More Techies Moving Up to Executive Suite

BOSTON (06/05/2000) - Carl Bass used to spend the better part of his working day developing software. Now, he can usually be found in the company of customers, industry analysts, reporters or venture capitalists.

Bass, CEO of Inc., is among an increasing number of CIOs, information technology directors and software development professionals launching second careers in the executive suite. They're becoming CEOs at their companies' dot-com spin-offs or at new Internet marketplaces.

Bass said he's a natural choice for an online CEO slot.

"In this world of hosted applications and [digital] marketplaces, a huge part of the deal is getting the IT infrastructure correct, which is something that has been the lifeblood of CIOs for years," Bass said.

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but individual examples of CIOs-turned-CEOs abound. High-profile companies such as Chicago-based W.W. Grainger Inc., Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc. and Detroit-based General Motors Corp. have all shifted technology experts into either CEO slots at Internet start-ups or top electronic-business strategy positions during the past 18 months.

New Internet marketplaces are following suit. A prime example is Bass' in San Francisco, a business-to-business exchange that lets architects, suppliers and builders collaborate on projects and trade goods and services online. The 8-month-old start-up is a spin-off of San Rafael, California-based Autodesk Inc., a developer of computer-aided design software and other applications.

Bass, Autodesk's former chief technology officer, said he understands the need to invest heavily in IT.

"My question often to the IT team here is, ‘Are we spending enough?'" he said.

"We have hit upon a market opportunity where the failure of our IT systems is one of the things that could really cripple our ability to succeed.... Not to do the appropriate things in IT is just inexcusable."

Abbas Syed spent 12 years developing e-commerce software at Hewlett-Packard Co. and Sun Microsystems Inc. before becoming CEO of Mountain View, California-based OneBuild Inc., a new Internet procurement marketplace for the commercial construction industry.

"It's easy for people with a technology background to grasp the business part of things and combine the two," Syed said. "But for people who come purely from the business side, it's harder to leverage technology to better direct the business. The reasons are that the technology is so complex and it is changing every day."

That makes sense to business expert Thornton May, vice president of research at Cambridge Technology Partners Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"In this rapidly changing world where your business model changes every six weeks, the people most comfortable working with those changes are those from the technology community," May said.

Still, the transition hasn't been without its challenges.

"There was a steep learning curve I had to go through," Syed said. "For example, I didn't understand how to do market segmentation. But learning is a part of life."

Not every CIO-turned-CEO will face the same steep learning curve, said Michael Boyd, an analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Massachusetts.

"The people running off to run dot-coms may come from the CIO ranks, but they may also have had sales and marketing and other business experience," he said.

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