Is a Chief Information Officer necessary? Ray Zinn discusses what a CIO does, and why your company may not need a CIO.
Rob Artigo: Thank you for listening to Tough Things First. I’m Rob Artigo. I’m a writer and business owner in California. Hello, Mr. Zinn. Ready for another topic?
Ray Zinn: We are ready. So good to be with you today, Rob.
Rob Artigo: Thanks, Ray. Let’s talk about the role of the CIO. Let’s start simple. What’s the role of the CIO, or the chief information officer? What is it that the CIO should be doing at your company?
Ray Zinn: Based upon the nature of your business, if as a CEO or the leader, and you have a good ability to communicate, or a good communicator as you would, you don’t need a CIO. A CIO is generally, there for business leaders that don’t have that ability to communicate. The story is told of Moses, when God said, “I want you to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt,” Moses said, “Well, I’m not good at speech. I’m not a good communicator.” He said, “Okay, I’m gonna give you a CFO,” and He gave him Aaron.
So, Aaron’s gonna be your CIO. Because, you’ll tell Aaron what you want to be conveyed and then Aaron will go out and do that. And that’s the way it was in leading the children of Israel out of Egypt, was that Moses was the CEO and Aaron was the CIO. So, if you’re good at communicating, and this is a skill that has to be developed, you really don’t need a CIO.
Rob Artigo: There is the other side of that, though. There is the CIO who has a technical obligation with the company. For example, information security.
Ray Zinn: You mean, as a function?
Rob Artigo: As a function, yeah. A function of their job, right?
Ray Zinn: Yeah, it depends again, the kind of company you run. I’m speaking globally, now.
Rob Artigo: Sure.
Ray Zinn: So, I’m not making it so company-specific that saying okay, they’re responsible for the security, things that, protecting the information of the company. Yes, that’s true they do have that. But, that’s specific to those organizations that have that sort of, need for maintaining security on their information.
Rob Artigo: I was reading about this writer was, I think it was Wall Street Journal or Forbes, one of the two, but they were talking about the role of the CIO and that a lot of companies that are startups, when they get large enough and they think they’re gonna go ahead and IPO, that, that’s when they hire a CIO to come in. And when I first read CIO, I always think chief investment officer, but having to re-scramble my brains and figure out, oh, they meant chief information officer. But, his argument was that you needed one and that you should bring this person in early on in the process, not right before you IPO, because then it takes them a lot to get up to speed. Is there a time when you feel a CIO is going to be appropriate for your organization?
Ray Zinn: If you’re a very publicly traded company, and there is a lot of calls that come through, just random calls, and it’s going to suck up your day so that you can’t get anything else done, sure. I mean, if you have somebody who can take those phone calls and take that off your plate, then certainly, that person can perform that function. But, I never liked to talk to a CIO. I want to talk to the CEO. So, whenever you’re stuck with the CIO, you know you’re just gonna get the standard pat answer, whatever is in his purview, he reads from the standard verbiage that he’s allowed to tell you. You’re not gonna learn a lot. I mean, I very seldom learn much from a CIO because they’re just giving you what they’re told to say.
Rob Artigo: Right, the pat answer, whatever the, and some people would call it spin, or the soundbite that they want to get out there, the messaging. You’ve probably seen this. I’ll put my reporter hat on, too, is if you’re watching a news program, and so, you watch a live press conference and you see an information officer for somebody, and they’re asked a question, they might dance around in the first few words, but they’ll bring it back to the messaging of the subject they want to talk about.
So, instead of answering the question from the reporter, they change it up and start speaking about the thing that they want to message. And then, they’re asked a follow-up question by somebody else, and they’ll do the same sort of, square dance with them in the first few words, and then go back to saying that line again that they want to get out there, so that they’re always saying the same thing over and over again.
Ray Zinn: Well, you may know, at press conferences with the President, he has his press secretary go out and communicate to the news media, because the news media is going to dig, dig, dig, dig, dig. And so, he’s got to be very fast on his feet and have the ability to really communicate with the press corps without being offensive. And he has to dance around a lot, as we’ve seen recently, because the questions are very negative and very pointed. And so, he has to almost practice answering negative questions. So, if I’m investigating your company or, as a potential investor, I want to talk to the CEO, not the CIO. But, the CEO tends to hide behind the CIO, so that he doesn’t have to have those difficult questions to answer.
Rob Artigo: Along those lines, let’s say that you’re the business owner and you’ve decided that, I can handle the information. I want some screening. You have several layers of people that something has to go through to get to you so you’re not bothered by calls all day long, but you will take the important ones, and you will address things that are gonna be publicly printed or recorded or whatnot. You leave the CIO out of it, but how do you make sure that you are sticking within the framework of what’s responsible for your company when dealing with public speaking? When you have so many things going on, it’s kind of easy to get distracted and you might get tripped up?
