If you are a CIO (Chief Information Officer) or CTO (Chief Technical Officer) in business today then you are in a most fortunate position. A position that has the ability to create impact across the entire business. This role has changed so much in the last 15 years, that only the most adaptable and forward-thinking individuals are able to fulfill this role successfully. Many will fall by the wayside as the ever increasing demands of the evolving workplace are translated into a need that must be fulfilled by an information technology solution. The rest of the business looks towards the IT department to not only solve business issues but also bring competitive advantage into the business.
This evolution of the role of the technology leader has largely been driven by the rapid pace of development of cloud technology services. The ease with which one can access these services, try them out, conduct a POC, and then deploy them, results in an increase in the number of options for solutions to business problems, the speed that they can be tested and deployed, and the number of possibilities for innovative solutions.
IT is no longer about the infrastructure that supports individuals to get their job done, the servers, desktop PCs, and laptops. It is no longer about the systems that keep track of sales and profit margins. It is no longer about the storage of data for analysis at some stage. Of course, all of these aspects need to be there, but they are just the starting point, as the cloud building blocks of solutions grows.
IT today is about every function of the business. It is about the customer. From the mechanism of introducing the customer to the company’s products, taking them on a journey, fulfillment, and then encouraging them to be a repeat client. IT is about your employees. From providing them with the tools they need to understand what they are selling, how to function within the company, how to apply for leave, and, of course, how to complete the role that they are paid to do. It is about turning data into information and then turning that into knowledge, utilizing machine learning and artificial intelligence.
It is about simplifying the complex so that people can do what they need to do in the most efficient way possible. It is about creating competitive advantage. Putting the business ahead, and creating the space to innovate further. With this in mind, the successful IT leader of today needs to be a visionary, a creator, an autodidact, a change manager, a financial manager, and most importantly, a realistic optimist. This article examines why these six traits are key to career success for the IT leader.
The Visionary Futurist
Technology leaders have to be visionaries. Visionaries are people who can see into the future. Now obviously this skill does not scientifically exist (for the time being), but what is expected of an IT Leader is to have a view of where their industry, and the technology that supports their industry, is heading. Part of this visionary skill is to imagine a future for the company that is better than the present. Once this vision is formulated, it is then their responsibility to share this vision with the other leaders in the business and convince them of this potential direction.
Each year, Gartner releases their Hype Cycle for emerging technologies. The technologies presented represent Gartner’s view of which technologies will have a significant impact on business, society, and people over the next five to ten years (See the Gartner 2020 Hype Curve in Figure 1). Many IT leaders tend to dismiss the importance of this annual report as it has little impact on their current working environment. The present, urgent, and burning issues will always take precedence over some future technology. However, what the past fifteen years have shown us is that these technologies are reaching mainstream production a lot sooner than anticipated.
It is safe to say that the Hype Cycle represents a view of where aspects of your business solutions are heading over the next few years. This means that IT leaders need to ensure they are investigating these future technologies and keeping them on the radar for possible future solutions.
Technology leaders of today are creators. Cloud technology has placed so many new domains of technology at the fingertips of the technically inclined. We often describe this as “push-button rocket science.” AWS has more than 175 products and services available in their console, while Microsoft Azure has just over 169 unique services. These offerings range from virtual servers to fully managed artificial intelligence and machine learning solutions. The creative component comes to light in one’s ability to combine these services to create a unique solution for your business. The first part of any creative process is an understanding and familiarity with the tools of the process. Therefore, technology leaders need to be constantly updating their education on the major vendors that are out there. Keeping up to date with one vendor can be challenging enough. So you can imagine the effort involved if you are aspiring to a multi-cloud strategy. The next step involves your imaginary capabilities in putting together the cloud LEGO blocks of IT.
