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Reaching for the skies in Seattle: How CIO’s are pushing innovation in the Space Needle city

Innovation Executive Forum | Posted on May 5, 2016 by Tobin Dalrymple

In April 2016, the City of Seattle released a treasure trove of archival photographs, documenting the erection of one of its most timeless icons: The Space Needle.

The tech news website Geekwire took the opportunity to share stomach-dropping photos of the tower’s construction, declaring them as a testament to the technological visionaries who built the city so many years before. At the time, the Space Needle was an architectural, technological marvel. It still stands proudly today – a link to the city’s innovative past, and an arrow pointing forward to the new digital behemoths sharing the Seattle zip code — a new generation of entrepreneurs and innovators.

This modern generation is erecting new buildings, and again altering the skyline for good. But they are also changing the world in a much more invisible way. They are the CIO’s and IT thought leaders on the cutting edge of the modern business.

Softchoice gathered with a collection of these leaders, our IEF members, in Seattle in early March, 2016, to discuss the city’s tech scene, the strategies of IT, and the broader future for innovation across the globe. What follows is a summary of the useful, unique advice shared at that table.

Part 1. Moving the needle

The road blocks to innovation
There’s no denying we are in the middle of a cultural revolution. Everything about the way we see and think about IT is different from the past.

And as with all cultural shifts, it never happens all at once. Stragglers are left clinging to the old ways of doing things. Not surprising then is the fact that many businesses simply are not open to a modern IT department, one that is trusted to guide and help make decisions with the strategists. Similarly, many businesses simply aren’t ready to fully embrace a slew of new opportunities, such as cloud, big data and analytics.

“Banking is banking is banking,” is the familiar refrain one Seattle IEF leader hears at his job, for example. Leadership there doesn’t seem to feel the urgency to go all in on a digital banking strategy, feeling quite comfortable staying traditional.

The opinion seems like a sure way to be left in the dust, as the banking sector world wide is adopting great new user-centric banking approaches, such as the branchless bank, as well as leveraging ground-breaking technologies such as blockchain to completely transform its way of doing business.

Similarly, around the table, IEF members agreed that lack of knowledge often leads to a slowing down of innovation. One CIO mentioned how regulators are prime offenders in this category, frequently putting the brakes on cloud-based projects due to a misunderstanding of the robust and secure public cloud services, such as those from Microsoft and Amazon. The security is there, they just don’t understand it, was the implication made at the table.

So whether you are dealing with a senior leadership team like the banker above, or find yourself in a highly-scrutinized industry, how can you move the needle in your technological road map? IEF members in Seattle shared various powerful tactics.

How to move forward

Start Small
For the CTO struggling with the banking leadership, he said starting small and slow is the key to success. “They are very concerned about the cloud – they don’t want to go,” he said. “So I slide back a bit, I do it incrementally instead. I do it in a way that solves small problems. Something like DevOps.”

Instead of going for a massive cloud application or infrastructure project, this tech leader understands that dipping the proverbial toe in the water is much better in these situations. Smaller, less critical functions, like test and development, proof of concepts and so on
set the stage for future, more significant cloud parlays.

Focus on the tangibles
The same CTO also mentioned that piece by piece, he is trying find ways to “commoditize” functions of his business to bring to the cloud. “Why do we need to spend a bunch of cash on these things, these operations, it’s nutty,” he said.

Focusing on the hard savings of your initiative, including the time you will save by outsourcing less important tasks, is thus a powerful tool to help build organization support.

Similarly, another CIO said his approach to fostering innovation is all about focusing his team on business outcomes, instead of activities. Everything team members are judged on lines up to larger, more strategic company goals. “When people see we have big goals to accomplish, and they are part of it, things start to happen and problems get solved in creative ways,” he said.

Create a culture of innovation
The senior technology leader of another financial services company, a non-profit credit union, had an interesting take on what innovation is, and what it isn’t.

“Innovation isn’t about reading a book, or attending seminars,” she said. “It’s about creating a program.”

She has used this insight to build what she called an innovation culture at her company, one that hard-codes innovation as a core company value. “Instead of thinking about it as a ‘what’, it becomes a guiding principle, we add it as a layer to everything we do,” she said.

Crowd sourcing Innovation
“Innovation to me is essentially listening,” said the VP of IT at an enterprise software firm.

This was a quote that summarized a common perspective around the table. Many senior technology leaders look to their own people to discover great ideas. He says he pays close attention to what all his employees are thinking about and learning, from the new hire to the most senior developers. Part of this listening process involves running regular hackathons, and contests to see who can come up with most novel ideas.

Another technology leader from a digital advertising agency said that innovation isn’t just important, it’s his company’s “core product.” He too leverages his own team to find and foster innovative thinking. He’s even helped implement a program that rewards employees with things such as trips to exotic locations and award ceremonies across the world, simply for sharing good ideas.

A third leader is doing the same thing. Her company has created a knowledge sharing system that gamifies idea sharing, awarding badges and recognition to the most engaging and prolific innovation thinkers. “Recognition is even more effective than cash,” she said.

Part 2. The problem with over innovating

As was made clear by the examples above, different businesses find themselves in different stages of advancing into a modern IT future. There are those whose bosses don’t believe in cloud. And then there are those who put employees on a jet for thinking up great new things.

The Softchoice IEF team sees these cases as proof of a much larger situation that is crucial for IT leaders to understand. It is what we often refer to as the “Innovation Continuum.” Where you are on it depends deeply on how much of an active role IT plays in the strategy and direction of the business.

