From Captain to Coach

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CIO Transform 4

An interview with Doug Harr, former CIO of Splunk, which provides software to help companies capture machine data.

The Enterprisers Project (TEP): You frequently talk to CIOs about the need to go from captain to coach. Can you tell us a little about that?

Harr: The move from on-premise applications to cloud applications, consumer apps, and mobile devices is driving a sea change for CIOs in terms of field enablement. We are working more closely with the business than ever before on new ideas for adopting technology. This may be threatening for those who were happy when the IT group had more control over all technology decisions. It still needs to be a partnership so the best decisions get made considering the business and technology angles including likelihood of system adoption, needed processes, training, etc., along with traditional issues including integration and security.

Don't "abandon" your role as decision maker for security and integration since those are still key domains for IT leadership as are these other skills that are now just shared more broadly.

TEP: What do you think the biggest reasons are CIOs resist taking on a coach role?

Harr: The new role can be threatening, depending on the organization. For instance, I've heard some CIOs have seen purchasing decisions that did not come through them and the usual suspicion is then that IT ends up with the workload of supporting some ill-chosen technology. But, if approached right, any kind of important technology selection does get made with both business and IT, it just involves a lot more communication and business knowledge than some might have. In these cases, IT won't be the final decision-maker, it will be more of a contributor to the decision. That can be hard for those used to controlling it all, so building partnerships with business counterparts becomes the key to overcoming these issues.

TEP: What are the risks of becoming a coach as opposed to a captain? And are there risks to remaining a captain as well?

Harr: Sticking only to the captain model can shorten your tenure as a CIO today in most industries. In regards to coaching, there's a risk of going too far which may lead to a sub-optimal choice being made for one or more technologies. A specific new shiny object might be a security sinkhole.

There are times to pull a "veto" and that's still, of course, part of the role. Just don't stick with catch phrases such as, "the cloud is not secure." That's just not true for all these emerging cloud and mobile solutions, and is a stance that is damaging to your cause.

TEP: At Splunk, many business employees know a great deal about IT. How does that affect your own job?

Harr: You have to check your ego at the door and be open to following the merit of ideas that may not emanate from you or your organization.

TEP: How do you see the CIO role continuing to evolve in the future?

Harr: I see this evolution continuing. Business skills, vendor management skills, process and educator roles will all remain key to CIOs. Technology trends such as cloud, mobile, big data and the Internet of Things will all present new opportunity.

The ability to ingest and analyze data from all the machines in our data centers, but also the world around us—badge readers, building management systems, mobile devices, sensors - is a major development in the industry. Just as the CIO led the charge during the evolution of BI, we have the same opportunity with "operational intelligence" or OI, where we can evaluate the health of our systems along with the experience our customers are having using them. We need to get this data into a useful form within our companies to maximize results.

TEP: Any advice you'd give to CIOs thinking that they want - or need - to change to a more enabling role?
Harr: Many CIOs I know have made this change, and itís really a combination of things. It's part opening up your governance model and part building relationships by understanding that every company has a culture. The only pitfall would be not understanding that culture and how decisions get made. Understanding these elements makes change much more doable!

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and columnist for She is co-author of "The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive," as well as several other books. She lives in Snohomish, Washington.

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