This Generation’s 9/11 for CIOs

By Rick Pastore
March 19, 2020

The past five days have reminded me a great deal of the week after the events of 9/11 in 2001. With every announcement of closings and lockdowns, with every plunge in the stock markets, and with every increasingly grim email from corporate HR organizations, U.S. business people’s reactions have ran the gamut from curiosity to shock to simply being stunned. There is even an undercurrent of anger. Not the outrage that enflamed the nation that September. But anger that pandemics are not supposed to happen to us, not here in America, and the realization that our institutions weren’t prepared. As with the terrorist attacks, we have been hit hard, and it has disrupted our way of life. The coronavirus will be remembered as this generation’s 9/11.

On the day of the terrorist attacks 19 years ago, I was with more than 100 CIOs on a cruise ship floating off the shore of Northern New Jersey, covering a shipboard IT conference for CIO magazine. We had left Manhattan’s Pier 88 on the evening on September 10, passing the World Trade Center and the illuminated Statue of Liberty on our way down the Hudson and out into the harbor. The next morning, we huddled together on the main deck, with only a handful of Blackberries between us, trying to improve spotty connections to RSS news feeds detailing the horrifying events. I watched the group of CIOs quickly grow angry and frustrated at the unfamiliar circumstance of being powerless to help their families, their staff and their companies. You see, our ship was not allowed to dock. In fact, with our foreign registry, we were forced by the Coast Guard to move further offshore, out of sight and now out of contact with the land.

Today, IT leaders are the opposite of powerless. In fact, IT may eventually emerge as one of the business heroes of the coronavirus crisis. Every business staffer, from administrative assistants to the C-suite, will hopefully be able to get their work done to a sufficient if suboptimal degree, thanks to IT. VPN connections, broadband, cloud-hosted applications, collaboration platforms and tools, remote, 24-hour service desks – all will be essential, and appreciated, by those of us forced to work from home. The business resiliency plans activated this week rely on IT infrastructure to be the rock – the foundation, for their successful execution.

Yes, there have been challenges and bumps. On a peer discussion we set up today with 20 IT leaders, we heard several. Among the most common were overwhelmed bandwidth, shortages of video conference seat licenses, service disruptions among third-party providers due to high demand volume and potential security compromises from employees adding external contacts to internal virtual teams.

But we also see IT leaders mobilizing to expand and accelerate the remote operations capability of their enterprises. For example, some have rapidly rolled out virtual whiteboard technology. Others are adding service desk capacity to handle the spike in tickets, both internally and making certain that their third-party providers follow suit. IT leaders are teaming with HR directors and business resiliency teams to establish two-day, two-week, and two-month operating plans to keep pace with a crisis that changes hourly and has no clear end point. Truly, we are still a long way from even being able to assess how bad it will get before it begins to get better.

IT leaders have prepared for this, and are doing what they do best – helping the business function effectively and efficiently as possible. This time, we aren’t adrift, pacing a deck like caged tigers. We are with our families, we are connected to our teams, and we are getting the job done. I know we are going to be OK.