Surviving after the recession

In the 'new normal,' businesses want more than tech skills from their hires, here are the changes IT pros should expect

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The worst of the recession is over, and IT management is coming to grips with the "new normal" of slender resources and pressure to make "alignment with business" more than a buzzword. The demand for technical skills is still strong, but if you want to succeed in this "new normal" environment, you have to offer more to your employer, a lot more.

Consider the career of Ginny Lee, who in 2008 became Intuit's third CIO in just four years. Her predecessors, says the man who hired her, CEO Brad Smith, had the requisite technical chops but lacked a clear understanding of how IT could contribute to the company's overall success. They didn't keep their jobs. "In the world of SaaS, SOA, social networking, and mobile, IT is no longer just about great technology," Smith says.

Lee, a former investment banker with no formal training in computer science, exemplifies a tectonic shift occurring in the world of enterprise IT. Today's CIOs and by extension everyone who works for them, are living the "new normal," an age where budgets are recovering but still constrained, and where IT is responsible for generating moneymaking ideas and applications. The "new normal" means that business skills are essential if you want to climb the ladder to IT management, and you'd better understand that the days of IT being merely a support organisation that just keeps the network running are over.

Yes, things are different, but the world of enterprise IT has not turned upside down. Although it's trendy to think that the days of the big CRM and ERP deployment are past, that's not the case. There's been a noticeable uptick in sales of major enterprise applications this year, fed in part by the resurgent merger and acquisition activity, says Mark White, a principal with Deloitte Consulting. Indeed, Oracle had one of its best quarters ever recently with a big boost from the sale of new licenses for business applications.

There is, however, strong demand for IT hands who have the skills to help deploy a new generation of cloud-enabled applications, virtualisation, social networking and mobile services. And predictive analytics is building on the legacy of traditional business intelligence and data mining to become an essential tool for older businesses and web-centric companies alike that need to move faster and at lower cost than ever before.

Above all, the "new normal" is about accepting change. "IT is afraid that its value proposition will go away, and that's a real fear," says Steve Sterns, a senior manager of IT at Cisco Systems. "Internal IT needs to transform, and it's not fightable. Either adjust and learn the new skills or fail," he says.

The moneymaking CIO

With 40 million customers using its tax, accounting, and payroll products, Intuit generates immense amounts of data. A traditional CIO would view that digital mountain as an asset to be managed and guarded. Lee says her job is to monetise it: "We're responsible for execution, of course. But we also have to ask what is the business opportunity that we see."

Backed by a cadre of data analysts, many of whom sport doctorate degrees, Lee looks across product groups to see what data can be mined and exploited. Here are just two of the revenue generating projects her IT department generated:

  • Data from Intuit Online Payroll is used to produce the company's Small Business Employment Index. What's more, some of the same payroll data can be used yet again by employees of those firms when they file their taxes using TurboTax.
  • Data from QuickBooks online is aggregated, made anonymous and melded into a feature that lets small businesses compare their critical metrics, such as margins and days payable, to those of competitors. Because the data is so granular, customers can drill down to compare themselves to businesses within a particular vertical and a particular geographical area.

Lee is hardly the only CIO chanting the mantra of monetisation. "We're calling this the era of the moneymaking CIO," says Gartner analyst Ken McGee. McGee recounts a recent conversation he had with Terry Kline, the CIO of General Motors. When asked his top priority, Kline did not talk about security or network efficiency. "My top priority is helping GM sell cars," he told the analyst.

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