Rise to the top

Rise to the top

Today's CIO's didn't become powerful IT decision makers overnight. Some started out in entirely different fields, some left IT and returned with broader perspectives and some have been in IT since college, when they dreamed in code. Most learned slowly, often painfully, how to let go of the hands-on stuff in order to start managing people. And they are all still learning how to sync up the needs of their IT departments with their organisations' larger goals.

Follow the links to get the stories.

Backing into the CIO role

Corporate senior vice president and chief information officer of R.R. Donnelley & Sons Gary Sutula's early years were spent thinking not about math and engineering but about Descartes, the Psalms and F/A-18 jets.

After receiving his bachelor's degree in philosophy from Gannon University in 1966, Sutula decided to apply his abstract thinking prowess to the church and become a priest. He entered the Theological College at Catholic University, but soon realised that the philosophy appealed to him more than the theology. Looking for a new career and admitting he likes high adrenaline challenges, Sutula decided to take to the skies and become a fighter pilot. He was accepted by the Air Force but, at the last minute, was bumped from the class. In 1967, with his future career uncertain, Sutula left his home in Erie, Pa., moved to Seattle and took an entry-level job in operations at RainierBank.

Thirty-one years, four banks and several IT jobs later (including a stint developing online pawnshop systems), Sutula is now the CIO of R.R. Donnelley & Sons, a multibillion-dollar printing house in Chicago.

Current Challenges

CIO: In 1997 you moved from Los Angeles, where you were the CIO at Transamerica Consumer Finance Holding Co., to Chicago for your present role as the CIO of R.R. Donnelley & Sons. Why did you switch industries after 26 years in banking?

GS: Financial services already had a fair amount of sophistication in its use of IT. I looked at the printing industry, which was going digital, and knew it was only a matter of time before they recognised that IT is going to be a very important component. I wanted to be part of that change.

What are your responsibilities at R.R. Donnelley?

My core responsibility in to ensure that Donnelley creates shareholder value in its use of information technology. To help me I have a staff of 80, five of which are direct reports. My major project focus today is on a business process redesign that will re-automate our platform across the board, focusing on the front-end processes associated with getting a printing job all the way through billing it.

How is being a CIO of a large multimillion-dollar company different from being one for a smaller company, the government or a nonprofit?

Actually, in my discussions with CIO's who are in government and larger nonprofits, I've found there is no difference. The issues are the same. You're driving value. The people in government and nonprofits work extremely hard and are very dedicated, so I don't find much of a difference between the organisations, from an organisational perspective and the work that has to get done. The CIO in much smaller places, though, has to be much more hands-on. That's a tough job, because that CIO is not let off the hook from being articulate to his or her peers, as well as senior management. That job still has to be done, and you also have to do the technology, probably directing people who are coding.

How I Got Here

You started your career at RainierBank in Seattle as an entry-level operations trainee. How did you segue into IT?

While working in operations at Rainier, I developed a reputation for cleaning up dirty things. I worked hard. The bank had an IP service bureau that provided payroll and accounts receivable for some of our largest customers. In the four or five years it was in operation, it lost around US$12 million. I was given that project - I guess they took a leap of faith - and found I had a knack for big IT jobs.

How did you learn about IT on the job?

I probably learned the most about technology when I became a project manager for First Interstate Bank in Los Angeles in 1977 and was charged with helping to start its product data center - which is the teller system, the online ATM and the debit cards. I was responsible for the definition of products, and suddenly found I needed to learn a lot more about technology. So I took every programming course I could get my hands on. Every night I'd go to the local community college and work on a COBOL course or work on an assembler course.

You took three years off from First Interstate Bank in Los Angeles, from 1980 to 1983, to work for yourself. Why?

I wanted to play the role of entrepreneur. I developed several different business applications, including an online pawnshop system. I picked pawnshops because there is a tremendous amount of money in pawnshops but very little technology. I made good money but got tired of the travelling. So I returned to banking.

Until 1990, when you became the CIO of American Savings Bank in Irvine, Calif., you had jobs that were focused more on business than on IT. Why did you decide to focus on IT in the '90s?

