Big Fish, Little Pond

It's a small organization with an even smaller IT shop, and it's all yours. Tech execs share the pros and cons of leading modest operations.

As a CIO with an IT staff of four, Steven Porter understands full well what it takes to do more with less.

His team at Touchstone Behavioral Health is tasked with stretching a shoestring IT budget to cover big-enterprise-style initiatives like virtualization and VLANs, while at the same time providing hands-on support to more than 200 users scattered across the state of Arizona.

"Some days I wonder what the hell I'm doing here," jokes Porter, 60, who has worked at Touchstone, a provider of behavioral services to at-risk children in the state's Medicare program, for more than five years.

Following a successful run as a television producer of live auto racing events and motorsports news programming, Porter leveraged his burgeoning interest in the Internet to land a job with an e-commerce developer in 1995. After he served a couple of subsequent dot-com stints, Touchstone Behavioral sought him out for the IT director's spot.

Porter sees the role as a challenge. "I'm being asked to do the same things as my enterprise counterparts . . . but the head count of our entire IT organization is smaller than one of their development teams," he says.

Even with budget shortfalls and resource constraints, Porter says he wouldn't have it any other way. "I'm IT director, chief technology officer, truck driver, window washer and, at the end of the day, hands-on technologist," he says. "I have the opportunity to make a difference and the flexibility to be hands-on when I want to be. That's a pro for me."

It's an upside for plenty of IT professionals who, like Porter, see value in being a big technology fish in a small pond. They view the requirement of rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty with technology as a bonus, not a burden. For them, a tight budget represents a challenge to be creative with project choices. And here's their take on a small shop's flatter organizational structure: It doesn't mean fewer career choices; it's an opportunity to exert more control over initiatives that can have a meaningful impact on the business.

On the other hand, working within the constraints of a small IT shop isn't always a bed of roses. Beyond budget and resource restrictions, some smaller organizations aren't culturally ready to take on state-of-the-art technology. And experts and small-shop CIOs say that IT can be pulled in conflicting directions, with politics and personality trumping business value as the gauge for getting buy-in on certain tech initiatives.

Wise Career Choice? Maybe

Those downsides don't deter Porter, who says his propensity to buck bureaucracy and his desire to make a difference make him a good fit for a smaller organization. That was certainly what prompted him to take the IT director spot at Touchstone Behavioral -- and stick around long enough to grow it into a full CIO role.

"The company's mission appealed to the old hippie in me," Porter says. "With technology, we deliver tools that help with some of the business processes and documentation. If that gives [therapists] another 15 minutes a day to work with the kids, then we've achieved something."

With less bureaucracy and smaller leadership teams, Porter says, his group is more nimble, implementing sophisticated initiatives around mobility, security , virtualization and voice over IP in months rather than in the years it takes larger organizations to close the books on similar projects.

"Governance becomes a matter of two or three business units getting together, sometimes literally in the hallway or over a cup of coffee, and making the decision to go in a certain direction or to have this particular project's needs supersede anything else going on," he says.

Porter and other tech execs at small organizations might find such agility appealing and the challenges enjoyable, but is a stint in a small organization good for an IT professional's career trajectory?

Some industry watchers say small-ponders are in a position to cultivate skills that set them apart from their peers. "When you're a leader in a small department, you gain experience you'll never get in a large organization," says John Reed, executive director of Robert Half Technology, an IT staffing firm.

"Because they have an all-hands-on-deck mentality and there are often no defined career descriptions, [small-company tech execs] learn a lot of additional skills and how to do more with less. It lets them build out their resume in a robust way and makes them more marketable to their next employer," Reed asserts.

IT staffers in larger organizations might only be able to gain cursory management experience by a given point in their careers, for example, or might only focus on one specific technology area, like virtualization.

In comparison, tech professionals working their way up the ladder in a smaller firm with fewer specialists often do hands-on problem-solving across numerous technologies. They also have the potential for deeper management experience -- working with budgets and interfacing with other business functions, for example.

The downside is that lingering too long on the small-shop path puts a tech exec at risk of being pigeonholed as someone who "won't translate well to a large organization," Reed cautions. "If you start exceeding the five-year mark, you need to stop and think from a career perspective, 'Am I happy staying in this type of setting from now on?' "

With management experience in both small and large municipal IT departments, Paul Haugan believes the difference between the two relates primarily to the amount of red tape attached to a given tech project.

During a previous role at the city of Fresno, Calif., where Haugan, 54, helped oversee an IT group of 75, it took about 15 months to push both a business intelligence project and a time and attendance system through the proper channels to get funding. In his current role as CTO of the city of Lynnwood, Wash., the same projects took around three months, all told.

"In a big operation like Fresno, by the time [you] go through the bureaucratic administrative steps just to get a project done, the technology is obsolete," says Haugan, who is now responsible for about 10 people supporting close to 500 end users and who oversees an IT budget of between $2 million and $2.9 million. "I'm a firm believer in technology's opportunity to enact significant change. I'm one of those guys who can't wait for the bureaucratic wheels to turn, because there is too much value being lost."

