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IT: Don't let the CEO wonder what you do all day

Minda Zetlin | Nov. 19, 2013
If there's no catastrophic system failure or major software deployment to work on, CEOs might wonder what IT does all day. Here's how to make sure your contributions aren't undervalued when things go smoothly.

McLaughlin reduced the complexity at AAA's PMO, and vastly simplified the requirement document to one that's written in plain English and is easily understood. Once it's filled out, he says, "We don't ask them to review requirements. Instead, the director of project management sends back a one-page scoping document that basically says, 'This is what we think you want to do — is that correct?'"

In general, he adds, "we try to be a lot more user-friendly. We've eliminated most of the weekly reporting meetings, and try to only focus on meetings that actually produce work. You read these articles that say, 'You have to do this, this and this.' Well, you don't. You have to do what works."

- Minda Zetlin

Brady tries to casually mention to the CEO whenever her team completes a substantial project. Let's say they've just updated the company's mail servers to the latest version of Microsoft Exchange. "No one's going to see anything other than that the mail server has changed," she says. "But that's a pretty big project for the infrastructure team. So if you take your high-level project plan and explain why you're doing it and the effort involved, they'll see that there's a substantial project your team is doing."

Use the right measurements
If you want top executives to value IT's efforts, it's important to communicate those efforts in terms business executives care about. That means learning which metrics those executives are watching.

"For our CFO, an important metric is EBITDA," says Kevin Broadway, CIO of MetroPCS, a wireless carrier acquired by T-Mobile in 2012 for $1.5 billion. (EBITDA, an acronym for earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, is a metric commonly used by companies with large debt obligations or expensive assets that depreciate over time. It measures how profitable their operations are, irrespective of financing and tax issues.) "IT contributes to EBITDA one way or another," Broadway says. "As we invest over time and our expenditures change, we make it worse when we're spending money. So if we twist the metric to invest more in IT, in theory you should see a positive effect on EBITDA over time."

How does this differ from return on investment, or ROI, a much more commonly used measure in IT departments everywhere? It doesn't, or not very much. In both cases, the key challenge for IT and finance is to go back and measure the economic effects of a project after it's completed and has been in place for a while. Broadway adds one extra step by figuring out how those effects accrue to MetroPCS's general profitability. "The one-to-one relationship isn't necessarily there," he concedes. "But it's another way to look at IT's contribution at a macro level."


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