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Silicon Valley: The hardest place to work in IT

Read Accenture’s report on how being hired as a Silicon Valley CIO presents a lot of challenges for new IT leaders to the valley.


For many technology professionals, a job offer from a prominent company in Silicon Valley would be the opportunity of a lifetime—except if the job were as head of information technology. In that case, going to work for one of the Valley’s tech giants, or a hot new start-up, might involve several surprising frustrations.

New chief information officers in Silicon Valley often find themselves in the unfamiliar position of not having much street credibility. In this entrepreneurial technology culture, the glory goes to the engineers and developers.

But an Accenture study reveals that CIOs have found ways to earn a bigger share of respect for themselves and the IT organizations they lead by representing the customer, pushing for innovation and becoming well connected within the Valley’s high-tech scene.

In this research Accenture interviewed 34 Silicon Valley executives with CIO or equivalent responsibilities, and another 22 experts—consultants, executive coaches, academics and Valley IT expatriates—with deep understanding of working there.

The Tech Guru

The study found that running systems and protecting assets may be typical CIO goals, but the Valley’s technology companies view these as givens. Almost no one perceives the CIO as the resident tech guru. Such credit is usually reserved for the chief technology officer, whose office typically sits elsewhere on campus closer to product development teams. IT leaders at Silicon Valley companies are typically lower in the pecking order compared to leaders of engineering and product development groups. As for the CIOs themselves, their position brings to mind the fable of the cobbler and his children. Only in this case, it’s sort of like the cobbler and all his barefoot children work in the same village as shoe designers from Gucci and Jimmy Choo.

“A lot of IT people out here see themselves as second-class citizens,” says the CIO of one Silicon Valley company who asked not to be identified.

To improve this self-image challenge and be seen as bona fide executives worthy of collaboration, Accenture has identified three actions Silicon Valley CIOs should take that also apply to IT leaders in other locations and industries.


Plug in to the Valley’s ecosystem.

This may sound like old advice—“the CIO must be a networker”—and to some extent it is. But for Valley technologists, opportunities are unique and widespread to meet people, gain an early look at upcoming developments in their fields, understand the business and learn from others’ experiences.

“I had to be here to understand it,” says Bask Iyer, a former technology executive at Honeywell International Inc. who joined Sunnyvale, California-based Juniper Networks Inc. as CIO in 2011. “I’ve met more influential technology people in the last 12 months than I have in the rest of my career. That’s because of the intensity of living and working in the Valley.”

Tim Campos, CIO of Menlo Park, California-based Facebook Inc., is unequivocal about the importance of having what he calls “the network.” “It’s the No. 1 requirement,” Mr. Campos says. “I get things done within the company because I know who to go to outside the company.”


Be the voice of the customer to the engineering and product development groups.

Many Valley companies sell highly technical products, including networking gear, security software and enterprise cloud services. Their CIOs often showcase to prospective customers how they use their company’s products. Some CIOs go beyond this and play the role of the first customer. They install the new product, push it to its limits, and then sit down with the engineers who developed it to offer feedback Google Inc. CIO Ben Fried does this when he provides advice to developers of Google Apps, a suite of online productivity tools that include Google Docs.

“We tell them what other CIOs will look for and which product enhancements make sense,” says Juniper’s Mr. Iyer, who along with his IT team often provides feedback to product developers in his own company. Mr. Iyer sometimes specifies for engineers which company he might buy from if he became the CIO of a different company the next day. “That’s a real equalizer,” he says. It’s a tactic to get engineering leaders to pay attention to things that make Juniper’s products better.


Make the IT department a champion of ideas and innovation.

At many companies, CIOs have lost the power they once had to dictate which technologies employees can use. New cloud services, smartphones and tablets, often marketed to consumers, now routinely show up as office work tools.

The trend is especially prevalent in Silicon Valley where virtually any attempt to restrict the use of non-sanctioned technology would be “incongruent with reality,” says Electronic Arts Inc. CIO Mark Tonnesen. Far better to speed ahead of this market momentum and demonstrate IT’s support for innovation in other ways, too.

Accenture’s interviews uncovered CIOs who hold “hackathons” (day-long competitions among IT staffers), set aside seed money for IT innovation, and structure their organizations to encourage transfers of talent between IT and engineering.

This entails looking beyond efficiency and cost-containment—IT goals elsewhere—and focusing on how enterprise technology can advance the company’s business agenda. “If IT is fusing these two things, it has the opportunity to create value,” says Google’s Mr. Fried.

Valley CIOs who succeed typically have confidence in enterprise IT’s role and are articulate about it. Juniper’s Mr. Iyer, for instance, uses an analogy that has particular resonance with engineers whose products his department sometimes critiques. “It’s like you guys have a great music store,” he tells the product developers. “You’ve got electric guitars, acoustic guitars and drum sets. But owning a music store doesn’t make you Eric Clapton,” he says before delivering the punch line: “I’m Eric Clapton.”


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