Generac CIO Tim Dickson: Why CIO reporting relationships matter for digital transformation success

Feb 09, 2022
CIODigital TransformationMachine Learning

The 62-year old Fortune 1000 manufacturing company is transforming into an energy technology solutions provider, with IT at the forefront. CIO Tim Dickson shares his thoughts on how data is creating new business opportunities and how reporting to the CEO elevates IT.

Tim Dickson is CIO of Wisconsin-based Generac Power Systems, a $2.5 billion public company best known for its home standby power generators and the widest range of portable power products on the market today. 

Dickson joined Generac in August, 2020, reporting directly to the CEO in the newly created CIO position that is at the center of Generac’s ongoing transition to be a global energy technology solutions provider. 

CIO’s Maryfran Johnson sat down with Dickson to learn how Generac is using IT to create new business opportunities, how he expanded his data team in a tight labor market, and why reporting relationships matter for digital transformation success. What follows is an edited excerpt of that conversation. For additional insights watch the full interview embedded below.

On creating an enterprise data platform:

I saw a huge opening here with this new strategy at Generac to really double down or actually triple down on the number of resources that we have on our data team and really set out to put together what I call an aggregated or consolidated enterprise data platform, which hadn’t existed before. 

And that required going out to all of my business partners and all of the acquisitions that we have made and actually asking for their data, consolidating the data into one central cloud platform.  And then from an IT perspective, having the foresight and the aspiration then to take advantage of that consolidated dataset. 

It’s really opened up a world of opportunity from a business partner and trust perspective and has even changed the game from an IT standpoint, [from] inheriting an internal IT organization and now being focused on more and more things that are external and go-to-market. 

On upskilling the data function:

My team had been very well versed in SAP and project execution-type endeavors, but they really hadn’t done much in the areas of machine learning, data insights, AI.  And so, partnering with a couple of strategic vendor partners, providing training both in person at a time of COVID, and self-paced over the online platforms, offered up to everyone in my organization to take this upskilling and really move themselves into more of an area of leveraging data as an asset and a value contribution for the company.  And just saw some wonderful results as a part of that. 

It seemed like there had been some pent-up demand in terms of not only employees wanting investment in their career development, but having those open conversations of how they could potentially aspire to do more, step up for the organization, take on these new skill sets that hadn’t been offered before, and really move into some newer roles as a result of this transformational shift that really weren’t available before. 

Having data scientists, having ML and AI development, devops, and things of that nature have really gone a long way to build morale in the IT organization and form a bond amongst the group. 

On generating predictive insights:

[W]ith this growing set of edge devices (that is, our backup generators installed across the country), with all of this IoT data that was being emitted, there presented a huge opportunity then to create insights.  And we started off very small in terms of building our first set of algorithms, and we iterated from there. 

We created what we call scores—power scores, opportunity scores, market scores, utility scores, things of that nature— that basically just took this dataset and created insights in terms of what the opportunities were for us out there in these various different areas. 

But really, what it’s allowed us to do in a short period of time is take these various different scores and algorithms of really what pertained to historical data in a historical sort of trending and analysis and has allowed us now to focus more on prediction models. 

On the importance of reporting to the CEO:

So one is, it’s just awesome to not only walk into an organization that thinks enough about IT … to [elevate it to] the CEO’s level, and have a seat at the table from that perspective in driving what they knew was the digital transformation of the company for some years to come.  That was just a huge statement for me, and that showed me that they were very serious about the selection of this role in the reporting structure. 

The second thing reporting to the CEO and having a seat at the table is now IT is elevated and takes on a larger responsibility for the company.  A little bit more of a sense of urgency, a little bit more responsibility and accountability now to the company to deliver on some of those commitments that are being made.

And then the last thing that I’ll just say, is just having that regular dialogue with the CEO.  Knowing he’s a very visible person, knowing that he has big ideas to grow and transform the company, he has given me the ability, given my background and what I’m interested and passionate about, to leverage whatever set of new or emerging technology that I feel is appropriate and necessary to help the company organizationally scale.