At Okta, we're lucky to have smart, dynamic people working towards our vision to enable any company to adopt any technology. Our first CIO, Mark Settle, certainly falls into this category. Not only has he led technology efforts at seven different multinational companies, but he is releasing a book this fall called Truth From the Trenches: A Practical Guide to the Art of IT Management. I recently sat down to with him to discuss why he wrote Truth From the Trenches, and what he hopes leaders and entrepreneurs will gain from its pages.

Q: What made you want to write this book?

The IT profession has historically done a poor job of passing the hard-won leadership lessons of one generation to the next. I wanted to remedy that situation by sharing the insights I've collected through years of personal experience. Many other books on IT management have been written by consultants or industry analysts. The view from the trenches -- what it actually takes to be successful in an IT leadership role -- is in some ways very different, and admittedly somewhat obvious, but in many ways elusive. If the readers of my book come away with one learning that improves the effectiveness of their teams or advances their careers, I will consider it to be a raging success.

Q: On that note, what is the best piece of advice you can give to those who manage IT teams?

Too many IT organizations indulge in a blame game, in which they blame customers, colleagues, budgets, regulations and policies for their failure to have a strategic impact on business operations. Even in the most dire situations -- when budgets are tight and working relationships with internal customers are strained -- IT leaders can significantly improve the effectiveness of their organizations by:

  • Truly managing employee performance, not just mouthing platitudes during the annual performance review;
  • Prioritizing tasks and activities on a weekly or even daily basis -- something Agile development teams do routinely;
  • Eliminating or automating internal handoffs among multiple technical teams, which is commonly referred to as 'IT bureaucracy' by IT's customers.

In short, IT leaders need to look in the mirror and start fixing the things that they directly control rather than whining about all the restrictions imposed upon them.

Q: What is the most challenging part of being a leader in technology?

At the end of the day, you really learn by doing. There are no handbooks or certification processes that prescribe what it takes to be an effective technology leader. It sounds trite, but real leaders realize early in their careers that their knowledge and energy can't scale to make every important decision within an IT organization. They start surrounding themselves with smart, capable people early in their careers and those individuals propel the leader's success. Too many individuals in IT leadership positions revert to the technical roles and responsibilities they performed in the past and then wonder why their peers are advancing while their careers have stalled out.

Q: How do you think about when, where and how to introduce new technology within an IT organization? What's the best way to innovate?

I always get nervous when IT shops empanel a small group of experts to make all of the technology decisions for the organization. Every member of the organization is a technologist -- to one degree or another -- and they should participate in screening, validating and selecting new technologies. IT teams need to develop technology pipelines and use explicit criteria to turn leads into prospects, prospects into opportunities, and opportunities into procurement decisions. This progressive winnowing of technology ideas should involve as broad a cross section of the organization as possible.

I also think we define innovation too narrowly. It's almost always defined as the introduction of new capabilities. In a large IT shop with many legacy technologies, getting rid of old stuff can be equally if not more leveraging than introducing something new! Staff members who may not be directly involved in vetting new tools or systems can still be innovative by retiring legacy technologies.

Q: You refer to "talent debt" within the book. Can you explain what you mean by that?

IT leaders frequently complain about the "technical debt" they've inherited. They use that term to refer to the aging and obsolete technologies that they're forced to maintain to support daily business operations. Most leaders develop explicit programs to retire as much technical debt as possible over time.

Well, guess what? The portfolio of technical skills within the organization has been carefully crafted over time to support those aging technologies. There is a corresponding debt in the talents and skills of the IT team -- the "talent debt" -- which needs to be remediated as well. This can be done in part through retraining. But experience has shown that you need to import individuals with new skills and experiences to truly reverse the talent debt within an IT shop.

Many IT leaders could show you ten Powerpoint presentations describing their technical debt remediation plans but if you asked them for a strategic staffing plan describing the desired skill mix within their organizations two years from now, they would be clueless!

Mark Settle is a seven-time CIO with broad experience in the information services, enterprise software, consumer product, high tech distribution, financial services and oil & gas industries. He has led IT organizations that supported the global operations of Fortune 500 companies; maintained R&D labs for software product development; and hosted delivery systems for commercial products and services. Settle serves on the advisory boards of several Silicon Valley venture capital firms and has persistently championed the early adoption of emerging technologies.