CFOs - stick to your knitting, says CTO Steven Sidley

Keep your CFO's hands off the tech budget, and put your CIO on the board.

By Steven Sidley

I have, over the past twenty years, done some hard labour at a few of the large corporates in South Africa, in IT departments, usually as a CTO or as an obscenely high-paid consultant. In most cases, I would be working for the CIO, a much-envied title. And a thankless task. 

Why thankless? For one, no one says thank you when the computers are working. But if a mail server goes down or the wifi network goes down, then woe betide, or something similarly Shakespearean. 

But there is another reason why being a CIO is a job that will beat a man or woman into a hollow desiccated husk, at least in out fair land. it is because the CIO often reports to the CFO. And most CFOs, with the greatest respect, have not a clue how to manage technology, how to understand technology, how to adjudge its risk and how to reward its efforts. 

Worse still, CFOs have little idea which technologies will give their companies an edge. When is the last time you saw a CFO reading an article on machine learning? Or blockchain? Or IoT? (it means the Internet of Things, and if you don’t know what that is, it is a trillion-dollar global business.) Or what is real and what is not when it comes to cybersecurity?

The three pillars on which a company operates are firstly the service or product it makes and sells, and secondly how much money comes and goes through the ledgers, and thirdly the information that is used to make informed decisions. And if you look at the constituent representatives of the executive arm of a typical board, you will find a CEO (the king), the CFO (money guy) and perhaps an HR or legal guru. How often do you find the person who knows how to collect data and extract insight from that data on a board of directors (the CIO)? Never. The CIO is almost never invited to a board. His input is filtered and muted and parsed by his boss, the CFO. 

So let me offer you this - the CFO is probably the least qualified person in the company to understand what technology can offer. He or she has a B.Com and some extra fancy financial certifications and maybe the ability to wrangle an Excel spreadsheet, but generally no clue about what data exists in the enterprise, or can be collected, and what secrets and weapons it may reveal.

Put the CIO on the board. Otherwise there is little chance that you will find a competitive edge. And if you want to shame the CFO, ask him or her to explain blockchain and where it might help the enterprise. But ask the CIO and you will get the answer. 

And for goodness sake, do not let a CFO decide on a tech budget.