Life as a Virtual CIO

Life as a virtual CIO

In today’s post, we’re going to share insights from Andrew S. Baker about virtual CIOs and the roles they fulfill in small and medium-sized businesses.

Modern SMBs face many of the same challenges that large organizations face. But often, they lack the guidance necessary to overcome them.

Andrew S. Baker is the founder of BrainWave Consulting, a technology solutions provider offering Virtual CIO services to small and medium-sized businesses.

Thanks to the rapid pace of technology development, organizations of all sizes have access to technology solutions for less money than ever before. Cloud computing, open-source software, sophisticated mobile devices and diminishing hardware costs have opened the door for small and medium-sized businesses to compete with large companies in numerous ways.

However, with a greater number of options comes greater complexity, And unfortunately, most SMBs aren’t ready to handle this complexity.

Small-business technology staff are usually squarely focused on tactical issues. With tight budgets, a huge plate of projects and a multitude of responsibilities, very little time or energy is available for strategic planning.

Given today’s market pressures, government and industry regulations and an ever-growing security threat, it is pretty clear that SMBs are no less in need of a promising technology strategy than are their larger counterparts. SMBs need a senior technology professional who understands the company’s business objectives and can provide direction in how to use technology to support those objectives—essentially, someone who can play the role that a CIO would play in a larger company.

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While I wasn’t the one to coin the term “virtual CIO,” I feel it very accurately describes my role.

That role being a business-savvy, hands-on technologist and adviser. One who recommends and implements technology and policy for businesses. However, it also means doing so as a consultant rather than a full-time employee.

It’s a role that combines technology consulting with business management consulting—providing vital strategic and tactical services to organizations that can’t afford a full-time professional at that level.

The virtual CIO must quickly assimilate information about a client’s business to be successful. They must also assess the technology and ensure risks are identified and mitigated. They must also convince business owners their challenges are manageable—that some solutions and approaches are cost-effective and timely and will grow with their business.

Finally, the virtual CIO must ask for the same level of trust bestowed upon an influential insider, even though they are not a member of the staff. This is crucial, given that much of the work of a virtual CIO happens remotely and without the benefit of daily face-to-face interaction.

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Face time is very important in establishing relationships for many people. As such, the use of online conferencing solutions such as Skype, Citrix’s GoToMeeting, and Cisco Systems’ WebEx help satisfy the need to put faces to names. At the same time, they also reduce the need for travel.

Occasionally, I still have to travel. But it’s almost always for the purpose of meeting with executives to secure a partnership rather than going onsite to perform the work.

This year, I completed several projects for which I never visited the client’s physical location:

  1. A server migration project for a software as a service provider involved migrating from physical servers to the cloud and consolidating from eight hosting servers down to four—without once stepping into the office or data center.
  2. A firewall migration project for a multi-office law firm involved swapping one brand of firewall at the main office for another, reconfiguring virtual private networks, and establishing a backup connection—all completed remotely.
  3. An assessment project for a management consulting firm looking to overhaul its overall technology infrastructure and business processes. This project involved more than half a dozen phone conversations, including three major meetings but no onsite visit.

In my role as a trusted adviser, I’ve had the pleasure of delving into new industries. I get to show business owners how they can leverage my knowledge of other industries to resolve their own challenges.

For example, I’ve helped organizations:

  • Hire the right technology staff
  • Develop detailed project plans
  • Write operation or security policies and procedures
  • Obtain necessary training for their existing staff

Throughout the course of my career, I’ve also led project teams, suggested the use of key technologies, and provided business guidance.

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Along the way, I have learned some important things about both business and technology:

  • A virtual CIO is not purely a technology position. Those who seek technology-only challenges should take another path.
  • The virtual CIO needs to be competent and convincing because much, if not all, of the work for a client, is done remotely. Trust is essential.
  • The current outsourcing boom is favorable for the virtual CIO as organizations grow open to working with external, high-level technology partners.
  • Many SMBs want to use technology but lack the necessary guidance. If they find a suitable partner who can provide value for their business and help navigate the maze of technology options, they will be highly appreciative.
  • Influence can be more powerful than authority. As a trusted adviser, I often have much more influence over nontechnical aspects of a client’s business than I would have as an employee.
  • Technology is most useful in the context of getting things done. There is tremendous satisfaction in proposing the right mix of technology and process to solve a pressing business need.

Every day is a new and varied challenge, and I am very grateful. To me, being a senior technologist in the 21st century means understanding business needs and risk just as much as it means understanding the newest technology and how to implement it. I now spend as much time reading Harvard Business Review as I read BizTech or SC Magazine.

Today’s SMBs deserve the same access to effective technology strategy that larger companies rely on.

Thankfully, this no longer necessarily means hiring a full-time, onsite CIO. While much of my work may be conducted virtually, the results are always very real.

Ready to learn more about virtual CIO services? Click here to set up a call with Cloud Nexus.

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This article was first published in Biz Tech Magazine in 2012. It was updated in 2022 just for you.

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