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From one carrier to another

commentary Ever been forced to shift from boss to sidekick? Not the most pleasant feeling in the world.

commentary Ever been forced to shift from boss to sidekick? Not the most pleasant feeling in the world.
Iain Ferguson, News Editor, ZDNet Australia

If you've ascended to a career-making position such as chief information officer (CIO) at Australia's largest telecommunications company, it must be especially tough to have the word 'deputy' shoved in front of your title.

Not only must you swallow the bitter pill of seeing an externally recruited executive come in over the top of you, but the entire Australian business community is informed via a statement released to the Australian Stock Exchange.

This is the harsh reality today for Telstra's now deputy CIO, Vish Padmanabhan, who sees departing Qantas CIO Fiona Balfour fly into his former post from April this year. Balfour -- who in 2004 awarded an AU$750 million contract to Telstra to take responsibility for Qantas voice, data and desktop services -- is due to leave her former employer sometime next month.

(We should note that Telstra's spinners this morning coyly refused to use the term "demoted" when questioned as to why Padmanabhan had been appointed deputy CIO when he had held the position of CIO directly prior. The official line never wavered from "he has accepted the position of deputy while Balfour has been appointed CIO," leaving open the possibility that the carrier generously acceded to a request from Padmanabhan to be made Costello to Balfour's Howard.)

Padmanabhan -- who was only elevated from the deputy CIO position last April -- had been charged by then Telstra group managing director for technology, innovation and products, Ted Pretty, with overseeing an ongoing program to slash IT costs and deliver efficiencies.

However, the appointment of Sol Trujillo as Telstra's chief executive officer (CEO) on 9 June ushered in a new regime which saw chief operations officer (COO) Greg Winn assume tight control of key information and communications technology (ICT) decision-making. Pretty resigned around the time of Winn's appointment in August.

Industry sources had speculated for months about the extent to which Padmanabhan had had his wings clipped by the new management. Several reports noted Winn and executives from the business consultancy which was conducting a thorough review of ICT at the carrier, Accenture, had usurped a lot of the CIO's functions. Padmanabhan's position at Telstra was also said to be under close scrutiny by Winn, Trujillo and other members of the so-called "amigos" running the carrier.

Significantly, Winn -- who at Telstra's review briefing in mid-November detailed a massive program to consolidate systems and suppliers at the carrier -- retains tight control of ICT, with Balfour reporting to him rather than directly to Trujillo.

Trujillo justified the structure at an analysts' briefing this morning, saying it was designed to allow Winn to "be the chief integrator, and as I call him, the chief plumber".

Of course, Balfour herself, despite a high-profile and lauded career, has had her own occasional setbacks. In early February last year she found herself effectively cast out of the running for the CEO position at Qantas after the incumbent, Geoff Dixon, restructured reporting lines to require the CIO to report to chief financial officer and rival Peter Gregg.

There appears to be two approaches Padmanabhan could take now. He could acknowledge that the deputy CIO role at Australia's highest-profile company is nothing to be sneezed at, get back to his desk and get stuck into it. Or he could decide his career is best resurrected with another organisation and start contacting headhunters with a view to moving on in a few months' time.

At any rate, the announcement should at least put an end to the months of damaging speculation about his position. And he still has a job, unlike many who populated the 1,000 full-time equivalent positions cut by Telstra since 30 June last year.

Have you ever shifted from head of an IT operation to deputy? How was it handled by your superiors and are you still with the same organisation? How do you think Balfour will perform at Telstra? E-mail us at edit@zdnet.com.au and let us know.

Iain Ferguson is the News Editor of ZDNet Australia.