From the Editor-in-Chief: CTO Blues

SAN MATEO (04/10/2000) - Despite all the rapid advances in technology over the past 20 years, it's still true that the more things change, the more they remain the same. At a recent gathering of CTOs hosted by InfoWorld, the chief complaint by attendees was that they still continue to struggle with vendors' inability to deliver complete products in a timely manner. We're not talking about standards or advanced technologies here; we're talking about delivering complete systems.

For example, one CTO said his vendor of choice delivered a product to his company on time and at the agreed upon price. But guess what? There were software features promised but not delivered. There were hardware parts promised but not delivered.

So a project scheduled to finish based on what the vendor said would be included upon shipment was delayed because the vendor couldn't deliver.

To give some perspective, think of it this way. Say you've ordered a car from a dealership, and already sold your previous automobile. You go to pick up the new car, and the dealer says, "Sorry, but the brake lights aren't ready, but we'll send them to you in a couple of weeks." Or, you're moving into a new house without a refrigerator, and the new appliance arrives -- without the electrical power cord.

These aren't minor irritations; this incites full-blown, mind-bending fury.

Before you dismiss these examples as not applicable in the business world, think about it. It isn't that different for CTOs who don't get the software and hardware that they need to run their IT infrastructure.

You're a CTO with a business-to-business or business-to-consumer business model, you have your own customers to whom you've made promises, they are waiting for you to deliver what you said you would deliver, and now you can't do that.

The repercussions are serious. Your customers aren't going to wait for you to deliver -- they will go to your competitor or demand compensation for the delay. Either way, it puts a company and its CTO in the hot seat.

Amazingly enough, this is an age-old problem for companies. It hasn't gotten a whole lot better since the days of mainframes. That things haven't changed all that much in the last 20 years is shameful in itself. But here's the difference: 10 or 20 years ago, or even five years ago, companies' expectations weren't all that high. The use of technology wasn't as prevalent back then, and it was all pretty experimental. Companies using technology did so as an adjunct to their paper-based infrastructures.

The stakes are much higher now, and that's why CTOs are so irate when their suppliers fail to deliver. Technology is no longer an adjunct; its the lifeblood of organizations.

Why can't technology vendors get better at this? After all, they've made great strides in creating innovative technology in no time flat and adhering to standards.

The old-time technology vendors didn't have to keep promises because they had their customers locked into their technology. Customers didn't have a choice.

Well, that's all changing. New upstarts that are hungry to win and keep customers are raising the bar. These upstarts are hungry because they have stratospheric valuations and demanding investors to answer to. But it's more than that. Executives at these upstarts were often employed at or on the receiving end of the laziness of the old-timers, and they know what it's like to feel the pain. That empathy makes them more attuned to customer needs, and that's why they'll win in the New Economy.

This is good news for CTOs and their ability to build and run an infrastructure. What's difficult, though, is that they have to commit to unproven and immature companies. And therein lies the rub. A tough choice for any individual whose company and employment depends on making the right decision.

What choices will you make and what are the repercussions? Write to me at katherine_bull@infoworld.com (Editor in Chief Michael Vizard will return to this space in three weeks)

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