How empathy drives IT innovation at Thermo Fisher Scientific

CIO Ryan Snyder shares his insights on IT’s expanding role in product development and the future of the CIO role.

Ryan Snyder, CIO, Thermo Fisher Scientific
Ryan Snyder, CIO, Thermo Fisher Scientific

When software becomes central to product development, where does IT stop and product start? As CIOs drive IT development into business units, what is the role of the CIO? What are the attributes of future CIOs, whose roles will be more about governance than ownership?

These are some of the questions I posed to Ryan Snyder, CIO of Thermo Fisher Scientific, a $25 billion laboratory equipment and instrument maker. Our conversation ranged from new virtual reality solutions his team has implemented during the pandemic to his advice for future CIOs. What follows is an edited version of our interview.

Martha Heller: What are some new solutions that the IT organization at Thermo Fisher Scientific has delivered recently?

Ryan Snyder: During the pandemic, we have introduced, at a rapid pace, a whole portfolio of immersive technologies that are transforming almost every aspect of how we do business. For example, we are using virtual reality tools to train our associates on everything from setting up a manufacturing line to selling our products. In the past, our manufacturing people who needed to learn a new process would read a standard operating procedure or try to remember the online training they received six months ago. Today, they can enter a mixed reality environment to get precisely the training they need at that moment. 

In the past, customers and regulatory agencies would come onsite to perform their audits.  Now, we are bringing people into our manufacturing environments remotely.  

Online selling has become a much more immersive experience, as well. We’ve given the sales teams more than video collaboration tools. We very quickly developed 3D models of our instruments so that they can give virtual product demos and bring the product experience to our customers.

The technology itself is not new, but with COVID-19, we suddenly had a workforce of 75,000 people so eager to keep operations going that we were able to drive some real transformation.

You need a high-performing team to drive that kind of adoption. What are the competencies you look for in your senior leaders?

I look for people who push the boundaries but are always tying that innovation back to customer value. I also look for empathy and humility. Everyone comes to technology from a different place of understanding, so my team needs to walk in their business partners’ shoes and bring them along on the journey.  

Empathy and humility are particularly important right now, as IT has become such a central part of the products we sell. Our customers want the software in their products to be secure, accessible, and to work really well. Those are the capabilities that IT has always delivered internally, but our role is expanding right into product development and the customer experience. 

When IT capabilities expand beyond our own four walls, we need to approach full integration with R&D, service, and product management with empathy to understand the needs of our business partners, and the humility to not “own” every IT decision. 

What is an example of IT’s growing impact on product development?

The development of an instrument here has always involved an incredible amount of scientific innovation and industrial design. Over the last few years, we have had the added complexity of building software and IoT sensors right into the products. We also develop software that enables our customers’ lab operations.

My digital engineering organization has agile capabilities that we can carry over to the development we are doing on customer software solutions. The product groups make the decisions about what solution to develop, but our agile teams, who have been developing software for years, now help the product teams with delivery.

What technologies are having the biggest impact on Thermo Fisher Scientific right now?

Now that cloud services are mature, we are all in. We are also very excited about artificial intelligence and its transformational potential, particularly in life sciences. We are putting AI into our customer service operations so that agents spend more time helping a customer and aren’t worrying about how quickly they can finish their service call. 

AI is also becoming very important for gene sequencing and diagnostics in drug manufacturing. We are only scratching the surface there, but by creating hybrid AI teams made up of both IT and product people, we avoid reinventing the wheel. The more we can modularize AI capabilities, the more we can accelerate their use.

What leadership skills do find yourself using the most?

My key skill is to empower my team, which can be a challenge when you are in a growth company like Thermo Fisher Scientific. Just when I think I’ve empowered my team, the company grows again, and the bar moves with regard to empowerment. I am always asking myself: "Have I positioned my organization to take on bigger problems?" If I find that I am too often the decision-maker, I need to do a better job of empowering the team.

As a leader, you have to check yourself and not say, “I know how to fix that problem; here is what you need to do.” To me, empowerment is the ability to sometimes watch your team drive to a result in an entirely different way than you would do it, and just let it happen.

What is the future of the CIO role?

In the future, no one executive will be accountable for technology; CIOs will have to share accountability for technology, which comes back to empathy and humility as core competencies. You still need the courage to lead and make tough decisions, but you have to allow your business partners to participate in technology decisions. The CIO of the future will focus less on ownership and more on governance; they will be driving the democratization of technology into the businesses.

What advice can you give to the up-and-comers who will step into the future CIO role?

Be insatiably curious about the business you're in, and always be thinking about your team.  Surrounding yourself with people who can elevate you sounds simple, but it is hard to do. 

Up-and-comers have a history of being rewarded for being the smartest person in the room, but there is a point in your career when that flips, and it becomes less about you and more about your ability to enable the people whom you manage. As you get closer to the CIO role, you should focus less on your personal brand and more on empowering the next generation of leadership.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 secrets of successful remote IT teams