Haugan cites projects involving aging phone systems as further examples of his ability to enact technology change much faster in Lynnwood than he could in the larger Fresno IT infrastructure.

When Haugan first came to Lynnwood five years ago, the city's 25-year old PBX phone system was failing on a daily basis. In a matter of months, he made a successful case to implement VoIP, including a network overhaul that encompassed the integration of voice and email.

Back in Fresno, a similarly aging phone system never ended up being replaced, just perennially fixed, because management considered it too disruptive to replace a system that served 60 sites and more than 5,000 employees, he recalls.

"[In Lynnwood], I didn't have all these hurdles to jump," Haugan explains. "I didn't have to go to each director and say, 'I want to put VoIP in and here's why.' I could go straight to the mayor and make it happen. There was much less red tape, and I was in a position to make the decision and work within the municipal code in the most effective way possible."

While Haugan is generally happy with the flexibility of leading a smaller IT organization, he admits to concern over the inevitable salary hit. (Computerworld's 2011 Salary Survey shows that CIOs and VPs of IT at companies with fewer than 100 employees earn about 44% less than the average compensation for those positions across organizations of all sizes.)

Beyond that, he's worried that he may not be fully developing the sophisticated political awareness that's required to make things happen in a larger organization.

Still, Haugan believes the skills he has honed could directly translate to a larger organization. "Everything I have learned at a big city, I have used in the small one. Everything I learned in the nonprofit world, I have used at both the big and smaller cities," he points out.

"My greatest strengths are in relationship-building and innovation. These are skills that translate across the board," Haugan says.

Making a Difference, Fulfilling a Mission

As CIO of the nonprofit Make-A-Wish Foundation of America, Jim Toy, 43, finds fulfillment not just in helping his organization carry out its mission (to grant the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions), but also in orchestrating leading-edge technology deployments with an eye toward maximizing limited budgetary resources.

On Toy's watch, the foundation has implemented a professional-grade data center with advanced technologies like blade servers, storage area networks, virtualization and disaster recovery -- working within an annual budget of well under $1 million, which includes salaries for himself and his 11 staffers, who are charged with supporting 1,500 users nationwide.

Toy, who has worked at Make-A-Wish for 16 years, was introduced to the organization while helping a fellow IT contract worker do a network upgrade there. With that project successfully off the ground, Toy was tapped as the organization's first IT manager and was promoted to IT director in 1999 and CIO in 2008.

During his tenure, Toy has developed a talent for soliciting hardware and software donations from vendors. That's a unique assignment that only a CIO at a nonprofit would be expected to undertake, but the donations help him deal with budgetary bottlenecks.

"In a large organization, you have to work within these guardrails where this is the technology and this is the budget," he says. "Because you can't go over budget, you propose new things and they get shot down. I'm not limited by that. I can go out and acquire new technology and get deep discounts because I'm a nonprofit."

Toy admits that he may have less opportunity to grow technologically than a CIO at a large company, but he feels that this limitation is offset by his ability to take on additional responsibilities in the areas of finance and operations. The lower pay of smaller firms and nonprofits in general might be a deterrent for some, Toy says, but it's a sacrifice he's willing to make.

"You just need to find tradeoffs to the lower salary of working for a nonprofit," he says. "With Make-A-Wish, it's the mission of the organization that's so rewarding."

Daring to Go Where Large Firms Won't

The same goes for Edward Ricks, CIO and vice president of information services at Beaufort Memorial Hospital, where he leads an IT staff of 23.

Sure, the financial resources might be less than what's available at larger organizations, and his IT group is often pulled in a lot of different directions, depending on personalities and who can grab his ear. But even with these tradeoffs, Ricks, 49, doesn't see himself at a larger organization. From what he's heard from colleagues, he'd be out of his comfort zone. "In those situations, so many other folks have control over what's going on with you, you can feel like a widget, not an individual," he says.

Ricks doesn't think he's missing out on an opportunity to do big things with technology at a larger organization. In fact, his community hospital has adopted a number of cutting-edge healthcare technologies, including single sign-on systems, an RFID employee identification tool, and a provider order-entry system that physicians use to enter orders directly.

"Ironically, one of the larger hospital systems just came down here to visit and see what we've done," Ricks says. "They're interested in doing it, but they just haven't been able to get to that point."

Ricks is equally unconcerned that his organization's smaller size might limit the scope of his management skill set. "The ability to build consensus, foster teamwork and effect change at all levels of an organization are skills that are in demand at every organization," he says. "I believe future employers will measure my abilities by my successes, not necessarily the size of the organizations I have worked in."

Touchstone Behavioral's Porter agrees, saying he envisions numerous future career opportunities; these could include pursuing another CIO role at a slightly larger company, or branching out on a big-company track as an IT leader in a business unit reporting up to a division head or CIO, or taking ownership of a focused enterprise team in applications or infrastructure.

"I think the opportunities are there," Porter says. "It's fairly obvious I'm not going to get the call to take over HP, but I wouldn't want that call. It's a whole different set of headaches."

Stackpole, a frequent Computerworld contributor, has reported on business and technology for more than 20 years.

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.

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