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Job getting tougher for IT execs

CIOs at midsized firms oversee complex IT environments but lack the budgets and staff their counterparts at big companies enjoy. How do they make it work? More than 200 midmarket CIOs gather this week in Carlsbad, Calif., to share ideas and insights at the third annual CIO Decisions Conference.

Vendors won't leave you alone. Your CEO is e-mailing about the latest software (or security breach) headlined in the morning papers. The penny-pinching CFO of recent past now wonders if you're spending enough on SOX. Big companies are recruiting your best talent, and your company looks to you to stop the bleeding.

A CIO today with a decade of experience could still be in their 30's or 40s, with a whole chunk of their career ahead of them.
Martha Heller
managing directorZ Resource Group
The attention no doubt is flattering, but the job of the midmarket CIO is tough, say industry experts. CIOs at medium-sized firms oversee complex IT environments but rarely have the big budgets or staff their counterparts at big companies enjoy. Oracle Corp., IBM and SAP AG have come calling, but midmarket CIOs often lack the negotiating expertise to get the best deal. How do CIOs at midsized organizations make IT work? What are the skills they need to help their organizations and advance their careers?

More than 200 midmarket CIOs have gathered this week in Carlsbad, Calif., to share ideas and insights at the third annual CIO Decisions Conference.

"One of the pressing issues facing all CIOs is how to ensure their organization obtains the greatest value from IT investments," said Jeff Kaplan, a featured speaker at the conference and author of Strategic IT Portfolio Management: Governing Enterprise Transformation. "This is especially important to midmarket CIOs since their IT investment budgets are smaller, and therefore more precious."

Martha Heller, managing director, IT Leadership Practice at Boston-based Z Resource Group Inc., is moderating a panel on careers, Trailblazers 101. She says it's an exciting time for midmarket CIOs. "A generation ago, if you were a CIO with 10 years under your belt, chances are you were getting ready to retire. The title of CIO was not even known or understood in 1980. A CIO today with a decade of experience could still be in their 30s or 40s, with a whole chunk of their career ahead of them," Heller said.

But the career paths this younger generation of CIOs will take "have not yet been codified," Heller said. "These men and women are the trailblazers. They are moving in all different kinds of ways, into COO positions, CEO seats and general mangers of startups as well as the traditional trajectory of CIO at increasingly larger companies."

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Indeed, a big plus for CIOs at midsized companies is exposure to the business side, said analyst Jim Browning, who leads the small and medium business (SMB) practice at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. "Most of the CIOs I talk to in that space -- especially the ones that have come from larger enterprises -- say they enjoy working in midsized businesses because they are closer to the business. They like the fact that they can get more business acumen."

Another advantage, Browning said, is that midmarket IT organizations are more nimble than the behemoths. "When they do engage in a major investment in a new technology, like VoIP, the [more modest] infrastructure means they can make that migration," he said.

That said, Browning said he finds that many midmarket CIOs still tend to be "very project oriented," or tactical, rather than strategic, in their approach to IT. "When we get calls at budget time, they want to know what their peers are spending, on security, for example. We try to get them to frame the argument more strategically. They really need to take inventory of their business processes, do risk management, and know where they should be spending their money," he said.

Gartner: Disaster recovery and BI climbing the charts

Browning said he sees some new spending trends among his midmarket clients. While security, compliance and Web-enabling business processes remain top-of-mind, both disaster recovery/business continuity and business intelligence are getting more attention, he said.

"Disaster recovery is an area they have been looking at for a long time but have not been able to play in because the solutions were too expensive," Browning said. With server virtualization and technologies such as storage area networks, disaster recovery is affordable. In the past year, he has seen SMB CIOs using their branch offices as disaster recovery sites, using virtualization to replicate their critical applications.

"The light bulb has gone on," Browning said. "Virtualization often starts as a cost-driven project, to consolidate servers, but CIOs have quickly realized this creates an architecture that allows them to make their critical servers and applications more resilient."

His advice for midmarket CIOs? Think strategically and sharpen your negotiation skills. As the SAPs, Oracles and IBMs turn their attention to the midmarket, Browning said, "You need to know more about getting the best deal."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer

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