A technology director explains how to ‘shake the money tree’ to fund IT projects

A speaker at the recent Spiceworks conference explains his approach to connecting with senior leaders and having conversations about budgets

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Many IT pros struggle to get the funding they need for new projects or even basic upgrades. That’s because they have to “sell” the project to CEOs and CFOs who, for the most part, don’t speak IT.

But Darren Schoen, director of technology infrastructure with the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Florida, has learned how to shake the money tree. And over the past eight years, he’s never heard “no” to any IT project he’s presented to the big bosses.

The hard truth, he says, is that IT is part of the problem. “IT is from Mars, executives and finance are from Venus,” he told an audience at SpiceWorld in Austin last month, in a session on shaking the money tree. And in order to get that money, you need to learn to speak CEO/CFO (which are not the same language, either).

“What we’re talking about is communication,” says Schoen. “How you communicate depends on who is going to sign off on the project.”

The typical CEO is concerned about business operations; IT is not necessarily a top priority. “At the end of the day they don’t care how the sausage is made, they just want to eat it,” says Schoen. Then there’s what he dubs the “buzzword bingo” CEO: Whatever happens to be the buzzword of the day — be it PaaS or cloud — he wants it, even if it doesn’t fit the business.

While different CEOs require slightly different approaches, Schoen says you should never give them just one solution for a project — provide a minimum of two, a maximum of four. After all, CEOs like to make decisions.

But, he adds, you still control the decision — by guiding that decision to the “right” one. With one option, for example, the business will be back online within 15 minutes after a catastrophic disaster; with the other, it will take four hours.

“You’ve just planted the seeds for the decision you want him to make by controlling the options that are presented,” says Schoen.

When talking to the CFO, it’s all about numbers, numbers, numbers. “They don’t care about the process,” he says. Most are not technical; they’re concerned about expenses and keeping the business profitable.

Frame the “ask” from the perspective of money lost or gained. If the business loses $15,000 in sales for every hour of downtime, and it takes 10 hours to get back online after a catastrophic failure, that’s a loss of $150,000. If you spend $20,000 upgrading your disaster recovery solution, the business can be back up in two hours. Do the math. It makes for a compelling argument.

“I’m framing it to the CFO as their decision: How much money do you want to lose? Because I can fix that,” says Schoen.

For IT pros, there’s also the issue of doing your job too well. If everything is up and running, no one notices. “We postpone the inevitable by putting Band-Aids on bullet wounds,” says Schoen. And that can work against you.

Make sure upper management understands the challenges you face, the patches you’ve installed, what needs to be upgraded. And if they reject a mission-critical project? Make the decision-maker accountable, he says. Have them sign a statement regarding the project and their decision to reject it.

“Many times IT doesn’t position itself as essential, even though if we weren’t there the business would come crawling to a halt,” says Schoen. Learning to speak the language of CEOs and CFOs can help position yourself as essential — and get results when you start shaking that money tree.

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