How to Be a Chief Information Officer

Google's CIO Ben Fried favors a counterintuitive move—giving people their choice of toolsets

For a lot of chief information officers, the best-case scenario is not to be noticed. Why? No. 1, these people are typically responsible for the largest cost center in your organization. No. 2 is that most of the technology budget is for things that were bought in previous years. So the CIO comes from a place of caution and conservatism and ends up moving slowly, while being the face of technology—one of the fastest-moving industries in the world. There are these cosmic pressures like cloud computing services and the rise of consumer technology—smartphones, tablets, and all the rest—that are forcing change in the landscape.

CIOs have to figure out how to harness all that change, as opposed to fighting it. It’s hard to understand that you have to give up a certain amount of control. You used to write the checks and determine what people would use. Not anymore. At a lot of companies, employees are already using their own personal smartphones. They bring their phones to the office and they want them to work. CIOs tend to see that as, “Oh my god, they are imposing on me.” On the other hand, it’s one less thing you have to buy and one less carrier contract you have to maintain. It is one problem off your organization’s back.

At Google we go to great lengths to make people productive by allowing them to have choices with the technology they choose for doing their work. I had thought that would be very, very costly. To my surprise I’ve discovered, and third-party benchmarks have verified, that when you give people the choice of their toolset, they end up supporting themselves much more.

This was counterintuitive to me. I mean, we don’t let people buy a computer at Best Buy and support it—we buy the computer and give you the choice of which operating system and productivity software you want. As a result of that, our users are more self-supporting. The reason they choose a particular technology is probably because they knew it or liked it or wanted to know it. All of those things will lead to a better situation than if you just told them what they had to do.

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