A Conversation with Author Martha Heller

The CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership launches today! Author Martha Heller is passionate about exploring and discussing the contradictory forces, or paradoxes, that are deeply entrenched in the CIO role.

A Conversation with Author Martha Heller | Bibliomotion, Inc.

The CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership launches today! Author Martha Heller is passionate about exploring and discussing the contradictory forces, or paradoxes, that are deeply entrenched in the CIO role. We recently spoke with her about why she chose to put her bounty of experience into a book and what the process of writing entailed. Congrats Martha!

What inspired you to write The CIO Paradox in the first place?

Since 1999, when I first started at CIO magazine as a writer, I’ve been asking CIOs a question: When you walked into your new position, what did you find? Seriously 95% of the time they would say, “It was a mess.” There was no project management methodology, IT was estranged from business, IT had no credibility with the business, we were way over budget, we didn’t have good career paths, the IT organization was a bunch of order takers.

So this CIO would set out to do all the right things to solve these problems. Then I would end up talking to the CIO that succeeded him. Then I would talk to the CIO that succeeded her. And then, sometimes, I would end up talking to the next CIO. So, here we are in 2012 and I’m asking CIOs the very same question—What did you inherit?—and they’re giving me the same answer. Why is it that all these CIOs keep failing to fix IT? These are smart, driven people who know what they’re doing. Why is it that, despite all this, IT organizations continue to be a mess? That was this burning question for me that I didn’t understand.

Also, why was it that IT can be a company’s market opportunity or it can bring a company to its knees, and yet corporate boards very rarely appoint CIOs. Why is that? Why is it that CIOs know it’s their executive responsibility to plan a successor, to develop a successor, and yet 90% of the time, in Fortune 500 companies, the CEOs do not honor that succession plan. They go outside for a new CIO when the incumbent leaves.

And I have plenty more questions, but those kinds of burning questions caused me to really theorize about what is going on here. And what occurred to me is that these CIOs are just fighting this set of contradictions—contradictory forces—all the time. And those contradictory forces make the CIO role extremely challenging. That was the impetus for saying, “OK, now I got this idea. Let me work it out.” I have a column in CIO magazine and I started working out these different paradoxes in the magazine. Then I started talking to a fabulous publishing executive about a year and half ago, who said, “You know what? This could be a great book.” And that’s how we ended up embarking on the book adventure.

What has been your favorite part of the whole process of writing and publishing a book?

One favorite part was when I went out to a very diverse, busy array of CIOs to ask them for not an insignificant amount of time—it wasn’t just the initial interview, I had to go back to them once I had figured out what I was going to use and get them to clarify—and they all said yes. Everybody I asked to be in the book, literally everybody, said yes and that they would be happy to do it. That was an enormously gratifying moment for me.

I’m a writer, I write columns and all sorts of things, but what I really am—what my core competency is—is an editor. What I really loved was, after I got the proofs back, lovingly poring through every single word of every single paragraph of every single page. Going through it over and over again and clarifying and tightening and wordsmithing. I’m an editor at heart, so that was a very, very pleasant experience.

Were there any unexpected challenges throughout the process?

Yes. A couple of really wonderful CIOs who gave me fantastic, rich interviews changed companies during the course of writing the book, leaving companies that were very ink friendly and enjoyed PR, and moved to companies that were very hush, hush about what they were doing and I had to lose those interviews. That was tough because they were so rich, so good, so substantive. I had to work around that and that was challenging.

Another challenge was taking what really was a theoretical concept and spending the right amount of time defining the problem and then balancing that with solutions and practical advice. I believe I struck the right balance in the end. When I first read through my rough draft, I thought, “This is a lot of whining and complaining and talking about problems. Where are the solutions?” Part of it is, you know for some of these challenges there really aren’t solutions, and the answer is just to understand the challenge really well and devise your own way around it. But, of course, you want a book to be pragmatic and practical. You know, it’s fun to read Nietzsche and it’s fun to read Freud—because it’s all theoretical—but what does this have to do with me? I didn’t want people to have this experience. So finding the right balance between theory, and almost an existential look at the CIO role, and, “OK, I gotta do this job. What can I learn in this book for me to get ahead and do it better.” Striking that balance was a challenge. A challenge I believe I overcame, but it kind of haunted me throughout the process.

If you could start the whole process over again, do you think you’d do anything differently?

I do. I think that I would have structured my interviews differently. I let my interviews be very free form and flowing: “Hey, what do you think of this paradox? What are you doing about it?” And I think what I would have done is thought earlier about the pragmatic advice that I really wanted to get out of these interviews. I got some great stuff out of the free form interviews, content I wouldn’t want to do away with, but I might have done a much more disciplined, structured interview process. To be honest, I don’t know if the outcome would have been different. But for me, in terms of the work of pulling the content together to something that worked in the book, I think it would have been less arduous had I structured the interviews a little more rigorously ahead of time.

What next for you? Any more books in your future?

I loved writing The CIO Paradox because I love that framework of all the different paradoxes and how they slice and dice all different aspects of the role, but in covering the entire CIO role, and all the contradictions , it forced me to stay fairly general. I couldn’t get detailed in any one area because I did a panorama of the CIO role. And I’m very glad to have done that, but I think I could do a series. I could take The CIO Paradox and each chapter, which is its own paradox—strategy versus operation, costs versus innovation, futurist versus archivist—I think every single one of those could be a book. What I would love to do is take one of these areas and do a book that is less theoretical and more pragmatic. “OK, how do you actually tackle this?” It would be more structured, more like a roadmap. The CIO Paradox is almost a theoretical take on the lot in life of the CIO, it breaks down the role, answers questions, but it’s not a seven step guide to world class IT. So I might start being a little more directive, and less journalistic, in the next books.

I am blown away by how challenging the CIO role is, by how much more challenging it’s going to get over the next several years, and how incredibly talented these people are. How do you be a business executive, be someone who can sell ideas, build really strong relationships, be innovative, operational, strategic, and cost effective all at the same time, and have a fairly deep understanding of technology? I just think that is a phenomenal skill set that continues to be grossly undervalued in our corporate, global world. I’m absolutely fascinated by and interested to see how it all transpires over the next decade.