Atreyu’s Lesson


G’mork: “I am G’mork. And you, whoever you are, can have the honor of being my last victim.”
Atreyu: “I will not die easily. I am a warrior! ”
G’mork: “Ha! Brave warrior, then fight the Nothing.”
Atreyu: “But I can’t! I can’t get beyond the boundaries of Fantasia!”
[G’mork laughs and Atreyu gets a little angry]
Atreyu: “What’s so funny about that?”
G’mork: “Fantasia has no boundaries.”

Do you remember The NeverEnding Story? This 1984 film adaptation of Michael Ende’s book was the Matrix before there was a Matrix. I remember seeing this movie with my father back in 1984. After weeks of begging, My dad, a physician, took time out of his busy schedule to take me to see this movie. I remember being enchanted by the then “cutting edge” special effects and the journey of the under-estimated hero Bastian and the hero of his “borrowed” storybook, Atreyu. You can’t help but be drawn in as they search to save Fantasia from destruction from an all devouring evil force.

I’ll never forget the exchange above between the hero and his nemesis in the film. Our hero, when confronted with the failure of his quest to get beyond the boundaries of Fantasia, is abruptly shown that there are no boundaries to Fantasia. The boundaries existed in his mind, borne out of his own lack of understanding.

Now, some many years later, I’ve had the opportunity to watch this film with my own boys. And lo and behold this little nugget inside of it.

How many of us have responded in work, our lives, etc. that we can’t get beyond some limitation? That there exists some task that seems insurmountable. Some problem that is intractable. Maybe its a limitation of our knowledge, expertise, professional network, etc. As CIOs we get the opportunity to stand at the boundary of frontier and established knowledge. The changes to our world can come from any direction and at dizzying speed.

My only advice for you as you gaze into that uncertain and scary “Nothing”. Remember this truth: Fantasia has no boundaries.

— Warrior

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Playing to win…

Think about this statement, “Playing to win is not the same as playing not to lose”. What does playing to win mean for you? How would you know what playing to win looks and feels like? Do you do this as CIO? In thinking about this myself I’ve got some answers, and of course some more questions.

The first pre-requisite that Playing to Win (PTW) requires is an acknowledgement that there is an overall outcome that is to be achieved with any significant endeavor. I’m sure some things like going to the bathroom, may not have a PTW component, but almost everything else does. Is there any place where you play to win? Well, to answer that question you must first answer what does PTW mean and look like? When I think of PTW I think of a scene in the sci-fi movie Gattaca. In the film, an older brother (without genetic modification) is challenged by his younger genetically perfect brother in a swim contest to see who could swim the farthest into the open ocean. The older brother without genetic modifications wins the race.  After beating his genetically superior brother, the weaker boy, (with the heart condition no less), drags the “superior” brother back to the beach. Later, when they are adults, they perform the same challenge. Again the weaker brother wins and has to save his younger brother’s life. The younger brother asks him “How do you do it? How did you beat me? How could you possibly have enough energy to make it back?” The older boy looks back to his younger brother, the genetically perfect, most statistically preferred candidate and says “I never saved anything for the trip back!”

That in its essence is playing to win. Putting everything, absolutely everything on the court and making it work. In that example, the older brother wasn’t conserving anything for the trip back, he was putting everything into swimming out to sea. The trip back wasn’t even connected to the current endeavor.

Many people want to play hard and play safe or more accurately play comfortable. PTW hurts. PTW is scary. In PTW you may lose. Playing not to lose (PNTL) is safer, more doable, practical, it gives you the best of both worlds. The only problem is that the worlds it gives you access to are imitations of what could be. Mere constructs, ideas of what it could be like. The other thing PNTL does is it discounts your own ability to create and construct the worlds & desires you would like. It assumes that you are a victim of the world around you and have no control of the things that enter your experience. While it may be true that you don’t have 100% control of everything that shows up in your experience, you do  control  how you want to react, decide about them. And in that action, that decision, lies a true source of power that PNTL ignores and downplays.

So now that I’ve explained PNTL vs. PTW, here is the difficult question? Where do you PTW? In what areas does it show up? If your like most people, then it probably shows up in fits and spurts. You may even be playing to come in the top 5, Playing to Place as it were. (PTP) So what would your life look like if you PTW more than PTP? That is the question I want you to explore as you live the CIO role.

