Hiding in Splendid Isolation

Mark Roman
Chief Information Officer 
Simon Fraser University

March 2017

She was hard to understand at first. Over the phone I heard sobbing, a stream of tangled words, and sirens. After she calmed down, she told me all about the accident. I tried my best to get the details and assure her that we could take care of her and her car. This was my first taste of being on a help desk at an insurance company. I was taking a real call from a real customer, and I was expected to solve real insurance business issues. The CEO wanted everyone to have some exposure to the frontlines of the business, and as an IT guy this was a visceral real world experience. This simple exercise taught me a lot about the insurance business very quickly.

During the development of Windows NT Microsoft used the expression “eat your own dogfood”. Once the operating system was sufficiently developed, all the NT designers and coders were expected to use it on their own development machine. What better way to expose real bugs than by making you use your own tools? If you work for Ford, you should drive a Ford and you will get first hand experience with the products you make and service.

Several years ago I worked for the President of a credit card bank whose office was right in front of noisiest place in the whole company – the call centre. I never knew what volume level to expect from the neighboring cavern of helpful voices, and after a number of meetings in his office I asked him why he chose to have office so close to such apparent chaos. His answer was clear and simple, “I have a direct ear to the business, and I know exactly when something happens. I know when business is good and when it’s bad just by gauging the volume of chatter.”

That philosophy has followed me over the years, and begs the question of why do CIOs and senior IT leaders seem to quarantine themselves from their customers? Hiding in splendid isolation behind barriers of technology they don’t experience their own services, nor do they vicariously live as one of their customers. It’s too easy for CIO’s and senior IT leaders to focus on operating technology without ever having to use the tools their departments build and maintain. Excuses include, “I’m too busy”, “that’s for my staff to worry about”, or the worst, “I’m not a customer, so why would I use our products?”

If you’re a CIO or senior leader you can’t afford to be too busy to learn about your customers. Get out of your office and spend time with real customers and ask them about their experiences with your systems. No staff in the world are responsible for your learning – you need to be personally engaged with your customers to really know and understand the purpose of your job. Finally, I would argue that there is always a way to use your products. The best CIOs and senior IT leaders I know in higher education have worked towards degrees, performed research projects, or taught courses at their institution at some point in their career.

At Simon Fraser University we were experiencing significant problems with technology in a particularly large classroom. After talking to the prof I was invited to come and listen directly to the students’ concerns. I spent a few minutes explaining the core problem and addressed any questions related to the issue. They were appreciative of the conversation and since we had some time left over I opened up the discussion to any other comments they had about our systems. Suddenly I felt like I had opened up a floodgate – from registration issues to booking advisors they had a seemingly infinite number of concerns. That day I became the student and it may have been the most valuable classroom learning experience I’ve ever had.

For some CIOs, spending time with their customers may seem like an inefficient use of their time. They may feel any issues or concerns could be dealt with via email or Twitter. But without real world exposure to your customers’ dreams and aspirations, you run the risk of losing touch with the core value proposition of IT. So get out from behind your desk and your devices, talk to your customers, and eat your own dogfood.

 

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