Jun 1 ’05

IT Sense: It Usually Works

by Editor in z/Journal

Sometimes a road trip can give you a new perspective on things. Sitting in the office of the CIO for Argentina’s equivalent of the IRS and Social Security Administration (a combined entity called the Federal Administration of Public Receipts) a few weeks ago, it became clear to me that the problems confronting IT managers and decision makers are much the same wherever you go. By the conclusion of our 90-minute chat, I had also decided that we can all profit from our collective experience, irrespective of political borders, economic differences, and language barriers.

Jorge Linskens, the subdirector general for Systems and Telecommunications, was an impressive, older gentleman who sat across the conference table with the formal posture of a born leader. His office was unpretentious and work documents, z/OS manuals, and a few technology magazines seemed like the only decorations.

Following the perfunctory espresso, we walked through the challenges confronting Linskens with respect to his IT initiatives. Unlike many interviews with government techs in the U.S. and Europe, I found Linskens’ perspective to be similar to that of corporate IT managers.

Predictably, the economy of Argentina has made “do more with less” the Eleventh Commandment. But Linskens’ attention to delivering the best possible levels of service at the lowest possible cost seemed to go beyond any preoccupation with budgetary constraints: As an official of the tax collection and welfare distribution arm of the government, he seemed genuinely concerned with his stewardship of public funds. He treated his job as an IT leader like a public trust—something we might all want to consider.

He spoke to me in English, describing the large number of projects and extensive number of staff he managed. At times, it seemed that he was running a technology service provider as its own company within the government. Yet, there was no trace of haughtiness in his manner: His management style was authoritarian, yet empowering.

Linskens said that he didn’t generally allow vendors, integrators, or consultants to cross the threshold of his office. I initially took this to mean that some past experience had taught him that vendors were neither to be trusted nor provided special access. However, he clarified that his philosophy was to vest his project leaders with the responsibility for making the best decision they could to solve a particular technology problem or realize a specific technology objective. His only requirement was that the project leader would take responsibility for the outcome by signing his or her name to the proposal that came to him for approval.

I realized that he was doing what many CIOs do not do: assign both the responsibility—and also the authority—to his people. Trusting them to make decisions about the details with which they were uniquely and intimately familiar.

But he also reported that he held them to a simple standard. It wasn’t a sufficient explanation or any sort of justification, he said, for his people to defend a technology failure or a bad technical decision with the phrase, “Well, it usually works.”

Reflecting on his own words, he smiled ironically, reflecting on the expression. How many of us, he asked, would accept this explanation if an ATM failed to return the requested amount of cash, but debited our account for the full amount? How many of us would accept a cell phone that completed phone calls only some of the time? More to the point, how many social security and pension recipients would be content with a deposit that reached their bank accounts only some of the time?

“It usually works” is, unfortunately, the standard to which too many IT managers seem to aspire. I was recently reminded of this in a conversation with another IT manager, when the fellow said he would never purchase used equipment, even if it was fully certified for use, satisfied all application requirements, and saved his company money. “Why should I stick my neck out or put my job on the line to save the company a few bucks?” he rationalized. “It’s not my money.”

Linskens might have reminded the fellow that it was the shareholders’ money the guy was spending and that it was his responsibility to look for any way possible to spend less, short of falling into the trap of, “It usually works.” That is where the process begins for rebuilding the nexus between business and IT that has come under such criticism in recent years.

For Liskens, it’s simply the definition of professionalism in IT. And I quite agree with the man.