How an IT Executive Deftly Handled Public Criticism

The person in charge of the NYPD's tech decisions found one of her biggest moves publicly mocked. Why it was mocked, and how she responded, highlight some basic truths about enterprise tech leadership.

Last week, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner of information technology found herself in an interesting place: in the crosshairs of media criticism of her decisions.

The New York Post slammed a 2014 decision, spearheaded by Deputy Commissioner Jessica Tisch, to put the entire police department on Windows Phone 8.1.  The phones run on an operating system that Microsoft stopped supporting in July.

The headline was hard to miss: “NYPD Needs To Replace 36K Useless Smartphones” certainly doesn’t suggest friendly coverage.

On the surface (pun intended), the move to use Windows Phone didn’t sound like the greatest idea. The platform was already in decline by the time the decision was made, and more popular platforms like iOS and Android had already won out in the market. From the outside, it was akin to seeing someone put their employees on BlackBerry for the first time in 2017. The Post reported that the NYPD will replace the Windows devices with iPhones later this year.

But something really interesting happened after the Post story came out: Tisch responded, and her defense of the program was actually pretty good.

The Windows Phone software used by the NYPD. (via NYPD News)

Sidestepping the article’s criticism of her personal character, she noted that the phones were effective due to the custom software they used, that the program was 45 percent under budget, and that the decision to transition to iPhones was not driven wholly by the shutdown of the Windows Phone 8.1 platform, but by improvements in Apple’s platform from an enterprise standpoint that helped make it a viable alternative.

(Oh, and one important detail that the Post forgot in its story: Both the Windows phones and their replacements were free.)

“Whether it’s the parent whose child has gone missing, the driver who needs a copy of an accident report, or a domestic violence victim whose life may be saved by a faster emergency response, the smartphone program has made the NYPD, already New York’s Finest, even finer,” she wrote.

Now, I won’t go so far as to say that the department’s decision to move to Apple was ideal—for one thing, a CNET piece from last fall suggests that the original plan was to upgrade to Windows 10.

But I bring this situation up because it holds some useful lessons for IT departments of all stripes, including those in associations:

Transparency helps. The New York Post is well known for its gossipy tone and fast-and-loose relationship with the facts. But NYPD probably could have avoided this uncomfortable situation had it been upfront about the issue. It’s clear that this story cropped up because people in the department didn’t like the way things were headed. Tisch helped matters by responding publicly, but the response shouldn’t have been necessary in the first place. Decisions should have been communicated right away, in appropriate detail, to all stakeholders—including the public.

A vendor’s internal changes matter. Ultimately, NYPD got burned by a vendor. It may have been one of the world’s largest companies, Microsoft, but it’s still a vendor, and its business needs were not aligned with the police department’s. Andrew Orlowski of The Register pointed out that situations like this tend to sour relationships with vendors. “Microsoft is paying the price for neglecting what any business needs to do: look after your customers,” he noted.

Your needs aren’t anyone else’s. Perhaps the most important takeaway here is that consumer IT needs aren’t the same as enterprise IT needs. Sure, there’s overlap between the two sectors, but they differ enough that organizational decisions need to be based on what works best for that organization.

Would having a committee decide which platform to use have led to a better result? Maybe, maybe not. But Tisch did what any strong IT leader should do: She chose the best option for her employees, and she stood behind that decision when it was questioned. That’s the mark of a great IT executive.

(tillsonburg/iStock Unreleased/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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