Ray Zinn: Well, I mean, that goes to how good of a communicator you are as a CEO. At Micrel, I ran for 37 years, we never had a CIO. So, if it was just a random investor question, I’d let my CFO answer it, or take the call. So, my CFO, effectively, was like a CIO even though he didn’t function. But, any of the tough questions, the CFO would say, “Well, let me see if I can get Ray on the phone and we can talk about that.” So, he would then pass it over to me. So, we never dodged an investor, but if we could answer it without having to get me involved, then my CFO would take care of it. So, in 37 years, I never had an official CIO.
Rob Artigo: And that would be exactly the opposite of what this writer was saying. He was saying, you’ve got to have a CIO and you’ve got to have the CIO early on in the process, like, one of your first hires. So, your argument is that it all depends on whether or not you or the people you already have working with you can fill that role, as to whether or not you’ll need it.
Because, I’ve seen some people out there who are, unfortunately, just because they haven’t been around a long time and they don’t have media savvy, perhaps, they are let’s say the tech world, I’m gonna go to the cliché side of the tech world, it was a garage startup, 22-year-old CEO, and awkward, let’s say it’s a person who is just somebody who is really proficient and really driven and a fantastic operator of a business, but is just, socially awkward and has a hard time doing anything in the media, that person right there might go, “I need to have somebody who can be maybe, the voice and face of the company.”
Ray Zinn: My feeling is, is that, when a company has a CIO, and this is my feelings, this is my views, this is not necessarily held by you or some of the others, but my view is, if you have to have a CIO, that tells me that number one, you must not be a very good communicator. Number two, is that you’re afraid to address the questions. You’re not very transparent. So, the more you turn it over to an information officer, the more likely you are of being viewed as being nontransparent.
Rob Artigo: And you did the disclosure there, at the beginning. This is just your opinion, and it’s obviously, gonna apply to every company out there with that going on. But, you, as an entrepreneur, as an investor, as a man in the industry out there engaged in business daily, it’s natural for you to have that thought come into your mind when you meet somebody who’s spending the money to have a CIO early on in a smaller company. Logical questions, though. They’re logical questions. You always have to explore little bit more to find out if it’s truly the case. But, that’s a real reaction that you can have, and that’s something that people should think about.
Ray Zinn: Well, my company, Micrel, was known for its transparency. And I never dodged an investor. I was at all the investor conferences. I had no problem taking the calls, these random calls. I actually, liked interfacing with the public regarding the company, because we were transparent. We didn’t have anything to hide. And it was an easy job for me. Maybe they didn’t get the answer they wanted, but they got the answer that I felt they should have. So, I like to be able to communicate, because I’m the one that’s running the company.
Rob Artigo: And, as a reporter, when I’m out there covering, when I was a reporter, when I was out there covering stories or calling organizations, when I dealt with Google, Facebook, and major companies, Tesla, and I remember one of the most available people was from Tesla, Elon Musk. Whenever they were doing something, they had Elon talking. They didn’t, that’s not necessarily the case with a lot of organizations.
And I think you can tell the difference in the way the media cover something, when they’re hearing from the principal, and that’s what we would call it in the business. So, the principal person would be, it’s not the spokesman for Senator Dianne Feinstein, it’s time Senator Dianne Feinstein. Or, it’s not the spokesman for the President, it’s the President who’s doing the talking. You’re liable to take more credibility from that person’s comments and words, and give more short shrift to when it’s somebody’s spokesman.
Ray Zinn: Well, jumping back to this political environment, I would rather, as an individual, I would rather hear 10 minutes from the President of the United States than a half an hour or an hour from his press secretary. So that’s my view. I mean, I know I’m getting hosed when I listen to the press secretary. But, if I hear it from the President, and maybe he spends only five or 10 minutes, I’d rather have that, than a half an hour or an hour with the press secretary.
Rob Artigo: Well, that’s one of the reasons why this is such a wealth of information. Your Tough Things First podcasts are enlightening in so many ways. And obviously, “Tough Things First”, the book, which you can get out there at Amazon and other major retailers, is a great source of information, because you’re doing the talking. And you’re not mincing the words. And because they’re getting the straight dope from you, the reader or listener knows they’re not getting hosed. And that’s one of the reasons why I like doing the podcasts with you, and quizzing you on all kinds of subjects, because getting the straight information is very helpful.
Ray Zinn: Well, thank you. I think that hopefully, our audience is feeling the same way. I’ve had a lot more experience than even our current President has, maybe not in running the country, but in running a company. I’ve done it a lot longer than the current President. So, experience has helped me, and that’s why I’m sharing this information at my sunset years of my life, is that I think that my experience helps in communicating some of these important issues.
Rob Artigo: Thank you again, Ray. I appreciate you being back.
Ray Zinn: Well, thank you, Rob. Appreciate having you.