This book begins on a note of suspense that many readers will recognise: the squeaky-bum moment when, in the wake of a corporate reorganisation, you're called in to have your new role (or lack of same) explained.

For the book's main character, Jim Barton of a fictional company called IVK, the news is bad, very bad: his firm's CEO wants him to be, ulp, CIO. The CEO knows he is handing Barton a tough gig and Barton himself takes the news as if he has been told he will be running a new branch office in North Korea. This might originally appear to be a vision of the CIO role as abbreviation for Career Is Over but it turns into a much more sympathetic view of the position and sees our hero embark on a Pilgrim's Progress series of lessons learned.

Barton's initial reluctance is followed by the tale of a long and hard learning curve where he discovers that managing IT is not about knowing bits and bytes, but rather the softer skills of project management, communicating, measuring cost and value, dealing with crisis, managing change, working with suppliers, managing staff, and keeping abreast of the fast-moving world of technology. His prejudices are confronted and he is forced to change very quickly to meet the new challenge.

Doubtless, this all sounds rather forced but, perhaps surprisingly, it works well as a gentle introduction to the challenges facing any new CIO, especially those being drafted in from other functions. Barton is a self-confessed ignoramus when it comes to IT but he learns that the job is not one for nerds. At the outset he had hoped to be presented with the COO role but at the end he is not sure whether to stay as CIO or take another executive position.

The authors, a trio of academics with deep knowledge of the CIO role, effectively present a series of course modules on how to be a CIO, fictionalised to offer a lighter tone than the usual ‘how to' volumes. There are lots of graphics accompanying the text but the hard lessons are nicely interwoven with the fictional premise.

Maybe it's a micro-trend, as Adventures Of An IT Leader is not the first book to be aimed at IT leaders and take the form of a novel or parable; Capagemini CTO Andy Mulholland has co-authored two books, Mashup Corporations and Mesh Collaboration, that use the same conceit, featuring a company called Vorpal and a CEO called Jane Moneymaker. There's always going to be a risk of overreaching and nobody looking for a pure novel to read should go near these books, but there is valuable information to be mined here and the format can help to make the hard data digestible.

Here at least the authors manage the job nicely and the book is split into chapters that make the volume also suitable for dipping in and out of.

Where does IT fit in? Excerpt from The Adventures of an IT Leader

Barton's musings about IT value finally sent him down the hall to consult with Bernie Ruben, director of the IT department's Technical Services Group. Barton gave him an overview. "Carl is going to want to hear our ideas about how to measure IT value."

Ruben nodded. "You can distinguish, not just in IT but in other areas too, between investments that are merely ‘qualifiers' that keep you in business and investments that help you compete. It'd be interesting to know how much of the IT budget we spend to qualify versus how much we spend to compete."

"And we could try to affect the distribution of expenditures across those categories over time," said Barton. "If we can reduce costs for running qualifiers, then even if their numbers increase, we might be able to reduce our total spend on them. I like the idea of taking a run through our portfolio with these categories in mind. Any chance you'd be willing to take the lead on this? I'll get Gary Geisler to help." Geisler was the IT department's financial guru.
"I'll do that and get with Geisler to prepare for the value discussion. First thing Monday morning."

Barton returned to his office, encouraged by Bernie's [ideas], but still feeling unsettled. Maybe from a different vantage-point he could see a way forward.

If IVK is the forest, thought Barton, perhaps I should start with the value of IVK? Then at least I can establish an upper bound of the value of IT.

Although he knew it to be a controversial measure, one estimate of a company's value is the price at which investors are willing to buy its common stock. How much did IT contribute to this value?

The flip side of this question was also important: How much did IT diminish this market value? Barton remembered celebrating when IVK's stock price passed $75, giving IVK a market value of almost $4.8bn. Just one-and-a-half years later, after a disappointing financial result, IVK had lost more than half of its market value. What role did IT play in that loss?

The Adventures of an IT Leader at Amazon