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Interview: Pressure and Performance – The CTO's Dilemma

 In this interview made by Deborah Hartmann during Agile 2008, Diana Larsen and Jim Shore talk about patterns observed in CTOs' activity. CTOs emerge as real people caring for other people in their organization, and are put under a lot of pressure and constraints.

Watch: Pressure and Performance – The CTO's Dilemma (30 min.)

Diana and Jim started to research CTO's activity by interviewing CTOs from different companies. They used a predefined set of questions, and observed a set of patterns emerging from CTOs' responses. CTOs are considered as numbers focused, bottom-line focused, but it turned out they are real people like anybody else after all.

According to Diana and Jim, CTOs always have to deal with contradictory goals. They are in constant battle with paradoxes, trying to balance all sorts of situations. This is what a CTO said about such a situation:

There are a lot of things that come across as just bad or stupid decisions that are made at the strategic level for the company, that are indeed bad or strategically poor decisions made by executives, but they are still made out of necessity. One example is that we had to sign and additional project with the customer that we didn't necessarily have the resources for, so we had to pull resources off of other projects. The reason for that was to get the cash flow going so we could meet payroll so we wouldn't go out of business. And that was one of those things that was highly criticized in the company. 'Why are we signing another project when we have as much work as we can possibly do? We can't sign another project! You are harming the projects in existence by sending these other projects!'. We couldn't really explain it to them that 'we were trying to get your paycheck this week by signing this project'. It was a strategically bad decision to make, but it was a tactically necessary decision. We can't go to these people and tell them 'We can't afford to pay you this week' because we would lose half of them.

Another theme emerging from Diana and Jim's research was related to "emotional baggage". One CTO made this remark:

Some of the issues that rise to the level they probably shouldn't are some of the interpersonal issues. I've seen these issues destroy projects, I've seen teams where certain people on the team refused to speak to other people on the team, even if they did talk, and even if they did talk to the person, it was so uncordial that it precipitated a bad atmosphere for the team. One of the more amazing things about that is I would have tolerance for it, if it was a 20 years old boy just out of college having problems with a 24 year old coworker, but I've seen instances where even people extremely mature, at least from an age standpoint have these difficulties working with other individuals. I would like for a lot of those problems to work themselves out before coming to me, but those are a lot of the problems that are escalated to me in every job where I've been a leader in the organization.

Diana and Jim said they were not done with the research and will continue to interview other CTOs, then they will try to figure out a set of patterns useful for CTOs wanting to become agile, and for teams to deal with CTOs becoming agile. A discussion group was created for that purpose. 

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