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The right tool for the right job…

If only the above existed right? I’m amazed that with all the tablet talk between Apple and Android, no one has a decent Moleskine/Journal app that works as well as the analog pen and paper version. I love my Moleskine. Well, to be honest I don’t exactly have a Moleskine. I have a MarkingsTM brand journal that I picked up at Staples. But I love it! I guess there is something to be said for pulling out a good sharpened pencil, (or automatic pencil); and jotting down notes, drawing out database schema, or just a quick to-do list.

Lately since purchasing a new Android tablet, I’ve been playing around and trying to replicate the usefulness of a paper journal on my tablet. But to no avail. Maybe in the future as tablet screens get better at following the movements of capacitive pens, they can function as successful replacements to Moleskine journals. Until then, I’ll be keeping my “Analog” version.

In the past I tried doing that with my Toshiba M700 Tablet PC. No luck there either. Oh, the tablet pc could grab my handwriting well, but the size and weight made it bulky to use for real journal/to-do list use. Microsoft’s OneNote is a great program, that nobody uses. Even so, OneNote is a bit clunky to use. I hope somebody at Redmond has their eye on this in the tablet market. If MS could create a tablet as light as the Galaxy 2, with the screen resolution of the iPad2, but with the real-world work functionality of a Windows laptop, I’d be all over it and it would dominate the tablet market.

Which of course is why they will never make one.

Well until then, it’ll be my and my Moleskine, the right tool for the job.


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New CIO Boot camp, Week 1

Here is the first in a series of postings on what I usually advise first time/short time CIOs or Senior Level IT Directors as they take on this new role. It is the advice I would have given myself if I could have gone back in time to meet myself. That is, without disrupting the space time continuum. (Thanks Doc. Brown for warning me about this)

So it is Day 1, maybe you’ve just been promoted to CIO. Or perhaps you’ve been hired outright and this is the first time you’ve held this position. What do you do? Well, before you go to your tried and true techniques and habits let me help you out a bit with 3 words of advice.

1. Congratulations – You’ve finally made it to the big seat! Granted, depending on where you are working the big seat may look exactly like every other seat in the place. But pay that no mind. The fact that your company promoted/hired you into that C-Level position shows the amount of trust and need they have of you to perform your best. You are in a unique position because your role intersects, or will soon intersect, with every function of the agency. There is no place within your company that technology cannot play a role. Your hard work, attention to detail, and IT knowledge made you the right person for the job. And you will be able to make a difference in greater ways than you have before.

2. Get Ready to Learn – OK, here comes the hard part. Everything you know, value, and did in your previous IT roles is no longer important. Wait, let me finish! Your previous experience, skills, and roles will help give your new work the proper context and support to meet your objectives. But your new role as CIO will be dependent upon a completely different set of skill sets. You will be expected to be less of the “Tech Guy” and more of a communicator, collaborator, and process improvement expert. These are roles that are typically not given much room to breathe when you wear an IT hat. You’ll have to see your  IT team from a different perspective (more on that in another post) and get to know the leaders of your agency’s business and functional units. You need to know their business inside and out in order to maximize your effectiveness as CIO.

3. Change your Paradigms – The IT systems/ processes are not your systems anymore, they are the companies. This is the one I see new CIOs struggle with the most. Back when you were the Director/Manager of IT, you were tasked with doing the impossible. You were responsible for building, maintaining, and streamlining systems. You maintained 99.9% uptime for major enterprise functionalities. And you built all of this by the sweat of your brow, with understaffed teams, and under resourced budgets. Your systems worked and kept the company afloat and prosperous. And with that accomplishment comes some well-deserved pride. “Shouldn’t I be proud of what I did before?”, you may ask. Sure, but that same exact pride will blind you in your new role. As CIO, you manage these systems from your company’s standpoint, no longer your department’s. No one outside of IT either knows or cares how you pulled it off. All they care about are their needs as businesses/functional units. Are these systems truly the best for your company from your new perspective? Your new role may well have you take the proverbial sledgehammer to some of your previous accomplishments for the sake of expediency and efficiency. That can be a very hard thing to do. But as you find yourself owning the processes around technology, you’ll start caring less about the tools of the trade, and more about what they build.

So there you go. Take my words of advice, with a good cup of coffee and you will be fine. Trust me, after all I am you!


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Under the Weather…

Hey guys, I’m sorry for not posting this morning. I caught a dose this weekend. I thought that I had it licked, but this cold came back with a vengeance this morning and laid me out for most of the day. I hope its not the flu, as my joints are all achy. I should be back on schedule in the next couple of days. But make it up to all of you, I’ll leave you with this hint about my next series.

