Social CIOs share their experiences leading business transformation at #CIOChat live

Experienced and socially active CIOs gather to discuss leading digital transformation, addressing technical debt, developing agile practices and driving change across the organization.

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Put distinguished CIOs in a room and you’re going to get a lively discussion. Now bring active social CIO that regularly participate at #CIOChat on Thursdays at 2pm ET and #IdgTechTalk earlier at 12pm for a live conference organized by Myles Suer – who’s also a regular columnist here at CIO.com – and you’re going to get an earful of great advice and hard lessons learned.

And that’s exactly what happened at the event recently in Boston. In addition to the lively panel discussions and informative keynotes there was a parallel discussion on Twitter where participants quoted panelists and debated key points.

Here are some of the highlights

“Technical debt is not a sexy topic, but one of the biggest issues facing CIOs”

Ed Featherston made this statement during the technical debt panel moderated by Dion Hinchcliffe that exposed how CIOs address legacy systems, outdated architectures, and other risks in their organizations.

Much of the debate was on what should be labeled as technical debt. For example, Ben Haines suggested, "If you're not patching Windows XP that's not #techdebt, that's incompetence."

Exactly what we label as technical debt was the question on my mind. Technical debt is a programming term that, “reflects the extra development work that arises when code that is easy to implement in the short run is used instead of applying the best overall solution.” It dates back to 1992 when teams were experimenting with lighter weight development methodologies that later formed agile practices. Teams needed a way to code fast, validate approaches, and refactor code that required improvements. Code that required refactoring was labeled as technical debt.  

Today, the term is applied more generally. For CIO, we often identify the need to upgrade legacy systems, address deeply rooted security vulnerabilities, or modernize applications as technical debt.

One reason CIOs like using this term is that it’s easier to label technical issues that require investment to CFO as technical debt since they understand the nature of financial debts.

Wayne Sadin suggested that CIOs and CFOs need to address technical debt more directly. “What was Enron? It was the off-balance sheet liability not reported to the Board.” His suggestion is that the best way for enterprises to be transparent about their technical debt and have a better financial instrument to address it is to require recording it on the balance sheet.

It’s a great suggestion but until something like that happens, I suggest CIOs apply the term technical debt wisely. It is too easy for CFO to kick the technical debt can down the road and delay funding programs. If a system represents a significant business risk, then CIO should use more alarming terms like “end of life” or a “burning platform.”

“Remember, Boards don’t manage, they govern”

Sarbjeet Johal captured this statement by Wayne Sadin, a panelist on a session moderated by Ginny Hamilton around CIOs working with their board of directors. According to a recent survey, 65% of CIOs are members of the board or part of the executive management team. When a CIO is on the board, it is important to understand what’s expected of them and some do’s and don’ts.

CIOs on this panel readily shared their advice. Wayne Sadin, Tim Crawford, and Jay Ferro all echoed a primary directive, “95% of what #CIO should bring to the Board is cybersecurity” and Jay took this one step further stating that, “All boards need to hear the business strategy through a technology and cyber/risk lens.”

Panelists also suggested that CIO treat board meetings “as connected” by reviewing the minutes from previous meetings and developing a consistent storyline.  A key word of wisdom was captured by Andi Mann, “If there is a CIO on your board, don't expect them to act like a CIO, or to 'be on your side'. They have a different hat on as a board member. In fact, they are probably going to be your biggest critic.”

A recent MIT analysis showed that, “1,233 publicly traded companies with revenues over $1 billion, about 24% had board members that were classified as technology experts.” This begs the question as to how CIO find their way onto their boards.  Jay Ferro suggests to, “Get to the board via a good CEO relationship.”

Jay also offered a word of warning to my question, "Can you use the board to influence CEO management decisions?"  His answer, "You have to tread VERY carefully."

“The business you are in today is not the business you will be in five years”

Ed Featherston captured my statement on the panel around digital transformation that was followed up by one on driving an agile culture, and later on change management. All three are primary ingredients CIOs must master to enable their organizations to survive, grow, and transform over the next decade.

CIOs at the conference get it. Michael Krigsman who moderated the digital transformation panel declared, “A digital-savvy CIO increases business profitability.” Melissa Swift echoed this sentiment during the agile transformation panel saying, “Executives are going to be challenged over the next years to lead technological change and they’re not ready to do it, we’re starting to see some panic about that.”

Organizations have to drive transformation and Peter Salvitti, Melissa Swift, and Jonathan Feldman captured some of the common detractors identified by panelists Ben Haines, Tim Crawford and myself including, “We’ve done it that way before”, “Bimodal in IT doesn’t work anymore”, and changing the conversation from "Why it can't happen" to "Here's HOW we can make it happen".

From there, came a load of practical advice on how CIO can drive transformation and change:

  • “You don’t need service organizations in your company...you need partnership organizations” – Jack Gold
  • “If you fire someone for trying something new and failing, no-one will ever try anything new again.” – Ben Haines
  • “There is a secondarily level of accountability for delivering that grows from devops” – Jason James
  • “Our job as CIOs is not to force change, but to partner with our peers in ways that make them want to change” – Jonathan Feldman
  • ““As a leader I have control over how I structure my meetings. I have control over how I structure our brainstorming sessions. I’m able to make sure everyone feels they are able to contribute and be heard.” – Michael Cato
  • “Never promise a predictable path, promise a predictable outcome” – Kirk Rothenberger
  • “You have to be prepared to jump off the cliff together, show your people that you are willing to take the risk and learn together.” – Jay Brodsky

All this great advice came after hearing several motivating metrics from  Stephanie Woerner of MIT CISR. During her opening keynote, she quoted their research on enterprises  showing 24% higher profitability when a strategic CIO works with the Board and CXOs to build digital disciplines across the enterprise, pursue operational efficiencies and drive customer engagement.

That should be enough motivation for CIO to tackle technical debt challenges, influence the board, and drive change across their organization. You can also read more from the conference in 10 lessons for IT leaders from #CIOChat live.

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