So Long to a Rock Star CIO
by Tony Kontzer
It was only a matter of time before the ax fell at General Motors. When a company as historically important to a country's economy nearly goes belly-up, there are bound to be leadership changes at and near the top. Last week, just a few months after Rick Wagoner stepped down as CEO and was replaced by Fritz Henderson, a handful of senior executives got their walking papers,
including long-time CIO Ralph Szygenda, who will retire in October. UPDATE: GM media relations writes to say that "GM's CEO Fritz Henderson attempted to persuade Mr. Szygenda to stay in his position for at least another year." We regret misstating the circumstances of his departure.
Make no mistake about it: Szygenda has been possibly the most influential CIO in the nation during his 13-year stint at GM. Note I didn't say best or most innovative. But it's hard to argue his influence, much of which has stemmed from GM's $3 billion annual IT budget, which translates to the kind of spending that causes vendors to trip over each other trying to get a piece of the action.
Szygenda, 60, knew from the day he arrived that this spending power was a serious bargaining chip -- one that was being underplayed by a strategy that essentially handed the keys to GM's IT castle to then GM-owned EDS. He eventually managed to break up that monopoly, divvying up $15 billion in IT outsourcing contracts in 2006 among a handful of vendors who had to commit to playing nice together, and to working on GM's terms.
There are those who say Szygenda was a strong-armed CIO who ruled with old-school business tactics, intimidating vendors and employees alike. These folks no doubt would argue that GM's IT will be better off with a fresh perspective, which the company hopes to get from Terry Kline, who will take over when Szygenda officially steps down. Kline, 47, joined GM in 2001, and has served as one of several process information officers reporting directly to Szygenda.
Over the years, Szygenda has often been lauded for helping GM's IT department get leaner and meaner, slashing millions from the budget by handing the grunt code work to contractors and maintaining a smaller IT staff devoted to project management. Whether this made for better IT isn't exactly clear, but a couple of years into Kline's stint, we should have a better idea of how to characterize Szygenda's legacy. Perhaps it'll turn out that he created a workable foundation from which Kline can help GM return to glory through innovation. Or perhaps his decision-making helped push GM to the brink of disaster, and he's left an ungodly mess for Kline to clean up.
One thing that will never be a point of debate: Szygenda wielded his influence while at GM, becoming one of the biggest personalities and most sought-after speakers in IT. As a member of the technology media, I think I speak for many when I say I hope he decides to continue his career at another blue-chip company, because from an entertainment standpoint, Szygenda's good for the IT business, and you certainly can't say that about every CIO.