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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Matajuro’s Mad Dash…

A few days ago, I started this blog with the lesson of Matajuro. A student learns…


In the account, we see a student who wants to be come a great swordsman, but anxious to how long it will take. Through time he eventually learns that not only is the journey shorter than he ever imagined; but that it was his ardent desire to reach the finish line quickly that stood in his way. Once he accepted the truth from his teacher and submitted to the process totally, was he able to actually become the master swordsman he desired.

Why does this story resound with me? How many times have we run into people who wish for a change in their personal situations? Perhaps it is their weight, maybe it is their personal finances, or maybe it is the mastery of some task or skill set. What do we see these ones often do? We see them hit the internet, bookstores, reach out to consultants, trainers, and gurus; often asking the same question that Matajuro asked: “How long will it take to….” We then see them try to do everything possible, except submitting to the actual journey, in an attempt to get to the end quickly.

If they are lucky, they will run into a master that will tell them the truth; that the time to the end point is dependent upon the mental and emotional attitude of the student and not inherent in the path itself. It is the journey that conveys the title of master, not the speed at which you traverse it.

This is a lesson that is often lost in many of the conference and board rooms I have had the opportunity to work in. In these settings, vendors promise the latest technology, governance practices, or personnel structures. These become the golden dreams that CEOs and Presidents too often solely focus on. All of which may do exactly what the vendors and consultants claim. These ephemeral dreams  inevitably spawn work teams who will frantically push organizations into implementing the “Golden Solution of the Month”. And once the project tracking sheets have been closed out; the final checks signed and disbursed; the agency looks, feels, and operates exactly the same way.

But a Warrior CIO knows this and will always speak the truth to his CEO and colleagues; that a maddening desire to quickly reach the finish line without regards to the original motivations of the journey, never results in a quick finish. And more often then not, will bring you right back to your starting line.


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Why the name Warrior?

Someone asked me the other day “Where did the nickname Warrior CIO come from?” In all actuality, it was given to me by a close associate that works as an executive recruiter. Apparently while interviewing a potential candidate for me to hire, the candidate asked him what kind of CIO I was. My friend’s response was “He’s a Warrior CIO. This guy still codes, trains, and gets in the trenches. So don’t try to BS him.”

Later when I got the story from the candidate, who I hired by the way, I asked my friend what he meant by the term “Warrior CIO”. He told me that in his line of work he runs into many “Spreadsheet CIOs”, his term not mine. “You know, guys that know how to manipulate an Excel spreadsheet and run the numbers, but disconnected from the tech.” Apparently he wasn’t the only one that had this viewpoint. In an article on ZDNet, the late Steve Jobs places the blame for Microsoft’s current faltering business strategy on the “Salesman CEO”, Steve Ballmer. ZDNet Article

Until my friend mentioned it, I never really thought much about it. So I reached out to my circle of friends and colleagues about it, and they agreed. Some even commented they didn’t know how I could do all that I do, and still find time to tune SQL, design applications, etc. So the name has kinda stuck.

So now I have decided to create a blog to share my experiences, stories, tools, and perspectives about managing Enterprise IT to the world at large.

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A student learns…

A young man named Matajuro wanted to become a great swordsman, but his father said he wasn’t quick enough and would never learn. So Matajuro went to the famous swordsman Banzo and asked to become his pupil.

“How long will it take me to become a master?”, he asked. “Suppose I become your servant, to be with you every minute. How long will it take?”

“Ten years.”, said Banzo.

“But my father is getting old. I’ll have to leave before ten years to return home to take care of him. Suppose I work twice as hard, then how long will it take me?”

“Thirty years.”, said Banzo.

“How is it that first you say it will take ten years. But when I offer to work twice as hard, you say it will take me three times as long?”, Matajuro continued. “Let me make myself clear. I will work unceasingly. No hardship will be too much. How long will it take me then?”

“Seventy years.”, said Banzo. “For a pupil in such a hurry learns slowly.”

Matajuro understood. Without asking for any promises in terms of time, he became Banzo’s servant. He cooked, cleaned, washed, and gardened. He was ordered never to speak of fencing or to touch a sword. Matajuro was very sad at this but had given his promise to the master and resolved to keep his word.

Three years passed for Matajuro as a servant. One day, while he was gardening, Banzo came up quietly behind him and gave him a terrible blow with a wooden sword. The next day in the kitchen, the same terrible blow fell again. Thereafter, day in and day out, from every corner and at any moment; he was attacked by Banzo’s wooden sword. Matajuro learned to live on the balls of his feet; ready to dodge at any moment. He became a body with no desires, no thoughts; only eternal readiness.

Banzo smiled, and began the lessons. And soon Matajuro was the greatest swordsman in Japan.

— Source unknown

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