The Biggest Mistake I Ever Made as a CIO

Brien Posey, Freelance Writer and Former CIO | 8/2/2013 | 48 comments

Brien Posey
A few months ago, the E2 editors asked CIOs to blog about various experiences (mostly bad) and what we had learned from them. As such, I decided to take the bait and write about the worst mistake I ever made as a CIO -- and what I learned from it.

It came shortly after I was hired as the CIO of an organization in the late spring of 1999. The organization had not even begun preparing for the infamous Y2K bug. I had recently completed a high-profile Y2K preparation for another organization, and I was put in charge of this organization's IT department primarily because of my experience with Y2K readiness.

One of the first things I did was perform a Y2K readiness assessment. The results were not promising. Across the organization, there were a couple hundred people who were still using 486 PCs, which were not Y2K compliant. The problem was that my IT budget did not allow me to go in and replace all these PCs. I had to find a way of making those computers Y2K compliant.

While researching the problem, I found a company that created modified processors that would fit into a 486 socket and trick the software into thinking it was running on a Pentium-class computer. I talked the vendor into sending me a sample of the chip. I installed it into an old machine I found in the closet, did some basic lab testing, and confirmed that the chip was indeed Y2K compliant. That being the case, I placed a bulk order for the chips.

This is where things went horribly wrong. Even though the modified processors truly were Y2K compliant, they ended up being slower than the native 486 processors. I hadn't done an extensive amount of testing, because time was of the essence. I was under a tremendous amount of pressure to come up with a solution and implement it quickly. Because of the time crunch, I had neglected to do a pilot deployment. Had I done that, I would have quickly determined that, even though the chips worked fine in a lab environment, they simply weren't up to the job of handling the user's normal workload.

Ultimately, it was nothing but dumb luck that kept my huge mistake from turning into a major catastrophe. One of the facilities I oversaw happened to be replacing all its computers. The old computers really weren't that old, so I was able to use them to replace all the 486 machines throughout the organization.

Obviously I screwed up big time by not performing a pilot deployment. It's an embarrassing mistake, and I seriously considered pretending it never happened, even though the incident occurred nearly 15 years ago. Even so, the incident did teach me several valuable lessons:

  1. There is no substitute for a pilot deployment program. Sometimes lab testing is simply inadequate.
  2. Using a modified processor was a bad idea. Even if it had performed flawlessly, I shouldn't have used it, because the Microsoft Hardware Compatibility List did not certify Windows to work with the processor. Though no compatibility issues were found, there were no guarantees. By using a modified processor, I essentially put the desktop computers into an unsupported state.
  3. Even though my budget did not allow me to replace the computers that really needed to be replaced, there were solutions less drastic than using a modified processor (though those solutions were not quite as cheap). I could have replaced the system board, processor, and memory in each of the aging machines. This would have allowed me to reuse the computer case, power supply, hard disk, and cabling. Doing so would have cost more than using modified processors, but it still would have been far cheaper than replacing entire PCs.

So there you have it. That is by far the worst mistake I ever made while I was working as a CIO, and those are the hard lessons I learned from it. I ultimately recovered from the mistake and had a long career until I recently decided to become a consultant and a freelancer. Mistakes are part of any job, of course, but since I have shared such a personal and embarrassing story, I ask that you please be kind with your comments. Maybe you can share a mistake of your own and what can be learned from it.

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batye   The Biggest Mistake I Ever Made as a CIO   3/1/2014 5:16:09 PM
Re: Making Mistakes
yes, as long as we are learning from mistakes and trying to avoid same mistakes in the future...
sherly_mendoza   The Biggest Mistake I Ever Made as a CIO   8/31/2013 3:27:16 PM
Making Mistakes
Making mistakes is not a bad thing. In fact, it offers us some benefits. Making a mistake is as human as you can get. It doesn't mean the end of the world is here, or that you are doomed. It means you miscalculated something so you ended up choosing the wrong option...Making a mistake also means learning. When you make a mistake, you try to find out where you went wrong. And this process will lead to new learning. As you learn, you also remind yourself to refrain from the same mistake again. Thus, making mistakes also result to a better you.  
RashmiK   The Biggest Mistake I Ever Made as a CIO   8/25/2013 1:57:33 AM
Re: how much choice did you have?
Given your situation, there was not much of a choice but I must say that you were in great luck because this method is known to back fire in the worst of ways. the beta testing is the probable way to check the functionality of the program but it is very faulty makes one wonder what the manufacturer was up to when designing it.
soozyg   The Biggest Mistake I Ever Made as a CIO   8/17/2013 9:37:22 AM
FB slowing down
I just found this article from Business Insider and Wired. Apparently, FB will be slowing down its deliverables and testing them more: Read here.

kstaron   The Biggest Mistake I Ever Made as a CIO   8/14/2013 12:28:50 PM
time crunch solutions are less than ideal
Sometimes, in a time crunch, we do things we wouldn't normally. In the ideal world this wouldn't have been a rush job. But it was also a really good list of what you learned from it, providing a solid reason to have a pilot deployment in all future decisions.
tjgkg   The Biggest Mistake I Ever Made as a CIO   8/13/2013 5:31:00 AM
Re: how much choice did you have
Not only design changes, but spelling errors and other minor mistakes that are part of early development.
Marif   The Biggest Mistake I Ever Made as a CIO   8/13/2013 1:56:10 AM
Re: how much choice did you have
@Hayder: you are right people are more comfortable with original release than beta, but there are people who are making such beta releases successful due to which the companies are consistently throwing beta versions into the market for user testing. I will myself never consider to try beta of such software which is in my daily use and can afford my work to get halted because of it.
soozyg   The Biggest Mistake I Ever Made as a CIO   8/12/2013 9:54:53 AM
Re: how much choice did you have
@Marif i once used, not a Beta, but an unofficial copy of the next version of Word. A client asked me to use for their project. Destroyed my whole machine.
tjgkg   The Biggest Mistake I Ever Made as a CIO   8/12/2013 5:34:00 AM
Re: how much choice did you have
Absolutely--but you don't purchase beta's. At least that way people understand it is not the final version and there are going to be bugs. Many times users enjoy being part of the QA process and diligently report issues. However I think it really cheeses people off when they buy a product with a release number thinking it is an officially tested and approved version when in fact it was just released with no quality control. Imagine if that was done with automobiles.
Hayder   The Biggest Mistake I Ever Made as a CIO   8/12/2013 3:19:03 AM
Re: how much choice did you have
Marif I feel people are more comfortable with original release rather then the beta version. Whether its having a problem or not but mind do not accept that and reluctancy in getting full benifit out of it can be questioned.
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