What would you do, if you could go back in time and talk to yourself on Day 1 at your current IT assignment? What would you say? What would you change about how you approached your job? Or would you even change anything? Well join me on this journey of exploration and Monday morning quarter-backing, as I begin the series How to be a Non-Profit CIO.


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Fatal Attraction Vendors

For one hour a day, (on a different day each week) I avail myself to cold callers. Why? Part of the reason is that I know it can be a challenging (English Translation: Sucks!) job. I remember doing that as one of my first jobs when I was back in school. The second reason, is that every now and then you actually come in contact with a vendor/reseller that really works out for you and your agency. The other days of the week, cold calls get routed to a voicemail folder and I review them when I have the time.

Last week I got one of these calls from a copier leasing agency. After listening and sharing my agency’s plans for printing, publishing, etc., I figured he would send some info for me to review. I would then pass it down to someone else on the team to evaluate, and get back to me with a go/no-go vote. But seeing how we are in the middle of a previous engagement with Canon, I knew we weren’t going to be moving to a new platform soon. Not unless the new guy can make the numbers look really good. Finally, after reviewing their proposal, I let him know there was nothing in it for us at the time. I expected he would keep my info updated and call me again within 12 months or so.

What I didn’t expect was for this guy to start stalking me. Showing up to the office unannounced, hanging outside the building around opening or closing time; parking on the same level in the parking garage; even showing up as I was coming out of my favorite Thai restaurant to harangue me about this Konica proposal. I was half expecting to see an IT-version of Single White Female and see this guy wearing the exact same suits as me! Just when I was getting ready to tell this guy that his behavior is bordering on scary and to back off, he disappeared. I’m talking completely fell off the Earth. Was he dead somewhere with a suicide note with my name on it? I mean it was really eerie.

Turns out through the copier-guy grapevine, (and yes, there is one!) Copier-Stalker ended up getting fired for falsifying some sales documents and was facing litigation from some other non-profit that he fudged some numbers with it. WEIRD!

Lesson of the day: Watch out for uber-clingy cold-calls.


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Want an extra 91+ hours a week?

What would you do if you had an extra 91 hours right now? Seriously, if you could wave a magic wand and pause the world for 91 hours nonstop, what would you do? Let’s up the ante a bit; during that 91 hours you would not have to sleep, go to the bathroom, eat, answer a phone call, nothing. The world would literally be paused. Now what would you accomplish? What project would you finally start or even finish? What household chore is just lingering around for you to finish? Is there a project at work that you could complete? What if I told you that you can have as many of these 91 hour “pause sessions” as you would like, then what? You can and it is all based upon a purpoted quote by Albert Einstein. It is rumored that Einstein said…

“Compounding Interest is the most powerful force in the universe.”

The idea is that small incremental additions to a larger sum, can create huge dividends over time. And that is what we are going to apply right now.

Here’s how to do it in 3 steps.

1. Decide what task/project you would like to begin on. Whatever your answers were to my earlier questions just pick one. Trust me, at the end of 90 hours you’ll be further along than you imagined.

2. Grab a timer, stopwatch, clock in the dining room, whatever and time yourself for 15 minutes. During this 15 minutes do not let anything disturb you. If the phone rings, don’t answer it. Don’t check email, go to the bathroom, grab a bite to eat or anything else. Once your 15 minutes of solid work time is up, stop working!

3. Repeat at least once a day for 365 days. If you dedicate this small amount of time each day, over the course of the year you would have banked over 91 hours of solid, uninterrupted work time on your task. Of course you don’t have to wait 365 days. You could do two 15-minute sessions and cut down your time frame to 6 months.

Why does this work? Because for most people 15 minutes is an invisible unit of time. I’ve coached many professionals and have watched them waste 15 minutes of time setting up the desktop icons, windows, and applications layout on their computer. Many times, our projects and tasks never get done because the whole scope of completion seems so big. Even the idea of breaking things down into sub-tasks, major steps, etc. seems insurmountable. With that, comes a hesitation borne of the fear of failure to complete the said project/task. So how does a normal person respond? They respond by procrastinating until they “have time” to complete it. Which as we all know, never comes. But if we instead leverage our psycho-emotional levers, by pledging 15 minutes to just start working on a project, we eliminate the fear of not completing it. Now our only internal commitment is to just start.. It may not seem much at first. And indeed it isn’t. In fact, it takes 4 sessions before you even put an hour of work into the project. But if you look back over your week. That is an hour that previously didn’t exist for you. Plus, it is a pure hour that wasn’t interrupted for anything. An hour where you were completely focused on your task at hand. Do this over the year and you will have put over 2 weeks of pure uninterrupted, focused time into your work.

