The state of the tech industry - A CTO's perspective

In 2018 I had the privilege of being that year's CIO 100 leader and have spent the subsequent year immersed in a wide range of business change projects, product innovations, issue fixing, hiring new technology talent and shaping demand from an increasingly tech savvy business.

It is this breadth, together with exponential advances in technology, that means there has never been a better time to work in digital transformation.

Consumers have access to powerful and ubiquitous smartphones, data can be analysed in scalable clouds and high-speed networks connect people and applications in ways we didn't think possible a generation ago. For most organisations, this has brought about changes in customer behaviour, new competitors and, as a result, businesses are having to adjust to perpetual change.

For technologists this is a great place to be; at the heart of the business, understanding commercial opportunities, solving operational problems and building great products that consumers love.

However, while technology capability continues to advance, the reality is that most corporate IT rarely meets this promise.

So how might technology leaders might close this expectation gap? Here are three places to start.

1. Ensure technology is at the core of the business

Technology leaders in enlightened businesses make sure they and their teams are deeply embedded within the business, partnering to solve problems and identifying ways to automate and improve ways of working.

The rise of "shadow IT" is seen by some as a proxy for failed technology-business relationships, but in the right culture this can be embraced as autonomous business units doing market scanning and finding potential technology solutions which can then be used more widely if appropriate. The key is building trust.

I am a fan of technology teams sitting with the departmental teams they are supporting or delivering projects for and a fan of encouraging recruitment and secondments from other business units into technology to build empathy and shared understanding.

The Help Desk is vital to get right as that's often the first point of call and a foundational layer if technology is to be at the core of the business; invest time in this team. Also important is having outstanding facilitators and communicators in the technology team who can run business workshops, map processes and demonstrate the art of the possible for new technologies.

I run an annual Technology Summer School in Cambridge which covers data analytics, Design Thinking and change management. By taking colleagues off-site we build cross-departmental relationships that wouldn't have developed in the office.

Education, communication and engagement are critical for any high performing technology team and can make a big difference in the perception of a technology team.

2. Choose the right approach and right tool for the job

The technology industry has a lot of hype, and much disappointment. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) dominate technology conferences right now but despite interesting early use cases, this technology is still immature.

The art of being a good technology leader is knowing when to speculate in new technologies and when to avoid time wasting.

Declarative statements such as "think cloud and mobile first" help get the technology team thinking in a future way but there are always exceptions that should be explored. I've seen technologists try to find problems for new technologies; "What could blockchain solve?", "How do we add machine learning to this product?" and "we will do all projects in Agile" are recent examples.

Smart technology leaders make bold statements of direction, have a range of methods and tools at their disposal and know when, for example, to do Waterfall, when to do Agile and when to do nothing.

I'm a big fan of Design Thinking to help solve problems but recognise its strengths and its limitations, but also believe that the best innovations come from diverse teams working together each bringing their own input. Added to this is choosing the right partner to work with; build win-win arrangements with a handful of partners that know what's important and avoid large scale single vendor outsourcing.

3. Increase the technology talent pipeline and build inclusive technology teams

One of the biggest challenges facing the tech industry is a talent shortage, coupled with a lack of diversity. The education system is not generating enough technologists – people that can code and manage data sets – so demand is far outstripping supply. The problem is further amplified because girls are not studying STEM subjects at an advanced level, despite getting high grades at GCSE.

While the industry is aware of this challenge, not enough are committed to addressing it. There is increased activity in Women in IT events, more apprentice schemes, government investments into STEM education like Techniquest and some great work from organisations like Tech Talent Charter, Code First Girls and Stemettes. Thanks to recommendations from other CIOs we've looked at interesting initiatives from Makers Academy and the return to work and ex-forces programmes offered by FDM.

But it feels like there is more we can do.

I encourage other CIOs to to give interesting talks at local schools to inspire the next generation and debunk the myth that all we do is IT support. And when you come across a good Computer Science teacher, do what you can to support them; they are gold-dust.

We set up the Global Academy in West London, a specialist school where students develop skills for the broadcast and digital media industry, alongside core subjects such as English and Maths. Setting up the school was hard work, but we now have a fantastic pipeline of passionate, diverse, students with the vocational skills needed to succeed in the industry.

Talent and diversity are long-term systemic problems, and more CIOs and CTOs should commit themselves and their teams to coming up with practical solutions to address them.

My belief is that CIOs and CTOs who put technology at the core of the business, choose the right tools for the job and build a long term talent pipeline are the ones who'll build better teams with better results and help close the perception gap in IT.

David Henderson is Chief Technology Officer at Global

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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