're looking at the forest.
On the senior manager side, yes, it was difficult to find some of these people with good hands-on experience. So I looked carefully and in some cases waited for them. I didn't just hire anybody; I even used consultants to get things done while I was looking.
We've recently hired a technical recruiter to help us in hiring. I've also recruited some developers and asked them who some of their best managers were and then went and recruited them. Still, it's a tough situation.
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M. MINTU BACHANN
Since December 1999 Mintu Bachann has been CIO of startup Equalfooting.com Inc., helping the B2B e-marketplace for small businesses launch three sites for purchasing, financing and shipping. He built its IT department from two people to 85 in just three months and anticipates that number to double by his first anniversary. Prior to joining the startup, Bachann was a senior principal and director of the architecture group at Oracle. He has consulted for Sun Microsystems Inc. and designed enterprise architecture for NationsBank (Bank of America Corp.), Barnett Technologies and the Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI). Bachann holds a doctorate in AI and computer science.
Bob Quinn signed on at eBay in June 1999, when the company was frantically looking for a CIO after suffering its first outages.
Quinn set up high-availability site architectures and built standard processes for site management, improving uptime by orders of magnitude. Early this year, Quinn left eBay for the CIO post at Portera Systems, a vertical service provider that hosts application suites and e-business services for the professional services industry. Prior to eBay, Quinn spent 11 years at Sun Microsystems, where he ran the IT organizations in several divisions.
Four months ago, Eugene Rindels, CIO at medical device maker Respironics Inc. in Pittsburgh, was working through tough times trying to influence his peer function leaders to embrace change while also securing his own role as an accepted fellow strategic leader of the company. He talked with Richard Fishburn, CIO of Corning, identifying ways to promote common passions in his colleagues and how to balance control of the department with the need to spend more time with the business leaders. Today Rindels reports that things are looking up. He's spending more quality time with Respironics' president, and he and his IT directors are more accepted as strategic partners of the business unit heads. "It's far more of a mutual forum than it has been in the past," Rindels says. The reason for the improvement is a better appreciation for IT's importance and accomplishment now that the other officers have seen IT initiatives bear fruit. And it's also an increased effort on IT's part to talk about business in business terms. Rindels, taking to heart Fishburn's advice that you are what you spend your time on, has shifted his visibility away from the IT department toward the senior company leadership, estimating that he now spends about 85 percent of his time with the business heads versus only about 40 percent in the past.
Despite the progress, Rindels says that 100 percent success in forging a strong working relationship and understanding between IT and the business units hinges on the business unit having a clear line of site to IT expenditures. Whether that means a chargeback scheme or some other mechanism, Rindels isn't sure.
He's collecting data now to help figure out the best strategy. "These are complex undertakings you don't roll out in a day," he says, "but we'll have to go to some sort of distributed accounting for IT resources."
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