Should We Consider Banishing CIOs?

“First thing we do, let’s banish all of the CIOs.” Too harsh? Shakespeare was much harder on lawyers. But the reality is, IT is a mess. Yes, it is. Judged by any performance measure we would apply to other groups within any enterprise, it is. I am reminded of old black and white movies: the train speeding inexorably closer to the ravine with the washed-out trestle bridge. IT is running on rails heading in slow-motion to disaster.

The origin of the disaster is four trillion dollars of legacy systems that are one day going to stop working. Legacy software that will one day need to be replaced by the same people who are fully employed keeping it running. A legacy comprising millions of applications that we are finding take significantly longer to rebuild than they did to build. I don’t know when it will happen. It won’t happen all at once, there is no one day of reckoning. It would probably help sharpen our minds if we could put a date on it like Y2K. What I do know is that it is inevitable and predictable.

It might sharpen the minds of CEOs to ask their CIOs to give them a breakdown of their application system portfolios. They should have at their fingertips a complete inventory with the age of every application they run, its budget, its expected life, and its replacement cost. Let us do the simple math for one of the many enterprises with 5,000 applications in its portfolio. The average age of those applications is over 20 years. Research I did reveal that legacy though they may be, these applications are not standing still, they are growing by about 3% per year. That is the equivalent of adding 150 new applications a year. All the application rationalization programs ran out of steam a decade ago. What we have in front of us is the grind of replacement. How many applications can we replace in a year? Ten, twenty perhaps. Fifty? Unlikely, certainly not a replacement rate we can sustain year over year.  As things stand, we cannot even offset organic growth. And the big questions. Do we have any resources available to do this work? If resources are scarce, does anyone think it is better use of them than oiling the squeaky gates or kicking the can down the road?

The math is unforgiving. It will tell you that if the average age of your portfolio today is 20 years, in 20 years’ time, it will be 39 years, 11 months and 25 days (give or take). Worldwide IT spending is projected to total $4.5 trillion in 2022, an increase of 3% from 2021. According to the latest forecast by Gartner, Inc., 90% of that budget is dedicated to keeping the lights on (KTLO) maintenance. One of the job retention strategies in the CIO’s bag of tricks is to deliver one shiny new object every year or two. AI and machine learning are the distractions of choice.  But the trends here are unmistakable. There will soon be no money for new toys. IT is grinding to a halt. Do not look to it for insights; the data they manage is of too poor quality to make the conclusions drawn from it credible. Do not look to it for competitive advantage, even if you could see how to deliver it, they could not deliver it.

If I was a CEO, I would be asking my CIO, what is the solution? If the CIO, is not responsible for solving the problem, then who? Surely someone must be held responsible. If nobody is held responsible, nobody will take responsibility. It can’t be the millions of people down in the trenches churning out the code for the latest “sprint” (the second silliest word in the IT lexicon). Those people have no say in what IT is doing. Perhaps it should be the CEOs themselves held responsible, the old “the buck stops here.” But CEOs have been persuaded that IT can’t be managed like any other department, with budgets tied to deliverables, performance targets, genuine accountability. IT is “special.” Hire a professional and collude with them to bring in prestigious consultants to cover everyone’s posteriors. This is a mutually beneficial arrangement.  The CEO has a patsy to blame when things inevitably go wrong, and the CIO picks up their $170,266 (median) salary for the four years that (on average) this devil’s bargain holds.

We have two trends occurring simultaneously. One says technology is ever more demanding and CEOs need better and better CIOs (paid more and more). The other that IT today is all about lights on maintenance and should be treated the same as janitorial services. What I see are more and more CEOs coming down on the latter side of this argument while all the janitors are angling to get into the half million (plus bonus) club.

Now I have nothing against CIOs. Many more of them have hired me than fired me. I have even been one.  My concern in this article is the impact the bind we have created for ourselves has on the lives of the 26 million people working in IT condemned to spend their lives in comfortable but meaningless jobs. The hierarchy of IT is a very narrow one. CIOs sit at the top. Below them, many people, skilled in narrow specialties, are engaged in keeping the engines running. Lots of developers on the wheel of never-ending maintenance, working across time zones at the expense of their family life, making changes to snippets of code, never seeing any big picture. To them, I suggest as comfort, the immortal words of Kalidasa, “Please subdue the anguish of your soul. Nobody is destined only to happiness or to pain. The wheel of life takes one up and down by turn.”

The wheel of life on which your IT people are slowly turning is your legacy system maintenance burden.  “Agile” (the silliest word in the IT lexicon) is the solution du jour, the last nail in the accountability coffin.  “Yes, we did stuff, in this sprint, yes, we will do stuff in the next sprint. No, I can’t tell you how much stuff we should do in every sprint. We guess what we can do, what we don’t do we put into the next sprint.   When will all the stuff we have to do, get done?  I don’t know, it goes in the backlog and it’s open ended.  Yes, it is bigger today than it was last month and the month before that. You need a tautology? Any progress is progress.” The beauty of Agile? It’s hard to do much wrong if you don’t do much.  Is what we are doing creating value? Providing a measurable ROI? Could these considerable resources be better deployed elsewhere? Nobody asks anymore.

I did a survey recently that asked the simple question, “Did people like working in an Agile environment?”  One third of respondents did not. What is the aphorism? “If you like what you do, it’s not work.” Well, millions of people consider what they are doing work and don’t like their jobs very much. Nothing will change if no one creates change. Doing a different thing the same way is not change, it is just theater.  Nothing will make a difference if no one dares make a difference. Training will not make a difference; in a few months trainees will be equally bored writing in another language. Increasing the budget by another 3% will not make a difference. At the end of the year, everyone will wonder what they had to show for it.  IT workers in droves are sleep walking through their days, looking for new opportunities or hanging out for retirement. I am not sure that “it beats digging ditches” is the measure of a fulfilling life.

Most people in IT today will never be involved in the development of a new application. I feel for those in bondage to the outsourcing behemoths to which our CIOs have surrendered both their company’s good jobs and their own critical thinking. They are mechanics doomed to spend the best years of their lives keeping garages full of high-mileage old clunkers roadworthy. 

Nobody should hold out hope for change, tomorrow will be like today and today is like yesterday. Unless it is not.

If IT were a cult, it would be one of peer worship. CIOs do what other CIOs do and what they do best is talk the talk. The regurgitated advice of their favored sages becomes standard operating procedure for their minions and over time morphs into the new conventional wisdom. But if everyone is following the same conventional wisdom. And it is not working, as it clearly is not. Then, there can be only one answer. The conventional wisdom is wrong and perhaps the answer is to be found in foolish ideas.

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Rodger Nixon

Rodger Nixon

Rodger Nixon is Data Architect with decades of international experience in enterprise data architecture. Rodger has been awarded several software patents including one covering the use of expert systems and natural language to perform the task of human application developers. The resultant product Gartner Group called “the first 5th generation language”. VP Data Architecture for two major financial institutions and consultant to numerous others. It is the future he saw coming for these enterprises that led him to develop the Open Data Model, SaaS software designed to reduce the costs and risks of software maintenance. In Rodger’s opinion, avoiding a future dedicated to the maintenance of crumbling legacy systems requires a paradigm shift in the way we develop software, one that is data driven. The Open Data Model is his vision of what the foundation for that change might look like and the project that now occupies his time.

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