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Leasing leadership


In need of an IT visionary? Now you can outsource the entire CIO or CTO job.


By Alan Horowitz

Small and midsize companies that need savvy IT executives but can't find them now can rent a chief information officer.

Krimo Salem, a former CIO, founded If & Then in San Jose early last year. His firm provides virtual CIOs to companies in need of IT expertise. A virtual CIO is essentially an outsourced IT executive hired by companies that can't afford, find or need a full-time worker.

The virtual CIO works part-time on any given account and does most of his work remotely. If & Then can also provide lower-level IT support, or the client may use its own IT staff and just tap the consulting firm's management expertise.

"The [virtual] CIO concept is based on the fact that in today's world, there is a crisis of jobs without candidates, especially high-level candidates, combined with technology that is changing at warp speed," Salem says.

Breakaway Solutions of Boston, an e-business provider, offers a similar service. The company contracts with a CIO or chief technology officer to get an IT project up and running as quickly as possible.

Janie Tremlett, Breakaway's CIO, developed the program to help clients that were suffering from a shrinking supply of qualified talent. A project lasts an average of three months, after which the CIO leaves.

Pete Wheeler, president of brokerage firm Commonwealth Financial Network in Waltham, Mass., hired Tremlett as an outsourced CIO in 1998. The project worked so well that Breakaway spun it out into a service.

Wheeler hired Tremlett because he couldn't find a CIO.

The Internet was becoming important to the brokerage industry, and his firm's biggest IT challenge to that point was keeping the LAN up and running. "We had to adapt very quickly and did not have the appropriate tech staff in place," Wheeler says. "There was no strategic thinker."

During the next 18 months, Tremlett worked three days per week analyzing Commonwealth's IT needs, creating a strategy and expanding the staff. "She set the whole boat sailing, found her replacement and left," Wheeler says.

Wireless software developer Pumatech is another company that was in need of IT leadership. The San Jose vendor initially had If & Then take over all of its IT functions. Then as it grew, it hired Fred Care as director of corporate IS. Pumatech now has an unusual setup: Care has overall IT responsibility, but If & Then provides a virtual CIO to Pumatech's San Jose and Nashua, N.H., offices.

If & Then also oversees day-to-day operations of Pumatech's help desk, network and Baan and Unix applications. "They manage all the pieces," Care says. "My job is understanding what the business requirements are and building the right infrastructure. I use the [virtual] CIO to bounce ideas off of."

The cost of a virtual CIO varies by location - with $10,000 per month typical in the Bay area. A virtual CIO spends about 10 hours per week with each client. Most work is done remotely, though the virtual CIO usually visits the client once or twice per week. Salem says virtual CIOs are more efficient than full-time IT executives because they don't spend as much time in meetings and aren't involved in political issues.

"We discuss strategies and visions for this company," Care says of his firm's relationship with its virtual CIO. "[If & Then] is intimately aware of our topology and environment. They know how we want a network to look or how we're going to implement Windows 2008."

Besides gaining an experienced IT pro they otherwise wouldn't have access to, Salem says his clients benefit from the combined expertise of If & Then's 10 virtual CIOs. The virtual CIO assigned to work with a client can tap the strengths of his colleagues to solve problems.

Naturally, If & Then tries to match the virtual CIO's strengths to the needs of its clients. When those needs change, so may the virtual CIO.

The collaboration between If & Then's virtual CIOs helps eliminate some of the disruption that comes when a CIO moves on. Salem notes that when traditional CIOs resign, all the knowledge they have about the firm goes with them. With a virtual CIO, that knowledge stays. "Any other [virtual] CIO can step in to do the work," he says.

Wheeler says the customer in dire straits could best use a virtual CIO. "You're trying to make the next great move. You are in a mini-crisis, technologically speaking. To use a service like this, you have to be a bit desperate and in a crisis," he says.


Horowitz is a freelance writer in Salt Lake City. He can be reached at alan@ahorowitz.com.


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