Meet the IT troubleshooters

By Graeme Burton
29 Apr 2014 View Comments
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If an organisation has an IT problem, and the current CIO or IT manager doesn’t seem to be able to work it out, who should be called in?

Traditionally, that might have been a job for an interim CIO – typically, an experienced former IT director with plenty of years on the clock, who will be happy to lend his time and expertise to an organisation, but who will leave to be replaced by a new permanent CIO when order is restored to the IT department.

Further reading

But why would an organisation hire an interim CIO, rather than a permanent CIO or IT director who would have a much bigger ongoing stake in the success of the IT department and the organisation as a whole?

One of the key reasons, says Colin Beveridge, who has been a “career interim CIO” since the mid-1990s, is to act as a troubleshooter – to make unpopular decisions and to sort out deeply ingrained problems – but it is not the only one.

“Usually, there are serious performance issues at either a personal or an organisational level with the previous CIO or the IT function is not meeting its objectives,” says Beveridge. “I’ve been involved in a number of situations where there have been some serious issues with performance and I’ve even been engaged before a vacancy has formally arisen,” he says.

Beveridge has been an interim with a range of organisations, most notably for logistics company

DHL, where he acted as an interim European strategy director, but also in interim CIO and similar roles for the Highways Agency, Remploy, Vocalink (formerly BACS), Kellogg’s and Anglian Water.

One of the key reasons why an interim might be hired instead of a permanent CIO, says Beveridge, is speed. A permanent CIO might think long term, but the organisation needs change and results much more quickly.

“A good interim will move at three to four times the speed of a new permanent member of staff,” says Beveridge. “Inevitably, they think in an extended time scale. Most often, they want at least nine months before they are in a position to actually move forward, whereas a good interim has to hit the ground running.

“When a business needs change to happen and to happen quickly, it’s not helpful if someone wants to take three months to take stock, three months to establish themselves, and three months to put a proposition together.

“As an interim CIO, I’ve usually got four weeks to actually evaluate, stabilise and propose what’s going to happen in the next three-to-six months. So that means four weeks to put a proposition on the table and to get stakeholder buy-in and then in the next three months to do it. Then, start to assist the client with thinking about a handover back to a permanent successor,” says Beveridge.

On top of that, a permanent role of the seniority of CIO might have an extended notice period of up to six months, which an organisation might not want to offer, say Steve Burrows, if it is considering its options or undergoing intense change. Ipso facto, recruiting a new CIO, for whatever reason, can’t be rushed either.

“The basic recruitment may well be as much as three months for a senior role and once you’ve identified and contracted your preferred candidate, he or she may well be on a protracted notice period. So you could easily be looking at a nine-month ‘hole’ in your strategic IT leadership,” says Burrows.

Equally, says Burrows, an interim can provide a private equity owner with the flexibility they need while they whip an organisation into shape for sale. Burrows has worked in a variety of interim CIO roles for a range of organisations, including Orange, water group Hyder, Yorkshire Electricity and ancillary services company JLA Group.

“In one assignment, the finance director had convinced the board to replace the entire suite of enterprise systems with a new suite of several major inter-connected packages with dedicated custom-built interfaces,” says Burrows.

“They’d selected good packages, but the systems integrator’s vision and the finance director’s vision were ‘not aligned’. Halfway through the programme, they could no longer work together and the company was divided between the old and the new systems. The company could not perform an end-to-end transaction,” says Burrows.

“The only way it could conclude a transaction was by someone providing a ‘manual bridge’ between the two different systems,” says Burrows, who was brought in as an interim chief financial officer to sort out the mess.

“That meant primarily sorting out the suppliers, sorting out the systems deployment, completing it, changing business processes where appropriate, negotiating with suppliers to change their view on how business process should be executed and to get to the point where the migration was completed and working smoothly,” says Burrows.

And it is not the only IT disaster that he has been called in to sort out. “When you’ve got a crisis, you need someone who’s really quite a heavyweight both on the systems side and on the business side.”

Pay and perks

Beveridge makes a distinction between interim CIOs who are really just doing it between full-time positions, and probably have more than half-an-eye on the permanent role, and “lifestyle interim CIOs” – people like Beveridge who prefer to work as troubleshooters, being called in for assignments of up to two years before moving on to the next role.

Being an interim CIO typically means few benefits, no bonuses, no holiday pay and a contract that can be terminated at any time. On the plus side, however, the higher pay – usually a daily rate – can help to pay for a longer holiday in between assignments, although this time can also be spent simply looking for them.

In contrast to Beveridge and Burrows, Ben Booth has been an interim CIO for just over two years, clocking up assignments with market research company Ipsos, credit reference agency Experian, intellectual property company CPA Global and the National Offender Management Service in that time, including stints in overseas offices.

The reasons for being brought on board were manifold. “I was in Moscow with Experian – CIO in the Moscow office, focusing on setting up a programme-management office to work with one of their major clients in the financial services sector.

“In my first assignment, the company had been acquired by private equity. The new owners wanted to make a lot of changes in the technology area to get the company in the right state for sale. So I was brought in to do that,” says Booth.

