Baptism by Fire

As she prepared to take over as chief information officer at Vancouver-based Pacific Blue Cross, Catherine Boivie was still deciding whether to crawl under any desks in her first three months on the job.

Boivie had been CIO of the British Columbia Automobile Association for eight years before

leaving in June to take on the Blue Cross job. When she started at BCAA, she made herself “”slave for a day”” to each department in the organization, to do whatever technical chores needed doing there. In at least one case that meant crawling under desks to hook up telephones.

That was part of Boivie’s approach to the critical first 90 days in the CIO’s office. What a new CIO focuses on in those three months sets the direction for his or her entire tenure. Boivie and others who have been through it say the key priorities include understanding business issues, building relationships and identifying the most pressing technology problems.

Doing technical joe jobs all over the company “”helped me understand some of the issues”” at BCAA, Boivie says. And while she isn’t sure she’ll take quite the same approach this time around, Boivie is expecting to use similar methods to get to know Pacific Blue Cross.

“”My No. 1 priority is to get to know the business,”” Boivie says. “”The important thing is understanding the business priorities and then investigating what technology can do to address those priorities.””

At BCAA, Boivie also made a point of visiting the association’s sales centres early on, “”just so that they can put a face to the name.”” At Pacific Blue Cross, she plans to meet with key business people as soon as she can.

About two weeks before starting the new job, Boivie said it was too early to talk about technology priorities. “”I need to get a picture of the entire technology and you don’t

get that in the first week,”” she said. She planned to spend a good deal of time reading up on her new employer’s technology and project plans.

She estimated that understanding all the technology issues would take about two months.

Experienced CIOs mostly agree that in that crucial first 90 days, a new CIO must get a handle on both the business and the organization’s technology issues.

“”I’d want to meet with the business managers and executives to determine their priorities in general and what their perceptions of IT were,”” says Ted Barnicoat, CIO of Trimac Corp. in Calgary. Making early contact with key people throughout the organization is a first step in building relationships that will be critical throughout the CIO’s tenure, Barnicoat says. “”Relationships are a tremendously important part of the CIO’s role.

He’s not the guy who does the work — he’s the guy who facilitates getting it done, and to do that he’s got to have relationships with his customers and suppliers.””

Of course understanding technology issues and building relationships within the IT group are also important. Barnicoat mentions meeting with IT staff almost in the same breath as getting to know key people in the rest of the business, saying one of his priorities in a new job would be to understand IT people’s plans, strengths and weaknesses.

Identifying the problems is also important. “”Usually when you get a new CIO it’s because there’s some sort of crisis,”” Barnicoat says. Understanding whatever needs fixing and getting started on it as soon as possible has to be a priority.

When Paul Leone became director of information technology at Adidas-Salomon Canada in 1990, there was no question what that crisis was: supply-chain management. “”We had a very broken system at the time and we really focused on that,”” he recalls. “”We all knew what the problem was.””

Getting to know the business and building relationships were important too, Leone says, but the looming technology issue was the top priority.

When Boivie joined BCAA, a key concern was that “”there was not an overall view of our customers and the technology wasn’t in place to get an overall view.”” Addressing that prob-lem led to standardizing database software and desktop platforms, among other things.

The big technology issue facing Barnicoat in his early days at Trimac was an out-of-control project. “”It was an exceedingly important project for us,”” he recalls, “”and it needed to be brought under control and delivered.””

Those immediate challenges could include runaway projects, budget constraints, staff issues — “”it could be anything,”” says Anil Rastogi, whose current job as vice-president and CIO of McCain Foods Inc. in Florenceville, N.B., is the latest in a string of CIO-level positions.

Rastogi says that while his tactics have varied from one employer to the next, he has followed more or less the same plan in his first three months on every CIO job he has held. The first step is to size up the issues he will face as CIO. “”Then, very quickly you want to come up with a short-term action plan.”” That means going after the “”low-hanging fruit,”” or problems that can be solved quickly to deliver some early results.

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.
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