Virtual CIO Case Study · Paying By the Drink for the Right Wine

Virtual CTO

Buying wine by the bottle (or case) may be the most economic option to acquire it at scale, but if a bottle is beyond your means or needs, and you find the particular vintage you want, paying by the drink is the right option.

And so it is with Virtual CIOs (aka Fractional CIOs/Remote CIOs/Part-time CIOs)…

This quote is actually from one of our recent clients, a mid-size company who engaged our Virtual CIO service to provide IT leadership to several IT groups who had previously reported separately to the CEO.

Why Our Case Studies are Anonymous

Innovation Vista does not list our clients on our website or post a “logo page”; we do not issue press releases to announce client signings or project successes.  This policy is an important extension of our care and protection of our clients’ strategies, in order to avoid letting their competitors know anything about their plans…

“Conceal your dispositions, and your condition will remain secret, which leads to victory; show your dispositions, and your condition will become patent, which leads to defeat.” …

“The whole secret lies in confusing the enemy, so that he cannot fathom our real intent.”

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

What we have done, on occasion (here for example), is give an anonymized summary of particular engagements, when they form a great example of services we might perform for others.  This partnership is a great example of the great benefits that a Virtual CIO can bring to an organization whose needs are sized “for a drink, not a bottle”…

The Benefits of a Virtual CIO

The cost delta between a Virtual CIO and a Full-time CIO is an obvious benefit that is hard to ignore.  This is the driving force, obviously, for some organizations being able to afford CIO skill-sets at all, that it’s offered in a fractional arrangement which costs less.  The price is certainly on the list, but we would argue is not the core benefit of the Virtual CIO.  After drinking a glass of wine, one may be happy he had enough enough money to buy it when he could not afford the bottle; far more front-and-center in his mind, though, is how the wine tasted.

A Virtual CIO brings significant experiences and skills to the role, and it is clearly beneficial that they possess technical and leadership skills which qualify them not only to do the job, but to ramp up to speed extremely quickly on an organization’s current situations, strengths, weaknesses, and needs; only after ramping up to “see” the situation clearly can they know how to lead it from where it is to where it should go.

And that brings us to what we believe is the primary benefit of a Virtual CIO – Vision.

To What Should an IT Department Strive?

You will not find a strategic IT vision for any organization in a book, a website, or a podcast.  It depends on so many variables about the company’s culture, industry, reputation, branding.  It depends on its competitors and their relative positioning and strengths.  It depends on its business model and its relationship with customers.   Whether they realize it or not, clients who engage a Virtual CIO are receiving this as the most valuable benefit from the engagement:

Virtual CIO Vision: the ability to quickly but accurately orient to a company’s current situation, despite not holding a traditional permanent role on the org-chart, and to know the path from there to a better place – not only where to go, but for what to prepare along the journey, and how to get the organization to see it too.

A Glass of the Right Wine

This is why our client felt paying by the drink is the “right option” when it’s the “right wine“.  Our starting point at the beginning of the engagement was extremely challenging:

  • Stability issues on the IT systems
  • Cultural tension and low morale
  • Aging on-prem architecture
  • A delta/inflation rate budgeting approach
  • Growing backlogs
  • Many over-engineered features with little usage
  • Frequent urgent “fires” and priority changes
  • Low credibility of IT within the business units

Our vision, in short, was to evolve their culture, their self-conception of IT, and their architecture, one step at a time.

  • We Built Trust
    • We quickly gathered real “unvarnished” insights about the operation by ensuring the utmost confidentiality of every comment given to us
    • We communicated to all parties that the blame for the current quandary couldn’t fall on any one group
      • The business’ budgeting constraints had contributed to a “keep it running” mindset rather than one seeking to “make it better”
      • The IT group managers’ failure to focus on quality created a negative cycle of fire-fighting, knee-jerk solutions, and enormous technical debt
      • Business group leaders had allowed an “us vs them” judgmental attitude against IT, which in turn was very accurately perceived as “them vs us” in IT, leading tech staff to believe nothing was ever going to be good enough to satisfy the business, not only dropping morale but reducing the desire to try
    • We evangelized a culture of “succeed or fail together”
  • We Stabilized
    • Immediate investment was needed to improve the stability of the system
    • Systems with less latency concerns and less security complexity (whitelisted IPs, external access, etc.) were “lifted & shifted” to the cloud
    • Data center hardware which was freed by that move to the cloud was used to bolster performance of other systems
    • A cultural repair was undertaken, with some hard decisions exiting some staff, and casting a vision for everyone remaining that we were in a tough spot, but we were going to a better place
  • We Optimized
    • We revamped the budgeting process to split IT spend into two categories:
      • “Lights on”, which comprised most of their previous cost categories to operate the platform
      • “Investments”, which were enhancements, each of which paid for itself via ROI – AND aligned to the overall vision of where key features and capabilities would be needed
      • We surged in resources to “get out from under the wave to on top of it” and catch up to a plateau
      • We positioned Accounting and IT for cloud discussions at every upcoming capex event, with considerations on pros and cons
        •  Cloud is not always the right answer, but should always be considered in modern infrastructure decisions
        • Flexibility and simplicity are hard to quantify, but are real benefits
        • Instead of the “normal” load, we compare the cost of on-prem hardware/licenses needed for the “peak” load a system will need to handle over the next 12 months, vs projected costs of the cloud solution
    • We focused the team on quality
      • We initiated an automated testing initiative aimed at ensuring side-effect testing was thorough – but efficient/overnight
      • We focused the QA staff on testing intended changes and expediting an “agile” iteration cycle
      • We raised accountability for business analysts’ specifications being accurate, developers’ estimates being reasonable and frequently refined, their code being solid, and testing being thorough
  • We Monetized
    • The budget investments are beginning to pay dividends in efficiency, revenue, and market-share
    • The mindset of “making it better” has firmly taken hold, positioning the company’s leadership for healthy strategic discussions about potential increases in IT spend for the purpose of ROI
      • With credibility that efficiencies can be real, they are confident making project investments knowing that their operating budget will see those benefits
      • As innovation is increasing, it’s beginning to have an impact on their market perception, and thus, their market-share and revenue

This approach was the “right wine” for this client, and in a relatively short period of time, changed their entire office climate and attitude about IT.

Other Virtual CIOs and approaches are right for other clients.  Every situation is different, but one thing should be clear: CEOs shouldn’t just walk away when they can’t afford a bottle of that wine, nor should they “settle” for a cheap bottle which they might afford, but which doesn’t really suit their needs.

For organizations with high needs and IT complexity but limited budgets, “paying by the drink” is a fantastic way to bring the “right wine”, and the right IT Vision, to your organization.