Editor's Note: Eric Dirst (above) is speaking at TechTomorrow, taking place on September 26-27, 2012 at COSI in Columbus. 

Eric Dirst: Stop Talking 'Alignment'
By Terreece Clarke, September 5th, 2012

Eric Dirst has seen the evolution of the IT industry from the perspective of government IT, as a consultant, with a dot com during the big ‘90s boom, as the CIO of SIRVA and now as Senior Vice President and CIO of DeVry, Inc.

Traditionally, his roles have commanded an interest in ”being aligned with the business,” but Dirst chafes at the phrase.

“I do believe the phrase ‘being aligned with the business’ is over-used, and makes no sense. IT is part of the business, it is not outside the business. You don’t hear HR or Finance talking about aligning with the business. That’s because HR and Finance know their functional role, run their operations (hopefully effectively) and collaborate with various business units to deliver on shared objectives such as workforce management and talent development for HR, or business unit profitability analysis and joint risk management activities for Finance."

Ideally, the role of IT organizations should follow suit.

Dirst continued, "Similarly, IT needs to run its own operations effectively, and collaborate with other business units on shared objectives. That isn’t alignment, it’s shared objectives that require a given business unit and the IT business unit to both effectively collaborate to deliver a new process that reduces costs, or a new offering that allows expansion into new markets, or whatever”

Two CIO Mistakes

Dirst suggest two mistakes are most common for CIOs, with the first mistake well known - CIOs talking tech. The second may be an eye-opener for many in the field.

“They focus enormous amounts of time on the infrastructure operations...the plumbing of IT (e.g. servers, networking gear, etc.). These things are important to an effective IT operations, but they are not important to any business unit leader or the CEO,” he said.

“The CIO needs to be focused on what is important to the business unit leaders and the CEO," Dirst said. "This would be things like executing acquisitions/mergers, increasing profitability, expanding into new markets/geographies, reducing enterprise costs, etc. An analogy would be the VP of Facilities/Real Estate worrying about whether their office plumbing used copper or PVC pipe. They would never do this, because the VP of Facilities/Real Estate knows that they need to worry about the same thing as the CFO and the business unit heads – things like space utilization, leasing vs buying options, effective location near customers or supply chains, reducing overall facilities costs, etc.”

“If there is an infrastructure problem, they should be saying ‘Here’s what I’m doing to improve it.’ Once they get it smoothly running, they should go back to discussing value added items. If they’re not, I can guarantee they’ll start talking to someone who will.”

The Path to CIO, Around the Knowledge Paradox

When discussing tips for those interested in the path to CIO, Dirst pointed out a big myth that prevents IT pros from advancing: “The Knowledge Paradox.”

“People think they should become the most knowledgeable person [to get ahead]. Really, the most knowledgeable person doesn’t move because they’ve become siloed. They make themselves indispensable. What they need to think about is ‘how do you share that knowledge with your team’ to free you up to take on new responsibilities.”

The idea of taking on new responsibilities is a part of Dirst’s advice to avoid thinking about the CIO path as one of, “up and out.”

“People think they either need to move up or move out [to another company],” he said. An alternative Dirst said is to think about “how to grow my responsibilities at my current level or to make sure your team is doing well and then move on to grow the team beneath them.”

Another growth option for those interesting in moving ahead in their career, particularly to a CIO role, is to move to another team to make themselves well-rounded Dirst said.

Learn the Language

While you shouldn’t talk tech to business leaders, Dirst said there is one important language you should learn - the language of money.

“If you’re not a finance major, go take a few finance classes,” Dirst advised. “You need to be able to speak the language of the person who is going to give you money [the CFO]. You need to be able to say ‘it [an investment] will improve the operations margin by 300 basis points.’”

Another language future CIOs need to learn is communicating to a group. Dirst said presentation, speaking and writing skills are essential to the job.

“You spend a lot of time doing those things. How capable they [leaders] are is judged by how articulate they are,” he said.

Doing What Needs to Be Done

Dirst cited one of the best pieces of advice he received from a mentor: “If the CEO and COO asks you to do something, you don’t say no, because they won’t ask you again.”

That theory was tested when Dirst was asked to take over a small project that required him to leave his current work managing over 100 people to working by himself. He said yes, but without much enthusiasm. After taking on the project, it turns out leadership wanted him to learn the business because they were buying four companies and merging them into one. Dirst became the point guy on integrating those companies.

“It just goes to show you, just say yes when those guys ask you to do something,” he said. “They are usually thinking long-term when they ask you. I do wish they had told me their plans, I would’ve been more enthusiastic.”

From BASIC and PASCAL to CIO

The ‘do what it takes’ mentality’ seems to come easy to the kid who paid his way through college on an IT programmer job he got when he was 17 years old.

Dirst first fell in love with tech when he took a BASIC language course in high school.

“It was very tough at first. “It didn’t help that I was sick the first week of school and missed some pretty important basics,” he said with a laugh. “I just worked really hard at it and it became fun. I was lucky because my school had a great program. It made the first three years of college a breeze.”

In college Dirst was much more interested in business and decided to earn two degrees - operations management and computer science - from Northern Illinois University and credits his business degree more than his computer science degree for his success.

Throughout all of his roles, he's enjoyed the opportunities to work with and help people in their careers.

“The last two companies [he worked for] have been turnarounds, bad IT organizations,” he said. “Turnarounds are process maturity and people. I spend a lot of time thinking about processes and people. The funny thing is the tech is easy. Changing people is hard, extremely challenging work. But I tell people, if you aren’t growing people beneath you, making them so good they can take your job or move to take someone elses you’re not doing anything, you’re not leading...you’re just managing tasks.”