by Esther Shein

Digital transformation: Your career at a crossroads

Oct 02, 2017
CareersDigital TransformationIT Leadership

IT leaders find themselves in need of new skills and strategies, thanks to digital transformation. Here’s how to keep ahead of the curve before digital disruption curtails your career aspirations.

James Lowey has seen a lot of change during his career, which began in 1992, managing computer labs at several companies and doing what he calls “the pre-Y2K flurry of IT projects.”

Lowey, CIO at genomics and cancer research company TGen, earned his early IT chops working on systems like Windows NT 3.1, Solaris, AIX, HP-UX and Linux. Since joining TGen 14 years ago, he’s been responsible for the development of two supercomputers. Instead of worrying about how to keep his own skills current, Lowey finds that it’s more challenging keeping up with the pace of scientific discovery and the technology that enables it – which he says often moves faster than most IT technological change.

Consequently, he spends over 50 percent of his time learning about new scientific technologies and methodologies to help keep TGen on the cutting edge of biomedical research.

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“Some of the ways that I learn about new technologies [are] spending considerable time at trade shows and other industry events, as well as partnering with major technology players and [venture capital] firms in order to learn about new technologies as soon as possible,” he says.

Lowey is certainly not alone. As digital transformation becomes a more frequent part of the enterprise lexicon, CIOs and other IT leaders find themselves scrambling to update their skills and capabilities as they forge ahead in their modernization efforts. Those who prepare reap the benefits: 71% say their standing within the business has improved in the past three years, and 60% say they are able to influence broader company strategy compared with 45% of their traditional CIO peers, according to a report from Ernest & Young.

The challenge: Reinventing IT for the next generation

A central issue for many IT leaders is the simple fact that IT work is significantly different than it was when they were moving up the ranks. So too are the expectations and work methodologies of those who make use of information technology in today’s workplace.

“I think the most challenging part for CIOs that did not grow up in the dotcom world is to understand the behavior patterns around information creation, consumption and distribution as well as engagement for next-generation consumers and employees,’’ says Ari Lightman, a digital media and marketing professor at Carnegie Mellon University. 

IT leaders need to rethink legacy models around command and control, IT service levels, access and permissions, application vetting and testing, Lightman says. This will allow for greater transparency, crowdsourced work models, real-time information flow and analytic decision making.

“This is not to say that they will have to swing completely to the other side of the spectrum,” he adds, “but some give and take will need occur to enable a next-generation workforce and engage the next generation of consumer/partner.”

Revamping your strategic approach to IT in light of these shifts is essential. Here, educating yourself as to how this “next generation” workforce collaborates and interacts with technology is key. Some CIOs, such as Aflac’s Julia Davis, are making great strides through reverse mentoring programs that pair young apprentices with IT veterans to teach the vets new tech.

Digital transformation: Career disruptor

To underscore how important digital transformation is becoming, IDC’s Worldwide IT Industry 2017 Predictions report names it as one of the 10 key tech developments in the next 18-36 months and beyond.

IDC has dubbed digital transformation the “DX economy,” and the report notes that “enterprises will be measured by their ability to hit and exceed a whole new set of demanding performance benchmarks enabled by cloud, mobility, cognitive/artificial intelligence, internet of things, augmented reality/virtual reality, and the digital transformations fueled by these technologies.” No longer will digital transformation be about projects or initiatives, the firm says, but “the core of what industry leaders will do and how they operate.”

If IT leaders don’t step up to the plate, they risk being replaced with external vendors or service providers, warns McKinsey in its report on IT’s future value proposition. Right now, there is a negative perception of IT in areas critical to its future, the research firm maintains. These areas include: leading design of an e-commerce online experience; developing analytics use cases; identifying cutting-edge/innovative technologies, and even leading digital transformation across business, according to the firm’s July 2017 report.

It’s no wonder IT leaders are exploring different options to stay relevant. Isabel Sauerbrey, vice president of IT and operations for the San Diego Tourism Authority, got her MBA recently. Sauerbrey says she is learning to “be more flexible and work with my customers … and just keep up and learn.” While she was in school, Sauerbrey became part of a group who have stayed in touch and constantly bounce ideas off one another. Some are in IT, and some are business executives. “We all help each other and encourage each other to learn,’’ she says. She also makes a point of going to conferences and seminars, and listening to what her customers want, which include the area’s hotels, restaurants, convention centers and tourist attractions.

