Do you know what is keeping IT leaders awake at night?

18 Jan 2021

Dear CEOs and business leaders,

It is well known that you are grappling with the changes brought on by AI, by IT security needs and by the impact of COVID-19. But are you aware of the pressure your CIOs, CTOs and IT teams are also under? Do you know why the rush for digital transformation is keeping IT leaders awake at night? If not, read on.

2020 was good for IT teams — or was it?

At the start of 2020, many companies planned ambitious IT programs of work, many of which related to the expected use of AI and cloud services (Spiceworks — the state of IT report). It also saw a jump in the need for security improvements to try and keep ahead of the long list of data breaches.

Then along came COVID-19. The seismic impact of the pandemic meant many companies needed to focus on their IT capability just to stay alive. In some companies, the need was to replace physical shops and services with digital services. In others, they had to support remote working for all employees within a matter of weeks. Whatever the reason, you can see how the workload for CIOs has exploded.

Some might see this as a boom time for IT and digital teams, with high demand for IT skills to meet the strategic and immediate needs of organisations. But the facts tell a different story. Globally, the IT budgets are decreasing by an average of 3% (S&P global ratings). This means there is less money to deliver what businesses need to stay alive.

This is made worse by the urgent need for some projects. Short timeframes almost always mean higher costs to deliver a quality product.

In addition to the decreasing budgets and increase in urgent work, there are three other factors related to digital transformation that are keeping IT leaders awake at night.

The pressure to deliver is enormous

CIOs are feeling the pressure to deliver. This isn’t new, IT has always been under pressure to deliver more, deliver it faster, and do it for less money. But now, the pressure comes from the need to keep businesses open. More than that, customers, staff, and shareholders are all looking to the CIOs and IT leaders to keep the business alive.

CIOS and tech leaders have always known that IT infrastructure is key to keeping a company working. And it is unlikely they would have risen to their positions if they didn’t have a vision of the future needs of the company and the technology required to support it. What’s different now is the need to take what was a three-year roadmap and deliver it in three months. That’s enough to keep anyone up at night.

The hidden pressure of other people’s success

CEOs and shareholders provide an obvious source of pressure. But pressure on CIOs comes from another, less obvious, but perhaps more powerful source — social media.

Social media, news sites, and business news platforms like and HBR, all add to the pressure felt by CIOs. These platforms provide visibility of how well other companies have managed their rapid digital transformation. It makes it seem like everyone else is already there and we are the only ones not there yet.

The sad thing is the success of others is often an illusion. People show their successes and hide their failures online. A company might deliver a rapid rollout of a new digital customer service platform, but rarely do they show what it costs to get there. Do they publicise the huge effort, long nights and weekends form the tech teams, the burnout, the poor architecture that underpins their ‘success’?

How many companies will spend the next five years struggling to build or scale the infrastructure they rushed into place in 2020?

Despite this, the pressure from other people’s success is real. Company boards will see competitors complete their digital transformation and question why their own company isn’t in the same place. When this happens, all eyes turn to the CIO for answers.

Building on unstable foundations is a bad idea

The pressure to deliver, whether real (to keep the company alive) or imagined (competing against the apparent success of others) gets worse when it collides with the realities of existing infrastructure inadequacies.

Before COVID-19, many CIOs were grappling with the challenges of upgrading old infrastructure and software architecture. Those old systems were often not sufficient to handle the demands of a pre-covid growth strategy, yet now they need to support the next generation of solutions.

This collision of immediate need and long-term stability creates an environment of impossible decisions for the CIO. Which is the better option:

  1. To implement an IT solution that meets the immediate needs, but is not scalable, or sustainable? A solution that requires a full time IT staff just to keep it functioning through the next few years.
  2. Or to build the right solution first time? A solution that has a much lower lifetime cost, and that supports the future growth of the company?

In normal times the second option is the better choice. It is the right choice. But these aren’t normal times. The first option is needed just to keep the company alive.

Do you think consciously choosing to make all future plans being harder to deliver is keeping IT leaders awake at night?

Working against what you know is best is really hard

CIOs are having to choose implementation strategies that are not in the best long-term interest of their companies. These choices go against their core beliefs and that means they are having to fight their own better judgement every day.

This issue goes beyond the CIOs, down into the heart of the tech and IT teams. It is rare that programmers want to deliver poor solutions. They usually know when a bad solution is being released, and when it will have a high need for ongoing support. Who wants to work like that?

The current situation is causing large numbers of IT professionals to work long hours, under pressure, to deliver solutions they know are not great. The solutions may be necessary, but they are not the best solutions for the long term. That work is important, it is necessary, but it is also difficult and disheartening.


So, if you are a CEO, business leader, or someone who regularly works with IT teams. When you are feeling the pressure of 2020, please make sure you aren’t transferring that pressure onto your IT teams.

Take a moment, consider the challenges those teams are facing. CIOs know the pressure the company faces. IT leaders don’t need to be shown the apparent success of competitors as an incentive to work faster.

If you find yourself debating with IT teams about the short term needs of the company vs building the right thing, take it easy. Realise that you are asking people to work against their natural instincts. Programmers want to build the right solutions that are future proof and scalable but of course, they will do their best to deliver what is needed to keep the lights on in these difficult times.

It isn’t easy. For many of them, it won’t feel great. And it might even be keeping IT leaders awake at night.