As businesses increase their use of technology, many low-tech CEOs feel like they're running high-tech companies. An essay on managing a head-first jump into the new environment.
Let's think about Jane Austen for a minute. There she sits, in the family home at Chawton, scribbling demurely in her manuscript of Mansfield Park. And all of a sudden she looks down and realizes, "Oh, my God, I'm writing Moby-Dick!"
Now, Austen was a pro, and I'd like to think that if she found herself embarked on a wholly foreign but clearly rewarding enterprise, she would abandon the listless yearnings of Fanny Price and steep herself in cetology until she could complete the more demanding masterwork. It's a situation analogous to that of many CEOs who, having started a business in a familiar industry, suddenly find themselves running a technology company.
In " A Shock to the System," associate editor Emily Esterson explores this phenomenon in the electric-utility industry, where CEO Doug Hyde, a product of the generator generation, now heads a retail electricity company that quacks like a high-tech database marketer. But it's happening everywhere, even in the most unlikely fields. Just look at Vermont Teddy Bear's graceless morphing from its famous birth legend (a guy, a cart, and some bears) into a company dependent on a computerized customer database, product data-management systems, and Internet sales.
So how do CEOs get smart enough about technology to make decisions in this new environment? How do they develop sufficient expertise to hold sensible conversations with the employees and consultants paid to help them make those decisions?
Well, if they're really dedicated, they could go the route of Narendra Popat, president of $50-million NetScout Systems, a developer of network monitoring tools in Westford, Mass. Now, obviously, NetScout is a high-tech company by definition, and Popat was never a schlump when it came to computers. Still, when the 23-year-old entrepreneur arrived here from India, in 1972, he didn't feel he knew enough to run a company that would be both a seller and a heavy user of the most cutting-edge technology. He spent the next 10 years in training so he could found such a business.
Popat, who had never drawn a paycheck before, embarked on a series of jobs at companies that excelled in areas he wanted to master. Like an MIS migrant worker, he traveled from Burrough Corp., where he learned about temperature sensitivity in semiconductors, to Wang Laboratories, where he studied systems engineering. Having wrung every last drop of knowledge from each position, he'd move on, taking pay cuts along the way. "Employers are always looking for the long term, so I'd tell them, 'I'm going to retire here," he says.
Some of what Popat learned during his pilgrimage he applied to product development, but much of his new expertise was devoted to internal processes: managing the technology aspects of ISO 9000 certification, creating an elaborate software-development guide, and--most important--deepening communication with his technology staff. "I guarantee that, as head of a company, if you don't know technology, you won't know what direction to go in," says Popat. "I can't rely on someone else's opinion. I have to go with my own gut feeling."
Most CEOs don't need to know as much about technology as Popat does, but unless they're still selling bears from a cart, they probably need to know more than they did when they started out. Think about the company you were running five years ago, and then look closely at the one you're running today. Would you know it if you met it in a dark alley?
So how are you gearing up to run your high-tech company? Let me know.
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan