Chip Felton: The skills required for the role range from leadership and persuasion management, to the ability to instinctively identify what are among the million technical trends you have to deal with, and distil which ones that are really important.
Chip Felton is cognisant his career trajectory to CIO was not typical.
Felton, who is originally from the United States, started as a social worker, doing direct counselling work with clients, while finishing his master’s degree in social work.
He rose to senior deputy commissioner and CIO at the New York State Office of Mental Health.
Seven years ago, he moved to New Zealand and is now a principal consultant at Montage, providing business intelligence consulting services to organisations across New Zealand.
Now based in Nelson, Felton relates how this multifaceted background is a great backdrop for his current role.
“Social work has always been helpful in understanding people and how to deal with organisational issues,” he states.
As CIO, he developed a good appreciation of, particularly for large organisations that have large IT departments, the issues those departments face.
“When I was a CIO, a lot of what I was doing was trying to mediate between different groups, whether it would be a software vendor and internal business people or our IT staff. There is a lot of that, and those skills come very useful and they still do. They help me understand what they are doing, with organisational dynamics at play.”
He found himself drawn to data driven research as he progressed through different roles.
The notion that increasingly the organisation’s data assets and their ability to leverage those are as important as anything else to maintain competitiveness, and formally establishing a role needing that function potentially could be a great path for a CIO.Chip Felton, Montage
“I began to get more interested in the management side of social work, how to organise and deliver a wide range of healthcare services,” he explains.
“Then I got interested in research, what is the proof that any of these [services] work?”
While completing his masters, he worked as a data analyst for a faculty member who needed help with analysing some of the data collected for a study.
“That gave me an opportunity to learn a variety of statistical techniques and also what was available from the standpoint of data analysis software.”
He then worked as evaluation researcher at the New York State Office of Mental Health. He analysed data from a variety of research studies and evaluated whether a mental health service might be working or not.
This was in the early 1990s, and he recalls being surrounded by much bigger sets of data from various operational systems that people use.
“Who’s got the services? How much do they cost? We began to get interested on how to mine those things.”
This work led to a role in a new part of the organisation that was focused specifically on trying to leverage data, he says. The goal was to make the Office of Mental Health “more outcomes-oriented, more data driven”.
He got involved in the overall management at the agency. We were using data more and more for decision-making.”
He was doing this role when the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks happened.
“Our agency was responsible for working with federal government and administering the crisis counselling programme of the public health sector.
“We were able to leverage our data platform to have that programme very data driven,” he says. “One of the things was we had to make sure we were reaching all the different ethnic communities in New York.
“We used our data warehouse platform as well as data logs to track the services. We were able to monitor the services provided to ensure all the effort was targeted to people who really needed it.”
The CIO left, and he took over the role for nearly six years.
He also started a master’s programme in computer science at DePaul University through an online learning program. His computer science degree focused on software engineering and machine learning, and how to capitalise on it for BI function.
Related: The data science activist
He and his wife went to New Zealand for a vacation and “fell in love with the country”.
Back in the United States, “We started to think about what it would be like to move over there, pack up and try something different,” he says. “We embarked on a midlife adventure.”
In his first year in New Zealand, he completed his master’s degree in computer science. He also worked on BI-related projects, based on referrals from recruitment agencies.
He was then offered the full-time role at Montage.
“The things we do include everything from development of data warehouse, data preparation work, and working with customers enabling them to use the technologies for decision-making,” says Felton.
He also has his own specialty in the BI space, focusing on data visualisation.
When asked for his views on preparing for a post-CIO role, Felton says the CIO can draw skills from taking on a more broad role.
“The skills required for the role range from leadership and persuasion management, to the ability to instinctively identify what are among the million technical trends you have to deal with, and distil which ones that are really important,” he states. “And then, build a balance of projects to prioritise those.”
The CIO also has to figure out how to develop personnel and effectively negotiate resources, he states. “Any given CIO is better at and enjoys some of those areas than others.”
Thus a CIO’s next role depends on his/her previous background before and what things he/she was most interested in while being CIO. “That is the biggest determinant where somebody could go post-CIO,” he says.
In his case, he was most interested in using data for decision-making, and his current work allows him to work in this space.
He says an emerging pathway for CIOs is chief data officer.
“The notion that increasingly the organisation’s data assets and their ability to leverage those are as important as anything else to maintain competitiveness, and formally establishing a role needing that function potentially could be a great path for a CIO.”
Related: How I became a CIO: Jason Millett and Kevin Angland share their journey
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