The non-innovators are obvious enough. But is there such a thing as too much innovation? After all, you can never have too much of a good thing right? Totally wrong, it turns out.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, we find the over-modernizers – a group of companies that are blindly, enthusiastically adopting new technologies without the proper due process, without the right planning, without any real purpose in mind other than to do what is new and cool. This is toxic for any business, as the Seattle members suggested. It is certainly not the way a truly modern IT leader wants to move the business forward.

“Too much innovation, for the sake of innovation, can be a force of evil as much as good,” said one IEF member who leads the technology team at a medium sized business.

He previously worked at a blue-chip technology firm, where he built up years of a sensible, rigorous attitude toward innovation. When he came to his new company, a scrappy startup trying to take on the world, the environment was completely different. All of a sudden, he was moving too slow. They wanted to go all in, right away, on big investments such as cloud. They moved so fast that operational issues and overspending became an issue. He finally put a stop to it. As a result, they are now clawing back their investments, and trying to rebuild.

“I tell them now, you have to have a great foundation before you can build a great house,” he said.

His new priority today is building up the right infrastructure that will allow for future growth and innovation. And slowly and surely, his colleagues are seeing the light. They have ditched their blind attitudes toward simply buying what is new and hot, and everyone has realigned around a more practical, results-focused technology strategy.

“That sounds like maturity to me,” chimed in one member, to the audible agreement around the table.

Part 3. The war for talent

After the facilitator introduced a new topic, focusing on the war for talent that businesses are fighting, a joke was share by one IEF member: “With guys like Amazon, it’s more like a war on talent,” he said. The idea being that, as more components of IT are outsourced to the cloud and artificial intelligence, the need for traditional IT roles is shrinking.

While true, businesses today still face an increasing pressure to find and attract the best and brightest minds. Even if their staff shrinks, the people they do keep around need to be the ones who will make all the difference. They will be the modern IT workers, the “bimodals,” as Gartner calls them, liaising with the business, and driving strategy. They need rock stars, in other words.

It is no surprise that Seattle, a hub of technological giants, is struggling intensely with a shortage of rock stars. The IEF table all seemed to agree that it’s simply impossible to find good talent without putting up a fight.

So, how are the CIO’s and technology leaders that joined us for the IEF battling this challenge? Are they arming themselves with gigantic budgets and bombarding candidates with huge pay checks?

Of course not, and for two good reasons. The obvious one is that they simply can’t always keep up with the “big guys” in terms of cash.

Try as they might, they will lose if they compete purely on financial grounds. The second reason is perhaps more important: money isn’t always the deciding factor, these days. A generation of millennials, and the ones who follow them, have changed the conversation. IEF members argue that meaning, not money, is what makes a good employee stick around longer.

“If you can’t compete on money, then you change the playing field,” said one member.

To them, it’s all about creating a culture where new employees – whether freshmen or in mid-career transitions – will find something special they can’t get anywhere else. One business, for example, offers enormous retirement and equity incentives to keep employees around longer. Another invests in top-of-the-line training and education, with the agreement that the employee stay for a minimum two
years afterward.

But the stand out case study of creating a more innovative culture, one that creates stickiness with employees, came from one of the very same technological behemoths smaller businesses are fighting against. Obviously, this massive tech business also appreciates that a bigger pay alone is not enough to retain staff.

The technology leader at that company listed out three surprising tactics her HR department is trying, all designed to improve retention:

  • Everyone gets their birthday off: the tech leader said she was shocked when she saw just how affective this seemingly “ridiculous” offering was in making employees happy. Even directors take their birthdays off, without anyone raising eyebrows. It has created a culture where it’s just accepted – versus having to ask to take it off, as in the past.
  • Killing annual reviews: when this tactic was brought up, the table exploded into applause. No one likes the annual review process. And the HR department didn’t feel it worked. Instead, they replace it with with regular check-ins – all designed to create a more trusting, positive relationship between employees and managers.
  • Dogs in the office: a tactic long celebrated at Softchoice, this company is experimenting with letting workers bring their pooches to the office. People simply love their animals. Being a business that respects that affection, and gives employees a rare opportunity to spend all day with their beloved fur balls, is a huge asset to any retention strategy.


Let’s conclude with an enlightening, and intriguing example, brought to us by one of the IEF members.

When Washington State became one of the first in the nation to legalize the sale of marijuana to consumers, would-be entrepreneurs faced a problem. There was simply no bank that would lend them the capital needed to start up a business. Banks everywhere were cautious, and for good reason. Marijuana sales are bogged down by ongoing federal crime laws, as well as complex regulations.

One bank, though, saw an opportunity. If its customers wanted money to sell weed, legally, they were going to help.

The result put in motion a compelling business strategy to start loaning capital to would be marijuana entrepreneurs. Yes, the regulations would be tough. But the market was there for the taking. They simply had to take a chance. It turns out that they struck gold, being among the first financial institutions in the state to help produce a multi-billion dollar industry.

This is the perfect example of how CIO’s – and businesses in general – should tackle innovation.

There will always be challenges. There will always be regulations and “traditional minded” boards, scared of change. There will always be friction.

But you need to fight. Businesses can work, slowly and steadily on creating the proper foundation to innovate. They can also focus on their teams, their people, to find and foster innovative thinking. They can build up an innovative culture – and then they can profit, and also enjoy their status among an elite group of cutting edge companies. These are the places that the “rock stars,” the
talent of the future, will flock.

Download the full whitepaper here.

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