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Are CIOs condemned to 'interesting' times in 2016?

Register roundtable looks into... the future

CIO Manifesto Whether you believe in five year plans, or think forecasting for 2016 is something best done next January, we all should have some feel for how next year is going to pan out.

The group of IT execs we got around a table last month were mostly positive about next year, not only expecting budgets to go up, but that the work next year will be more "interesting". But 2016 is also the "interesting times" from the Chinese curse.

The downside of the startup economy is that the average size of firms is going to come down and that won’t be pretty.

If you’re in any sort of B2B industry where the big money comes from a few big clients, 2016 looks a little more ugly. They see several problems, beyond the obvious one – that big firms buy bigger ticket items. Although the volume of business looks like going up in most sectors, it will be with an increasing number of clients, which means the effort and cost of each sale is going to go up.

That's good news for anyone peddling Salesforce, but keeping track of the needs of more clients is going to stress the whole business process.

'They still don’t get it'

No, really. In 2016, some companies' boards still think the web is just for brochures and porn and don’t believe their business models can be disrupted. An issue of granularity comes from a theme we’ve seen grow over the last year across nearly every type of business is that that our ITDMs are feeling (or causing) disruption from new entrants doing things differently.

The bricks-and-mortar mindset of some of their firms is not just a source of frustration. Beneath the black humour was clearly some worry. They’re all too aware how much of the infrastructure a startup needs, from database to office space you need to start a business, can be rented by the month making it more nimble than those that buy and build.

As always we write this up under the Chatham House rule, where I carefully anonymise who said what and the epicentre of non-attributable-ness is the subset of firms whose CTOs despair that the rest of the management team will ever realize that disruption is happening now and that the options are now falling from their grasp, making them disruptees rather than disruptors.

Overall the picture is just a bit more complex and happier. "Disruption" is the big new management buzzword, so some of our IT execs are thriving on change and even in the public sector which doesn’t have the best image for change, they were disrupting as well.

How to look like a cool CTO in 2016

You don’t get to the top of that greasy pole without at least some talent for projecting a good image, but the game of looking good as opposed to doing good is changing. At a lot of firms it’s necessary for a senior IT exec to occasionally do something ultra-geeky to show they’re on top of things, and not just an MBA whose career has blown off course. Simply taking a screwdriver and swapping out the occasional card is not going to be enough. It’s harder now that so many of the board actually either ‘get IT’ or hate it so much that there’s no point.

Worse, our IT execs are put in the position of either trying to block services like DropBox and other creeping Shadow IT, thus looking fatally uncool, or being blamed for the ensuing security problems.

In 2016, where you may not have any servers and desktop PCs are cloned smart terminals, questions will be asked as to what you are actually for and first on your list of visible productivity is as a negotiating resource. Accounts and Sales think they can negotiate, but they can’t factor in the tech angle and our IT execs are mastering the craft of inserting themselves into the "simple" process of sales buying CRM on their credit cards before it goes too badly wrong. Also, there seems to be little realistic alternative but to try and lead on finding and evaluating the pretty cloud offerings before a user department buys a system that can’t talk to anything else.

The new successful ITExec doesn’t even pretend to provide bullet proof security. If you do, you’re setting an expectation you can’t deliver on and the steps necessary to even try will make the IT function seem like the “business prevention group”.

But having been a CTO I found this part of the writeup to be as odd, as you may feel from reading it. Aside from the more highly fuelled end of media and advertising firms, the idea of a "cool IT department" is quite alien. But that’s a big change I’ve learned from several of our IT execs even if they don’t put it that way. The flipside of IT now being customer-facing and handling more marketing and sales is that image matters if you want to take a lead – and not be a "cost centre" for future minimised. I’ve been minimized and it wasn’t nice.

Peak outsourcing

Although you can see Cloud as a form of outsourcing that is fast burning up inhouse ITops jobs, DevOps and the need to more closely couple the development process with the rest of the business means that not being in the same building, is a problem with outsourced development being increasingly relegated to the low value added parts of the project. But at the same time, the tech for managing virtual teams across continents like Skype and GitHub is now mature enough that managers who’ve got their heads around it can be very effective. Indeed, one of our IT execs shared a new technique of “managing by Gitub”, looking at comments on the code commits.

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