The successful IT leader cannot afford to allow their knowledge to grow stale. Apart from the sheer volume of vendors available, the accelerated rate of progress of technology places additional stress on the individual. Without having a passion for technology, keeping up to date with the latest products, methods, programming languages, etc., becomes an impossible feat. This is probably one of the biggest commitments to the role. The successful IT leader needs to be always learning, and there certainly is no shortage of courses and certifications. While it is not necessary for the CIO/CTO to be technically certified, having this knowledge will provide great benefit for their decision-making ability. In addition to looking after their own knowledge, the IT leader needs to be involved and concerned with the teams continuing education and not only their ability to support the businesses current systems but also the future solutions that may be implemented.
If you are deploying cloud solutions, you will be aware that it does not take long for costs to increase as everyone in the organization starts spinning up services. IT leaders need to understand cloud economics and governance in order to ensure that the processes and procedures are in place to avoid any cloud bill shock. It is not uncommon for companies to not know what servers and other infrastructure they have running in the cloud. From zombie instances to understanding when and where to use reserved instances, there is so much to comprehend.
While one can use third-party systems or consultants that can assist, in order to succeed at managing the new normal of cloud, you will need a level of understanding of the cost structures involved.
Being able to communicate this at the board level is equally as important, as the expectation is that cloud technology is deployed as a cost saver. Another key financial component to master is the concept of ROI (Return on Investment). ROI is a lot easier to calculate when you are dealing with a single capital purchase of a system that will remain in use for a period of X years. However, when you are dealing with a cloud environment, many other factors come into play as the system morphs and evolves over time to the needs of the business.
All new technology comes with an aspect of change. Understanding this process seems to be a skill on its own. Many IT projects fail, not because the technology is bad, but because not adequate consideration was given to the change process involved in the implementation. Large enterprises can afford to have a Change Manager who will design the programs and interact with the people involved in the system change to ensure all the critical roadblocks are removed. If you are an IT leader who does not have this luxury then you need to build in this change management outcome into any new deployment. This involves the process of getting buy-in, managing stakeholders, evaluating the fit into the companies’ culture including the rewards and consequences of those involved in adopting or not adopting the new system. Needless to say, an important skill to have here is a high EQ or emotional intelligence, to assist in reading and managing others emotions as you go through the change process.
A Realistic Optimist
This final element is probably the most important of skills to embody in order to be an effective leader in the cloud computing era. With so many opportunities and possibilities available to organizations through cloud computing, there seems to be two paths to choose from. One path holds a conservative, risk-averse approach. This is the IT leader who will only utilize technology once it has been firmly established in the sector. The other is the early adopter, forever on the lookout for new technology to try out in the organization, while managing the potential impact this can have should something go wrong. I would like to suggest that the “realistic optimist” holds a bit of both of these personas and is able to balance the benefits with the risk.
This individual anticipates that the project will not always go right, but still has the optimism to try new things. This realistic optimistic approach, that systems and processes can always be better, enables businesses to find a competitive advantage, often enabling new businesses to leapfrog well established brands. Our Lead Developer shared a concept with me that resonates so well with the skills needed to lead successfully in the cloud era. Leaders need to be able to hold these two conflicting concepts in their minds and actions simultaneously in a beautiful cognitive dissonance. These concepts are:
Cloud is Simple and Cloud is Complex!
We need to think of cloud being simple enough to try new things. Experimentation is the key to innovation, and it is this innovation that will lead to improvements, cost reductions, and competitive advantage. However, without thinking of cloud as complex at the same time, we will not have enough respect for the skills, effort, and work needed to make these projects a success.
I often comment that we are so fortunate to be in the IT industry. No other industry moves at such an accelerated pace. This places huge demands on those who want to succeed in this area for a lengthy period of time. The statement that current success does not guarantee future success could not be truer. It demands constant learning and growth. Projects need to be re-evaluated, skills need to be enhanced, and value needs to be proven. However, what we can be assured of is an evolving landscape that will always hold excitement, opportunity, and success for those who are realistic optimists.