“In the second one, I was filling in after the permanent CIO has moved on to another role. They wanted the position covered while recruiting, but in the meantime there was quite a chunky project and re-organisation of the department to be done.

“The ‘filling in’ is less usual. More often it’s because there needs to be a step change or a change of direction for some reason. So they want someone to do that relatively quickly and then hand-off to a permanent CIO who will take it to a more steady state,” says Booth.

Like Beveridge, Booth also sees the role as one in which a certain amount of dirty work may be required and best suited to someone that can come in, make the changes necessary as quickly as possible, before handing back to a permanent CIO.

“You have got that extra experience to do something that’s not necessarily dirty, but usually difficult and quick,” says Booth. “You can speak without fear or favour. The worst that could happen is that they will tell you to go.

“I think you need a different sort of person to do those rapid changes. Typically, the interim will be someone who’s very experienced and possibly stepping down in their career.

“You can say things that a permanent CIO might be reluctant to say and can go to the managing director and tell them that what they are trying to do is wrong or that particular people are not doing a good job and that he or she needs to do something about it.”

Indeed, the typical interim CIO is normally in their 50s – an age when otherwise well-qualified people can find it more difficult to find employment commensurate with their skills due to ageism. As such, he cautions, unlike Beveridge many interims may find that their roles represent a career regression, rather than progression.

And there are further problems for interims that stay for too long. After around two years they can expect a letter from HM Revenues & Customs suggesting that they go PAYE.

Recruitment

Like many senior posts, the role of interim CIO is most likely not to be openly advertised – which is not surprising as it may signpost an IT function, and hence a company, in trouble. “About 50 per cent of my work comes from referrals and about 50 per cent from me chasing advertised vacancies. But over the past few years, it’s leaned more towards 75 per cent referrals and about 25 per cent vacancies,” says Beveridge.

Booth puts it more simply: “There are two main methods. One is through your own network and the other is via an interim service provider.”

However, the more senior the role, the less effective the network. There are other challenges, too.

“Your network may be your peers and they may well be the people that you are brought in to replace – they are not necessarily going to be recruiting you,” he says. As such, Booth’s “route to market” has exclusively been via interim agencies. “There are several hundred of them and not all of them do technology roles.”

Above all, he adds, it is important to have a full CV demonstrating an ability to implement change programmes and turn IT organisations around. It’s also ideal to be able to demonstrate such skills at a variety of organisations to ensure the widest possible appeal and international experience can help too.

“Some interims do operate in particular sectors. All I’d say is that with the more senior roles [such as interim CIO] there are fewer of them, so if you are too specialised that can limit your opportunities,” says Booth. It also pays to be ready to go as the roles can be fixed up within weeks. “If you think you may be finishing your current role in a month or two, that’s no good.”

Furthermore, the market was not unduly affected by the global financial crisis and the recession.
Beveridge had expected a surge in interim CIO roles as organisations looked for troubleshooters to trim their IT (and other) organisations to deal with the downturn. While the market was “flooded with candidates”, says Beveridge, it was also muddied by an increasing practice of describing basic short-term contracting roles as “interim”, he adds.

Recruitment agencies (and possibly employers) were misusing the term in the belief that it can help sex-up otherwise less glamorous roles, taking them upmarket and potentially attracting a higher quality of candidate. This hasn’t really abated, he says. “It’s really lost a lot of meaning by [being associated with] some really low-level jobs,” says Beveridge, “when historically it would have been a senior management function.”

Succession strategy

However unsettling the presence of an interim CIO might be, though, it’s always worth staying on their good side: invariably, they are involved in selecting their permanent successor before they leave.

“I’ve always been involved,” says Beveridge, “both in helping to formulate the vacancy criteria, the brief that goes out to the recruitment agency and helping to sift through the curriculum vitae. I’ve also been part of the interview and selection process, and then, obviously, the induction process.”

However, it is at this point that the difference between a career interim CIO and a displaced permanent CIO comes in – the latter often taking the role for themselves instead of helping to hire their replacement.

“You can always tell a real interim from a displaced permanent CIO: a real interim CIO will always know before they start what their ‘exit strategy’ is – what conditions have to be met before they hand it back,” says Beveridge. A proper interim CIO will know early on what the objectives are and when the job is done and the role ought to be handed back.

“You shouldn’t, as a good interim CIO, be looking merely to stay on the clock as long as possible. You should be looking to deliver the task within an agreed time scale,” says Beveridge.

This is also invaluable advice for organisations looking to hire an interim CIO: to nail down as soon as possible a diagnosis of the IT department’s main ills, agree a plan of action and a time-scale by which time the interim will be replaced.

Why interim CIOs are called in

• Critical project or projects going awry.
• Existing CIO and their IT organisation has consistently failed to meet targets.
• Well-established CIO is considered to lack the skill-sets to meet emerging challenges.
• Organisational uncertainty: the owners of an organisation (such as private equity or a government considering a reorganisation or austerity drive) are considering a sale, privatisation, or even closure.

@GraemeBurton

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