I spent a lot of my life looking at technology and how it can impact business and decided you can have a far greater impact as a technologist influencing business than you can as a businessperson. It takes you a long time before you get to the top in business, and even then you're constrained by what you can do to the company. But IT fundamentally changes the business model. While the company questions what it does, big pieces of technology are moving.

If you could change something you did early in your career, what would it be?

Sometimes I think maybe I should have gone to school for IT, but you would not believe how well my philosophy degree has served me in critical thinking and communicating, which is extremely important in this role. I think my career would have been quite different if I started out managing single projects for single user departments, which I guess could have happened if I really jumped into the technology deeply. But I started out at the large end of projects where you have the biggest impact on a company.

How would your career have been different if you worked on those smaller hands-on projects?

I think it would have moved my career a lot more slowly because of the starting point. My starting point demanded some fast growth because I went from one bank to a multibank environment with 22 presidents. I learned quickly how to communicate the results of IT in a business case, and how to have thick skin.

Learning About Management

How do you relate to R.R. Donnelley CEO Bill Davis?

I report directly to him, and that relationship has worked out very well. When he became the CEO in the early part of '97 he made a very strong statement, saying, "Technology is a big item in our agenda, and I want the CIO reporting to me." Every CIO should have a boss like Bill Davis. He's very savvy on technology, informed and a visionary. If you're not working for somebody like that, then I don't think you have a chance at success, I really don't.

Through all your hybrid business-IT roles, what have you learned about managing IT projects?

As far as I'm concerned, there is no such thing as an IT project. You have business projects with IT implications. The word project indicates that it's something apart from the business, and it could be isolated from the business. It's the responsibility of the CIO to make sure that in governance, those projects are structured in such a way that the business takes primary responsibility, and right behind the business is the CIO or the technical team. If the business is owning it 100 percent, the technical team should be owning it 99.44 percent. The business guys should lead this, and it's the responsibility of the CIO to get that leadership structure in place.

Throughout your career, what was the most onerous project that you learned the most from?

I worked on a project and before it started, was assigned both key project management roles, though they should have gone to two people. I was the one who went through the exercise of building business ownership and defining the roles. In fact, those roles should have been assigned jointly between the CEO and the CIO. The business sees one thing, and the CIO sees another. With both of those views reconciled, you get a much stronger result. The project lasted for six months and cost millions of dollars before it was cut.

What were you forced to learn on the job that you did not expect to have to learn?

I was very good in project management and task management. What I did not expect to learn was change management, and that's a huge part of the job. I learned change management on the job, with a lot of reading and a lot of paying attention to consultants who were very good at it. I always thought it was going to be the technology and the project that was going to be difficult. That is easy, compared with dealing with change.

What have you learned about managing people?

That you really don't manage people. You manage things. To have an effective team, you need to lead, and most important, lead by example.

What qualities must all CIO's possess to be effective?

The most important thing you've got to remember is to keep your ego in check. There is no doubt that I could run the Y2K project or any project and be ultimately responsible for the whole thing. I certainly have the training and the talent to do that. But getting a company to accept ownership is very different.

Do you have any advice for someone who wants to be the CIO of a large public company?

Develop excellent communication skills and a real business sense. It's not only the technology piece. You have to know what is a business and how money is made, but then you've got to understand your particular industry.

The Technology End

What have you learned about technology?

That it's not that big a deal. It's very important, but there are a lot of talented people who understand the technology better than I do. Technology is useless unless you can figure out some way that it drives value.

What type of technology have you found to be essential?

IT infrastructure. I've seen some brilliant solutions get crippled and sometimes wither away because the basic infrastructure services were weak and made the production environment unreliable and inflexible.

Is there any technology you invested in that you consider a waste?

Earlier in my career I invested in a few technologies that did not explicitly support a good business case. Technologists sometimes overbuild and buy technology that does not pay off.

Do you think it's crucial to take night courses and stay on top of the different technologies?

Yes. I understood the principles of IT but took courses because I felt I really had to be able to go into the pit and do some programming. Now I have enough respect for it to realise that I don't want to be a programmer.

Taking classes and reading seems to eat into your personal time. Is that essential?

I think it's absolutely essential because I cannot see anybody coming out of school with an IT degree and going into the job and expecting that within a few years they're going to be a good functioning CIO, even at a smaller company. There is so much you do not know.

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