Trust me, once you do this faithfully just once, you’ll never let go of this trick. I guarantee it. Try it and tell me how it works!


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Why a Non-profit CIO?

When some of my friends that run IT ships in large for-profits ask me why I work in the non-profit field, I usually take a quiet breath, meditate for a couple of seconds and then follow with a non-sequitur like “Do you like being a Cowboy?” After the quizzical look on their face dissolves I follow up with the standard “Why do you ask?”

Normally when I get this question from friends they are usually thinking from the salary perspective. Often they ask “Why do the work in a non-profit setting if the salary isn’t what the market will bear for your talent?” For many, that is a strong dis-incentive for working in the non-profit field. But that position is built on a number of assumptions. It assumes that the salary at your 9-5 has to be your only source of income. But that doesn’t  have to be. It also assumes that a high salary is going give you satisfaction in life. But how many Hollywood self-destructions do you have to witness before the fallacy of that thinking sets in?  So if you’ve ever wondered why your friend works in non-profit, let me give you a few reasons.

#1. You get to be a Cowboy/ Cowgirl (–See, I’m being PC again!)

When I go into the office in the morning, I feel like James West riding into town. Each one of the departments/ businesses in my company are the innocent farmers that need protection from cattle rustlers. Every request is likened to “Marshall West, please save us from the evil FERPA rustlers! They’re coming to take our data!” And with a tip of my hat I reassuringly say, “Ma’am you what we’re gonna do? We’re gonna build us a good ole Governance fence. And darlin’, when that fence is up, ain’t no rustlers gonna get at your data.”  In many of the organizations I’ve worked in or with, many of the traditional tenets of IS management either don’t exist or are as such a low maturity level, that it can feel like the Wild Wild West. Whereas when I worked in banking and insurance, so much of my time was maintaining systems and operating within the current boundaries it felt like being a NASCAR driver forced to use cruise control. With my crew chief knowing as much IT as a kid working at Best Buy. In addition, in many of the smaller organizations, the IS culture and infrastructure you develop will directly reflect your personality and work style; versus getting an email from a Spreadsheet CIO who just read about the cloud in a US Air magazine on  a flight, asking you did you know about this thing?

#2. You get to contribute

In most of the non-profit organizations, you usually find a cadre of passionate individuals motivated by a particular cause or social motive. You get to work beside people who want to make an impact, and not necessarily another buck. I’ve worked in organizations where the brass ring is hung out for everyone to see and stab each other in the back for. I’m all for a little competitive spirit now and then; and love to trash talk with the best of them. But if your motivation is solely profit based, then what are you going to do when the Zombie Apocalypse happens and money doesn’t matter anymore?

#3. You’ll be a better CIO for it

Working in a non-profit environment, especially one where you aren’t sitting on a ton of cash; is going to stretch you and push you in ways you will never imagine. You’ll always have to be at the top of your game. You will become friends with Open Source, you will learn every possible way to wring utility and longevity out of your systems. You will be Han Solo tweaking the Millennium Falcon before every engagement with the Empire. You will know your systems and processes like the back of your hand. Your tight knit IS crew, will be the embodiment of the A-Team. And you get to be Hannibal!

So if any of these sound interesting, then “saddle up partner and let’s ride.”


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You’re still not listening!…

But before you even get that look on your face, know that I’m not going to jump on that oh so familiar IS management guru bandwagon that states the reasons YOU run into issues implementing changes, processes, software, etc. in your company, is because IT doesn’t listen to the needs of the business. Trust me, I get tired of hearing that refrain myself. Like I always say, “Miscommunication is a 2-way street”.

But I will say this, if you find yourself constantly battling with the various business and functional components of your company, take a look at closer look at  your presence. What do I mean by that?

I have the pleasure to work on complex cross functional teams at local, state and Federal levels. These teams are comprised of some of the most talented and dedicated people in their respective venues, willing to tackle some of the most arduous issues that society faces. And inevitably one of the members ends up bringing THAT tech person (<- note the PC use of “person” and not “guy”, Winking smile) into the conversation. I’m sure you know this individual. The person that fell out of the stereotype catalogue. The person that chooses to force the most difficult to grasp technical issues into a non-technical conversation. The person that has to show that they know everything about every technical issue. The person that too often has the disheveled, scruffy, “I just woke up in the back of the data center” look. The person that has the look of every Hollywood actor portraying an IT tech who runs into the scene screaming “We’ve just been hacked!”  Every time I run into this person in a cross-functional team, I cringe.

