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The Art of the Deal for Tech Execs

By Larry Dignan  |  Posted 2005-06-10 Print this article Print

A CIO who knows how to pitch a project should curry favor with decision-makers.

Dianah Neff is a chief information officer with a marketing degree from San Jose State.

That's good because Neff, CIO of the city of Philadelphia, has been pitching a citywide wireless network as a way to revitalize neighborhoods, create business opportunities and bridge the digital divide in a city where 22.9% of its 1.5 million residents are below the poverty line. "I have a belief that this could improve lives," Neff says.

The trick was translating that concept into an approved project. Marketing is a chore that technology executives have to consider as they pitch chief financial officers, chief executives and the folks who will change their work habits. Neff had to convince her city that it could run a WiFi network and provide broadband access on the cheap.

Luckily, Neff has sales chops. She used three axioms to make her project a reality.

Axiom 1: Make your boss' mission yours.

This rule gets at the "business alignment" that technologists and executives talk about but rarely achieve.

Mayor John F. Street's passion is revitalizing city neighborhoods, so Neff, who joined the Philadelphia city government in 2001, says her projects should work toward that goal. That means you skip acronyms and focus on giving kids in crime-ridden neighborhoods library access after dark.

"We can't just leave people behind," Neff says. Her plan: offer broadband at dial-up rates, $10 to $20 a month, and wholesale it to private Internet service providers that will give breaks to the poor. The goal: Put 80% of Philadelphia online in five years, up from 58% today.

Neff also notes the network is part of a bigger plan. People still need computers, and in year five of her business plan Neff expects to distribute as many as 10,000 PCs with eight hours of training through non-profit groups.

Axiom 2: Load up the bandwagon.

Neff rallied support. Knowing broadband providers such as Comcast and Verizon would see her plans as a threat, she created a bandwagon pols wouldn't want to tip over.

Neff held meetings with public schools, universities, small businesses, city residents and tourism departments to test her idea.

"You need interest in the community to make anything work," Neff explains.

Once residents were on board, Neff started proof-of-concept pilots and recruited local colleges such as Temple University and Drexel University to help forge a business plan since Neff's resources were thin.

Getting some press helps, too. According to LexisNexis, Neff has been in 125 news stories since Aug. 31. That exposure paid off in November when a bill in the Pennsylvania Legislature that would have squashed Philadelphia's plans got national attention. An amended bill became law that month, but Verizon and Philadelphia cut a deal so the city's project could proceed.

Axiom 3: Generate a return.

Neff's financial pitch initially boiled down to two words: why not? Why shouldn't a city provide Internet access when it can do it for $10 million? It took roughly $15 million a mile to refurbish the Schuylkill Expressway in the early 1990s.

But that argument doesn't go far. Under current plans, a non-profit entity will implement the project on a "revenue neutral" basis with private companies doing the installation. The non-profit's anchor client will be the city of Philadelphia.

Neff says the non-profit should be able to break even in year four, and have $4 million in the bank to upgrade the network and $5 million in cash flow to support "economic development and digital divide programs."

Now Neff has to deliver by summer 2006. If successful, Neff may have pulled off the city's biggest technological feat since the world's first electronic digital computer, ENIAC, was created at the University of Pennsylvania in 1946.

Business Editor
Larry formerly served as the East Coast news editor and Finance Editor at CNET News.com. Prior to that, he was editor of Ziff Davis Inter@ctive Investor, which was, according to Barron's, a Top-10 financial site in the late 1990s. Larry has covered the technology and financial services industry since 1995, publishing articles in WallStreetWeek.com, Inter@ctive Week, The New York Times, and Financial Planning magazine. He's a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.
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