A new survey has found the rapid pace of technological change is exacting a heavy toll on the personal lives of IT directors. The primary source of their anxiety? Software suppliers. Mark Vernon reports.

"We have seen cases of directors sleeping overnight in the office, others developing a drink problem and others again with a marriage breakdown on their hands." So speaks Ronnie Wilson, vice-president of Sequent Computer Systems, sponsors of new research into the human price of the IT revolution. What emerges is a picture of IT directors on the brink of collapse in major companies throughout the UK and the US.

The research, "Revolution and Risk: IT into the Millennium", was carried out by Ronin, and involved 500 IT directors on both sides of the Atlantic. Apart from the risks to business presented by computers, with 76 per cent of those questioned reporting a major project failure, it is the personal story that is alarming: 65 per cent reported suffering increased stress levels that were impacting upon their private lives and resulting in breakdowns and depression.

David Charles is one former IT director who knows about stress, having taken early retirement from his former employer, a well-known international insurance company. He described the lifestyle of an IT director at divisional board level, which routinely involved rising at 4am to catch a flight, returning home at 10pm, then putting in two or three hours reading the papers for the next day's meetings. Weekends were a haze of sleep and chores that excluded time with his family. Looking out across the gentle, drizzly landscape of southern Ireland that is now his home, he reflects that such a manic existence is probably inevitable today, though he does feel that the aggressive "everything is the bottom line" approach of his boss was unnecessary.

It is the peculiar nature of the computing world that exacerbates the situation. One factor is extraordinarily rapid change. More than a quarter of those interviewed expect data volumes to increase by 400 or 500 per cent in the next two years, with more than half believing that their existing systems could not cope with the surge. Massive business demand from other parts of the organisation build the pressure on the IT director, as other members of the board realise that their own success is increasingly dependent upon computer systems over which they have no direct control.

Added to this is gaping corporate isolation. Unless the industry is new, those at the top are unlikely to appreciate the complexity of modern IT infrastructures the IT director bears the burden alone. Shortage of skills is another major headache, with staff wising up to their value and demanding salary increases, leaving to higher bidders, or setting themselves up in consultancy and selling their services back to the corporation.

The research points one finger clearly at software suppliers, with 72 per cent of IT directors blaming suppliers for project failure and 45 per cent saying that getting the project right first time was "an alien concept". Peter O'Donnell, director of Dimensions Plus, a systems integrator that specialises in delivering Microsoft Windows NT solutions, says: "Software suppliers are interested in getting their products to market and not sufficiently in the ability of their company or partners to deliver solutions. All are guilty of overselling the simplicity of their products. We believe that Microsoft should provide some kind of audit or verification of their certified re-seller and consultancy community's ability to deliver solutions."

This all translates into a substantial price tag for business. For example, computer downtime is generally reckoned to cost pounds 17bn per year, with some estimates reckoning that three weeks a year are lost to end-users as a result.

The authors of the report believe that the situation is going to become worse before it improves. "The potentially disastrous implications of the 'Year 2000 time-bomb' and the disruption caused by the introduction of the euro, [mean that] the prospects for computer staff, office workers and business as a whole look poor," says Wilson.

Sequent is taking its findings to the Department of Trade and Industry, along with industry bodies, lobbying to create a "Right First Time" certificate for suppliers. One of those bodies is the CSSA, the UK Association for Software, IT Services and Information Industries, which exists to promote best practice. "Supplier management is a key aspect of IT projects, and we would be delighted to be a part of any initiative that sought ways of improving it," says Rob Wirszycx, director-general of the CSSA. But, he adds, "The trouble is that these companies are on quarterly targets, based upon sales volumes, enforced by enormous commercial pressures."

If Sequent's research is anything to go by, these problems are deeply rooted and systemic. But if personal tragedies cannot be heard, then perhaps the reality of project failure will speak louder, and initiate change.