Oct 12 2012

Life as a Virtual CIO

Today’s SMBs face many of the same challenges that large organizations face, but often lack the guidance necessary to overcome them.

Thanks to the rapid pace of technology development, organizations of all sizes have access to technology solutions for less money than ever before. Cloud computing, open-source software, sophisticated mobile devices and diminishing hardware costs have opened the door for small and medium-sized businesses to compete with large companies in numerous ways.

Unfortunately, with a greater number of options comes greater complexity, which small organizations are typically ill equipped to handle.

Small-business technology staff are usually squarely focused on tactical issues. With tight budgets, a huge plate of projects and a multitude of responsibilities, very little time or energy is available for strategic planning.

Given today’s market pressures, government and industry regulations and an ever-growing security threat, it is pretty clear that SMBs are no less in need of a good technology strategy than are their larger counterparts. SMBs need a senior technology professional who understands the company’s business objectives and who can provide direction in how to use technology to support those objectives — essentially, someone who can play the role that a CIO would play in a larger company.

While I wasn’t the one to coin the term “virtual CIO,” I feel that it very accurately describes my role as a business-savvy, hands-on technologist and adviser who recommends and implements technology and policy for businesses — as a consultant, rather than as a full-time employee.

It is a role that combines technology consulting with business management consulting — providing crucial strategic and tactical services to organizations that can’t afford a full-time professional at that level.

To be successful, the virtual CIO must quickly assimilate information about a client’s business, assess the technology in place and ensure that risks are identified and mitigated. He or she must also convince business owners that their challenges are manageable — that there are solutions and approaches that are cost-effective and timely, and that will grow with their business.

Finally, the virtual CIO must ask for the same level of trust that would be bestowed upon an influential insider, even though he or she is not actually a member of the staff. This is crucial, given that much of the work of a virtual CIO happens remotely and without the benefit of daily face-to-face interaction.

Understanding the Work of a Virtual CIO

Face time is very important in establishing relationships for many people, so the use of online conferencing solutions such as Skype, Citrix’s GoToMeeting and Cisco Systems’ WebEx are helpful in satisfying the need to put faces to names, while reducing the need for travel.

Occasionally, I have to travel, but it is almost always for the purpose of meeting with executives to secure a partnership, rather than going onsite to perform the work.

This year, I completed several projects for which I never visited the client’s physical location:

  • A server migration project for a software as a service provider, which involved migrating from physical servers to the cloud, and consolidating from eight hosting servers down to four — without once stepping into the office or data center.
  • A firewall migration project for a multi-office law firm, which involved swapping one brand of firewall at the main office for another, reconfiguring virtual private networks, and establishing a backup connection — all completed remotely.
  • An assessment project for a management consulting firm looking to overhaul its overall technology infrastructure and business processes. This project involved more than half a dozen phone conversations, including three major meetings, but no onsite visit.

In my role as a trusted adviser, I’ve had the pleasure of delving into new industries and showing business owners the ways in which my knowledge of other industries can be leveraged to resolve their own challenges.

I’ve helped organizations hire the right technology staff, or obtain needed training for their existing staff. I’ve led project teams, developed detailed project plans, written operational or security policies and procedures, suggested the use of key technologies and provided business guidance.

Along the way, I have learned some important things about both business and technology:

  • A virtual CIO is not purely a technology position. Those who seek technology-only challenges should take another path.
  • The virtual CIO needs to be competent and convincing because much, if not all, of the work for a client is done remotely. Trust is essential.
  • The current outsourcing boom is favorable for the virtual CIO, as organizations grow more open to working with external, high-level technology partners.
  • Many SMBs want to use technology, but lack the necessary guidance to do so. If they find a good partner who can provide value for their business and help navigate the maze of technology options, they will be highly appreciative.
  • Influence can be more powerful than authority. As a trusted adviser, I often have much more influence over nontechnical aspects of a client’s business than I would have as an employee.
  • Technology is most useful in the context of getting things done. There is tremendous satisfaction to be had in proposing the right mix of technology and process to solve a pressing business need.

Every day is a new and varied challenge, and I am very grateful. To me, being a senior technologist in the 21st century means understanding business needs and risk just as much as it means understanding the newest technology and how to implement it. I now spend as much time reading Harvard Business Review as I do reading BizTech or SC Magazine.

Today’s SMBs deserve the same access to effective technology strategy that larger companies rely on. Thankfully, this no longer necessarily means hiring a full-time, onsite CIO. While much of my work may be conducted virtually, the results are always very real.

Andrew Baker

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