If you’ve got a person on your team like this, or heaven forbid this is you, then take a quick look at these steps for help:

  1. Notice “WHY” you are listening: – Note that I didn’t say ”How” you are listening. Sometimes people are listening only to hear when the other person stops talking so they can begin to speak. It is a bad habit that some people have mis-categorized as being polite. But if you are truly listening to gain a better understanding of the other person’s perspective and their challenges; when they stop speaking it should take you a few moments BEFORE you say anything. Why? Because you are processing what they said. And if you are like other tech leaders, it may take a few moments to translate their communication into salient solutions or next steps.
  2. Everyone knows you are smart: – Everybody at the table not only already knows that you are smart and highly intelligent, but they probably secretly envy your intellect. Stop trying to prove it! You work in the field of Information Technology, a field that is completely reinventing itself every few years and is changing the face of the human experience. When is the last time a Finance Exec did that without bringing everyone to catastrophic ruin? Not everybody can walk your path. If you have a staffer that has to constantly run to IT tech or jargon to impress the other folks on the team or beat them into a corner, let them know that he isn’t. Its because of habits like that companies are satisfied with “Spreadsheet CIOs”! If this is your or one of your staffers I have two words for you: “STOP IT!”
  3. “Tree and Rock” it: Often times I’ll meet with vendors or partners and pretend I’m not the CIO. That’s right, I said it. I’ll pretend I’m a regular process manager or some other position to see if they person on the other side is going to try to pull a fast one. Often I do this to see how well they can communicate in layman’s terms. Often when they start running to the old familiar jargon or ISO speak I’ll say to they “I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Can you use simpler instructions. Maybe words like Tree or Rock.” Man you should see the horror that comes over some people’s faces. That’s when I know whether or not someone is going to make a good partner/team member to work with my company. Try explaining IT concepts in the simplest manner possible and notice the difference. See if you can do it with one syllable words, I dare you.
  4. “Break their reality”: If you have departments that are always complaining about IT being too inflexible, being slow to deliver, deploying bug prone solutions, etc. just accept their words but not their reality. Open yourself up to receiving pure feedback from business groups. As IT leaders, we know deploying and managing Enterprise IT is not as simple as going to Best Buy and buying a bunch of retail hardware and deploying it at work; making everything as wide open, free, and non-standardized as what employees are used to having set up at their home. Staff may not have to worry about HIPAA, SOX or FERPA at home. Since they don’t get that, they describe your solutions by the terms above. Even though these words aren’t true, these words CREATE that reality for these business units. In order to change the words they use (their reality) you must break their reality. To do this, you have to create incongruences between their self-created reality and your physical actions. Purposefully act in ways that are counter to how they are describing you. If the complaint is that IT is closed off, bring them into small work teams where they can contribute skills and expertise on smaller non-critical projects. If you continually act in a way that is counter to the reality they have created, their minds will run into this disjunction and guess what? Their words will automatically to change in order for their brains to process the new reality they are experiencing. Thus creating the reality for them that IS is a game-changer and collaborator. Don’t believe me, try it!

So there you have it. four simple points of reflection regarding listening and communication strategies. Try them and see how they work for you.


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Why Mediocrity? Because it’s cheap

I saw this blog post at Rajesh Setty’s blog about the prevalence of mediocrity. I’ve been following Rajesh for years. He often has great and thought provoking posts so I decided to check it out.

After reading I immediately said I wasn’t going to post anything about this.  Even at the behest of my darling wife. But in reading the comments or lack thereof of one specific perspective I figured I might as well be the one to say it.

Why mediocrity?, because we can afford it.  True quality is too expensive at times,  and mediocrity has this unique talent of being able to make budgets work out. When tasked with way too many irons in the fire, many companies will go the “Good Enough” route. Well, we all know the that “Good enough, seldom is.” But when quality demands governance, structure, and personnel; suddenly keeping the lights on looks alot more palatable than disruptive innovation; especially during the brutal economic reality many companies face. But at some point a line in the sand must be drawn. The enemy of mediocrity is courage. Do you have it?

“Bureaucracy destroys initiative. There is little that bureaucrats hate more than innovation, especially innovation that produces better results than the old routines. Improvements always make those at the top of the heap look inept. Who enjoys appearing inept?”

–A Guide to Trial and Error in Government, Bene Gesserit Archives,

Heretics of Dune, Frank Herbert

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