Crossing the IT chasm

Take three men. Each ran an IT department of a multinational corporation and each crossed the gulf between IT users and...

Take three men. Each ran an IT department of a multinational corporation and each crossed the gulf between IT users and suppliers. They are selling software or consultancy services to companies operating in markets that they used to see from the other side. Julia Vowler asks the three users turned suppliers if their insider information gives them the edge in their new roles

Graham Paxton , ex-Nestlé, now projects director, Fast Track Consulting
Graham Paxton was 47 when he left Nestlé after nine years as business systems manager implementing enterprise resource planning systems.

Like others moving out of internal IT departments, Paxton finds one of his greatest satisfactions is in being at the heart of a business. "I have access at all levels to making things happen," he says, "compared with the slow pace and frustration of a corporate IT organisation, especially one that is a subsidiary of an international company."

"I am busier than I've ever been and working longer - but I am less stressed."

Paxton feels his years in corporate IT are an advantage. "It helps that I understand how the budget cycles work in large organisations and how to identify the real power brokers and influencers, who are not always who you expect them to be."

His advice to those with itchy IT feet is, "Understand that it's a completely different planet and requires a commitment that you have to be ready to get on a plane, any day. You have to operate at the highest level without any support - smaller consultancies have very flat structures. You'll need to be a strong networker, representing your firm continuously.

"Remember, because you are paid more you will be expected to perform more. You are working at the sharp end, facing the customers."

John Butler , ex-Norwich Union, now Sapiens salesman
During his years with insurance giant Norwich Union, John Butler became a firm fan of rapid application development (Rad) methods. Now he sells Sapiens Rad tools, having taken early retirement from Norwich Union in the wake of its merger with CGU. He has clear reasons why he joined an IT supplier. "I believe I can sell and I wanted to prove it," says Butler.

He may have the inside knowledge of how a large corporate IT department works, the timescales and imperatives that shape its behaviour and response and the intimate understanding of what users want both from their software and their suppliers. However, he acknowledges that coming into an IT department as a supplier is a different kettle of fish.

"To sell software worth £500,000 to a new customer takes between six and nine months, or longer," he points out. If, of course, they buy.

The lifestyle is different too. Butler is on the road a great deal and staying in hotels can be bleak for gregarious souls. Moreover, the pace of work is intermittent, "and then suddenly you have two proposals to put together for next Monday!"

He most enjoys being out with customers, bringing his experience to bear on other companies' use of IT. The toughest aspect is the selling. "It's tougher than I thought to convince people," he says.

David Parry , ex-British Aerospace, now chief technical officer, McLaren engineering IT consultancy
David Parry started his career as an electronics engineer, using computer-aided design for mathematical modelling and simulation. Then three-and-a-half years ago, he left British Aerospace after spending more than two years managing the IT team responsible for large naval architecture and marine engineering projects. He now works at IT engineering consultancy McLaren.

Coming from an end-user background gives Parry empathy with the very people who now employ McLaren's expertise. "I've felt their pain," he says. "That's absolutely crucial [for a consultant]."

But it is more than just his empathy with end-users that makes him valuable to McLaren. He also knows from experience what the business processes of large organisations are, not just what technology they need.

Parry says he was pleasantly surprised to find that although he assumed that, coming from an internal IT department, he would be underskilled compared with established consultants, this was not so.

"There are so many highly skilled but undervalued individuals working for end-user companies, who are taken for granted," he says.

"Such companies lull their good IT staff into a false sense of insecurity so they underestimate their own achievements.

"I would absolutely put myself in that category. I was surrounded by very talented people who thought they were also-rans."

Has crossing the floor been worth it then?

"It's paid off financially," Parry confirms. "I am a board director with share options.

"But it felt risky at the time. I thought about it for a year or two, though in retrospect it was no risk at all. It would have been riskier to stay where I was at British Aerospace."

For those thinking of doing likewise, Parry advises, "Identify what your real skills are and what market you really know about, then focus on an organisation that requires them and to which you will bring value-add through knowledge of that industry.

"If you understand that marketplace, you can sell back into it," he says.
The bottom line, Parry believes, is that it's better to be bigger in a smaller company. "I went from one of thousands, to being employee number 16," he says.

Can joining a small company be risky? "Make sure you talk to as many people as possible to find out how the company [you want to join] is perceived in the market and only join a supplier

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