She also leans on her technology vendors and consultants. Sauerbrey, who started her career as a developer and then moved on to systems analyst and project manager roles before becoming a CIO, says the key is being flexible and open to change. “It’s up to the IT person to learn this stuff,’’ she says. “There are too many things out there. You really have to just keep going and see what you can use in your business.”

The tourism authority is very involved with the San Diego business community and has a board with over 30 people who bring new ideas and suggestions, she adds.

Shelton Shugar, CIO of Barclaycard, came to the card services company from the tech world and says he was looking for “something different” in his career. Although digital transformation was “part of my DNA,” he wasn’t familiar with financial services and liked the idea of a challenge.

“I got the sense that financial services was making a digital transformation already,’’ he says. “I saw an opportunity to leverage the newest technologies to advance an entire industry that affects a lot of people, and that appeals to me.”

He admits keeping his skills current comes with “great difficulty,” but says he reads as much as possible and attends seminars. “The thing that works the best is I still get into technical discussions with all the key engineering leads, and nothing keeps you sharper than that.”

How to keep your edge

Lowey stays on top of cutting-edge technologies by spending a lot of time reading various tech sites, and by partnering with value-added resellers (VARs) that have access to early technology. He also makes a point of connecting with venture capital firms that can introduce him to stealth mode companies that give him access to and influence on how a product might be developed to meet TGen’s requirements, he says.

“It is important to have good feedback loops with these folks so that there is mutual benefit between parties,’’ Lowey says. Also important is “spending time at trade shows meeting with people and not necessarily spending a lot of time in the exhibit hall. Networking is key, and building a network around you is absolutely critical.” 

Those sentiments are echoed by Nick Perugini, CIO of Current, GE’s energy management company, who says he has three methods for staying up to speed on the latest technologies: reading a lot about concepts and future trends; attending conferences and connecting with partners; and doing hands-on testing to determine product value. “This is my path of going from concept to practice, so I’m constantly learning,” Perugini says.

Carving out time to learn on the job is a common theme. Matthew Lee, CIO of career training and resume services firm ResumeGo, says over the years, he’s found himself needing to spend “an increasingly large fraction of my time each week simply keeping up with new technologies.” While there previously were only one or two primary solutions for a given task, he says, “now there are an overwhelming number of options that I have to study and choose from. This can be very time-consuming and distract me from my other job responsibilities.”

Often, Lee says he has to take time out of his personal life to learn and do research, due to the number of obligations he has while in the office during the day.

Applicant tracking systems are constantly evolving and getting more sophisticated over time, he explains, and he and his staff have to keep up with these advancements in order to thoroughly understand how they work.

“This has forced me to spend more time on the road, traveling to conferences and symposiums so that I can keep up with the latest technologies and developments in this area.”

The crux? To constantly evolve

Even CIOs who grew up in the dotcom world find it a challenge to keep their skills up to date. Shawn Williams, CIO of Koorsen Fire & Safety, says that although he’s been an IT leader for over 20 years, the landscape constantly evolves as technology changes. The tech field is seeing greater change than others, which means IT leaders must adapt or risk their careers.

“The challenges for individuals such as myself is, how do you continuously change or evolve in a space that is changing faster than any other revolution in past history,’’ he says. So Williams has adopted a model of learning that he says is a constant loop: Learn, practice, grow, share.

“The value of the learning loop is not only for the individual but all things that interact with that individual,” meaning the organization and other individuals, he says.

Like the others, Williams has taken several steps to constantly evolve his skills, such as reading books on developing methodologies, networking with people to discuss new or evolving technologies and attending conferences that are focused on sharing and spreading knowledge of new evolving practices. 

“As the CIO of an organization, there are many loops going on at any juncture in time,’’ he says, and they could be technology- or business-focused. 

It’s pretty much become a mandate that CIOs stay current since the job continues to evolve.

“Current CIOs are not just solely focused on technology,” Williams says, “but how do these new methodologies, technologies, and practices enable and drive value to the business and their customers.”

It’s worth noting that findings from the 2014 EY report “Born to be digital: How leading CIOs are preparing for a digital transformation remain relevant today. You know you’re a digitally-ready CIO if you prioritize shaping the future of your business with the right technology, and are preparing your organization for change, according to the report. CIOs see digital as a significant opportunity “to fulfill their career aspirations.”

The successful ones have a clear, strategic vision of how technology will transform the business from operations and infrastructure, and know how to implement what is needed. They are focused on driving growth and the relationships they need to support it, and also ensure their vision is understood. Consequently, they seem to have better career prospects and are more highly regarded in the business, EY says. In short, these CIOs are “relentless innovators” and “courageous risk-takers.”