In this series of blog posts, follow along as we revisit Mark Schwartz’s book A Seat at the Table: IT Leadership in the Age of Agility. Five years after its publication, it’s still highly relevant and chock full of tips, tactics, and learnings. Join us as we follow along with Online Marketing Assistant Lucy Softich as she reads through the book for the first time.
My name is Lucy. I’m the Online Marketing Assistant here at IT Revolution, coming hot off of getting my BA in Business Administration: Marketing from Portland State University. About a decade ago, I also got a BA in English and a MA in Writing/Book Publishing, so you may be able to see how my different interests align well in a position here at IT Revolution. However, I don’t have an IT background (though, yes, I can make the printer work). Although my business classes touched on Lean manufacturing, I’m fairly new to DevOps and Agile, and I come at both with a very abstract perspective. But with each of our books, I learn a little bit more.
This summer, I’m going to be reading A Seat at the Table, by Mark Schwartz (former CIO of the USCIS and currently an Enterprise Strategist at AWS). I’ll be sharing my journey with you through biweekly blog posts. I’ll pull out quotes and key concepts that stick out to me, and perhaps offer a peek inside the book, for those deciding whether or not it’ll be a good read for them. I hope you’ll join me!
2nd Generation DevOps
A Seat at the Table is one of what I’m coming to think of as 2nd Generation DevOps books. It’s part of a growing amount of literature that isn’t introducing DevOps or building a case for it; it’s responding to it, growing with it, and helping shepherd in the new phase of this revolution. If The Phoenix Project, The DevOps Handbook, and Accelerate are “Generation 1,” then A Seat at the Table fits in nicely with “Generation 2” books like Sooner Safer Happier, The Unicorn Project, and the forthcoming novel Investments Unlimited (you haven’t read it yet, but I have; and trust me, it’s gonna be great).
A Seat at the Table focuses on the role of IT management within an Agile or DevOps structure. To be clear, not within the development of such a structure, but within the functional, day-to-day workings of an organization that has already gone through a full Agile transformation (as full as possible, anyway—continuous improvement never stops!).
Mark’s goal, at least according to the Introduction, is to address what he sees as an incompatibility between the role of a CIO and a Lean or Agile structure, and offer solutions; new ways of thinking about IT management that align better with the new ways of thinking about IT development and delivery. How to get CIOs a seat at the table, helping to make meaningful decisions about business value.
CIOs in an Agile World
In Chapter 1: Sitting Alone, he outlines the problem a bit deeper. While there are plenty of books aimed at helping CIOs lead effectively, they all ignore the last two decades of Agile and Lean changes. And there are many books on Agile and Lean transformation, but they all stop short of explaining the full role of IT leadership. There are reasons for this, of course. In a world where many CIOs must still fight for that seat at the table, many are subject to the traditional waterfall methods preferred by other C-level leaders in an attempt to show their worth. Meeting deadlines becomes proof of the value IT provides to the business, and missing them—even when they were arbitrary—jeopardizes the CIO’s reputation, and their seat.
Mark also highlights in this chapter that much of these issues come down to a historical (and lingering) division between IT and “the business.” I have to admit, when I first saw other books using this language (it’s very important in The Phoenix Project, for example), I was perplexed. It felt so strange to refer to the company you were a part of as “the business” instead of “our business.” Why wouldn’t IT naturally be integrated? But when you think about the early uses of IT—focused on technology, not value, with the primary goal of setting up and maintaining the computers (and websites) that help run a business—it becomes clearer. Although IT departments are more robust now, the patterns remain; they are considered a tool more than a partner. Obviously, it’s well past time for that to change.
Mark says it best himself:
In the twenty-first century, there are very few C-level executives out there who seriously doubt that IT adds value to the business. The rest of the enterprise does not want IT to treat them like customers, and does not want IT to “align” with them. What they want is for IT to deliver outcomes. This screams out for an Agile and Lean solution: deliver value—outcomes—quickly and frequently, and trim away everything else, since everything else is simply waste.
However, in Agile and Lean discussions, IT leadership is mostly tasked with driving transformation and allowing for teams to work autonomously. The idea is that by allowing for teams to work directly with product managers—who decide business value—things will run smoother and more value will be identified and speedily delivered. Where does this leave IT leadership? They are held responsible for successes or failures, and yet by design are kept removed from the processes that lead to those successes or failures. Rock, meet hard place.
But, all is not lost. Mark proposes that to change things, to truly make use of that seat at the table, we must apply Agile and Lean principles to IT leadership itself. How? Well, we’ve still got a lot of book to go, folks. . . Keep checking back for updates as I dive into Chapters 2 and 3 next!