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Telstra tough for IT bosses

The telco has a history of chewing up top IT managers and spitting them out.
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Written by Renai LeMay on

commentary Dateline: 7 February, 2007. Telstra is once again looking for a new chief information officer.

Is anybody surprised? The nation's largest telco has a history of chewing up top IT managers and spitting them out.

Just 12 months ago, Telstra chief executive Sol Trujillo announced Fiona Balfour would leave her long-time employer Qantas to join the telco as its new CIO. The move took many in the IT community by surprise, given that Telstra's incumbent CIO Vish Padmanabhan had not revealed plans to depart.

It turned out he hadn't -- instead, Balfour had nabbed his role, and Padmanabhan had "accepted" a demotion to be her deputy.

Just one year down the track, and both Balfour and Padmanabhan have now left Telstra, each one leaving rumours of frustration and marginalisation swirling behind them.

In Padmanabhan's case, it was Balfour herself who usurped his role -- albeit at the whim of Telstra's upper management. Balfour, in turn, has reportedly had her own position overshadowed by Telstra's "business transformation adviser", formerly US-based Tom Lamming.

"Company insiders said Ms Balfour's resignation was directly related to the relocation of Tom Lamming, a former partner at Accenture, to Australia a few months ago," the Financial Review reported this morning.

"It is understood Ms Balfour thought responsibility for the technology transformation should rest with the chief information officer, not Mr Lamming."

Lamming will look after Telstra's IT function until the company appoints Balfour's replacement.

Perhaps Telstra's most high-profile chief information officer in recent years was Padmanabhan's predecessor Jeff Smith -- who pushed the cause of open source software within the telco. Smith was around longer than Balfour -- but still spent just three years helming Telstra's IT operation.

It's not hard to guess why CIOs find Telstra a bit tough to deal with. Most companies have discrete IT functions, where the CIO is literally the top technology official, reporting directly to the chief financial or executive officer.

At Telstra this has not been the case in recent years, due no doubt to the fact that the company's core business (telecommunications) is inherently tied to technology.

For example, Smith's IT function of the day came under the wider umbrella of the Telstra Technology, Innovation and Products division, which was headed up by Ted Pretty -- now non-executive chairman of Fujitsu Australia and New Zealand.

During Padmanabhan's tenure Sol Trujillo took Telstra's helm, bringing with him a number of American executives. Chief operations officer Greg Winn became the face of Telstra's technology divisions. And Lamming -- a key advisor to Winn -- has featured heavily in press reports about Telstra's current transformation, while Balfour has kept a low profile.

It must have been hard for these talented and respected CIOs to give up some of the decision-making ability that would have been theirs at other corporations.

Would you take Balfour's job as CIO of Telstra? Or would it be more trouble than its worth? Drop me a line directly at renai.lemay@zdnet.com.au or post your comments below this article.

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