Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Consequences of Hiring Technology Impostors as IT Leaders

The best technologists are business focused, technically sound, and have a long track record of successful solution delivery, yet so many newly minted head geeks are not technologists at all and have delivered little or no technology. For example, the White House Deputy CTO is a law professor, the Technical Director of Code for America is a policy analyst, and the CTO of HHS has a recent degree in economics and no apparent technical experience.

An industry shift to non-technologists as leaders could be a necessary response to the changing technology landscape for several reasons. Paraphrasing Nicholas Carr, technology has become commodity, provides no strategic advantage to business, so there is no point for a real technologist to have a seat at the table. Or perhaps by appointing a business person to run tech, the annoying business-technology gap can be closed, or at least moved out of sight. Or maybe because data analysis, communication (web2), and policy are increasingly important parts of IT, economists, communications specialists, and lawyers might make better technology leaders.

While these trends are real to some degree, organizations lose something important when they mistake a sound technology user for a sound technologist. In what other profession would we accept a leader who is ignorant of the fundamentals of the profession? Would you elect surgery at a hospital if you heard the Chief of Surgery say, "Oh, I don't get surgeons, they're artists; I've used them before, my value is that I ask stupid questions."? Swap "programmer" for "surgeon" and these are the words uttered by a CIO who has no tech experience and a $1.3BB budget. By the way, she was fired after 3.5 years of disastrous results. (It took that long for reality to leak to the boardroom.)

Most IT leadership positions require experience across a broad range of business/technology conditions. Multi-year projects, cyclical business, complex integrations, transactional systems, analytical systems, supporting business process, chasing capacity, vendor management, security posture, long-tail maintenance, each presents distinct challenges. Relevant experience matters and  takes time to accumulate. Unfortunately, the distance in time between cause and effect is often too great for most to see how much pain is created, and money is lost, by lack of relevant experience in technology leadership positions.


  1. Is it an accident that the examples you pick of non-technologist tech leaders are all in DC, all in government?

  2. Some are from NY