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Money, Brains and Interpersonal Skills: Requirements for a New Generation of IT

Innovation Executive Forum | Posted on July 15, 2016

Thousands of IT specialists are about to go extinct. Good ideas are worthless unless they help drive the business forward. Be bold and focus – that’s how you will succeed.

These are just three slivers of insight generated at the lively discussion we hosted in Toronto, May 17, 2016. Home to Softchoice’s headquarters, we had so much interest in the Toronto-based event that this was the second of two events held in a row in the city.

Part 1: Nurturing a culture of innovation

As IT leaders, the culture you help create is just as important as the results you deliver to the business. Indeed, the two are inextricably linked. The question then becomes, how do you do it?

We asked the IT leaders of Toronto how they are building a culture of innovation. In no particular order, here are just a few of the stand-out ideas they shared.

Spread It Out:

When the head of innovation at a global financial services company talks about his job, he says the most important thing is to make sure you don’t isolate yourself from the rest of the company. “We used to have a dedicated team for innovation,” he said, “but the rest of the business wasn’t catching the innovation fever.”

As a result, his company is now undergoing a major reorganization. The new structure will ensure that there is an innovation lead in every single major division of the company. “Our goal is to make innovation a part of everyone’s day.”

Go and Try Something:

Those words might sound simple, but the mantra this global director of technology brings to his business is as risky as it is rewarding. “We embrace Shadow IT,” he said, explaining one way his global construction services firm stays ahead of the competition.

He went on to declare that the entire company is populated with entrepreneurs and “mavericks.” They abhor bureaucracy and keep rules and red tape to absolute minimum. All of this to help foster a culture that wants to go out there and try something new, without fear of breaking the rules.

Ask Why:

This three letter question, “Why,” can have a huge impact, says the CIO of one of Canada’s largest telecommunications companies. His role is relatively new to him at the company, but he said going around and asking “why” in every situation possible has done plenty to help push the company into new territories.

“If someone says, ‘well we have always done it like that,’ then you know you’re onto something,” he said. Want to roast your own sacred cows, start asking this deceptively tiny question.

Get Difficult Customers:

We’ve all heard that the customer is always right. But sometimes they can be a downright pain. During the IEF, the VP of IT at a luxury retailer said those are exactly the kinds of customers you should paying the most attention to.

“They make you better,” she said. She points out that the few customers who make the most demands often help provide you with a great education of your market, and what it needs. Another leader chimed in and dubbed this approach “Customer Driven Innovation.”

Part 2: Lean IT: Getting lighter and brighter is in your future

If your job is in the business of delivering technology, the best thing you can do is stop delivering technology.

True IT leadership today, most of the IEF members agreed, isn’t about technology. It’s about driving forward the business, generating revenue and cutting costs. Technology is just one way – a means – that CIO’s help make that transformation happen.

“Frankly, the most innovative thing we did was get out of the technology business,” said the Senior Vice President of IT at a major asset management firm. The nature of his business demands that they move and act quickly. There is simply no time to be building up a new technology infrastructure with each major development.

As a result, they have come to rely heavily on third-party service providers and cloud vendors to get their IT as fast, and agile, as possible. “Our transformation is about focusing on what we do for a living really well – investing money – and pay someone else to do the rest of it,” he said.

The CIO couldn’t agree more. The way she sees it, IT’s job is to be aware of all the leading services available in the “technology ecosystem,” and with that knowledge, put together the most efficient, powerful solution to achieve their unique goals.

“IT looks at the business and figures out how to make it sing, based on what is available in the technology ecosystem.”

This concept of IT will have a big impact to the future job market, said another. The IT leader at an enterprise information management provider said IT’s role is to control the highest level aspects of the business strategy, such as project management and architecture, and to outsource the rest.

“I don’t need data center people, or a network guy,” he said. “We are buying that as a service.”

He ended on a dire note, saying there is no more room for “technologists,” and that soon, that type of specialized role will be all but extinct. “A lot of people will not survive.”

Part 3: Go bank or go home

There’s a big difference between innovation, and invention, said the telecommunications executive at the table. And it all comes down to money.

“With innovation you can make money. Invention is just pure science, to try things for the sake of trying things,” he said. “Is it a distraction or is it helping move the needle? That’s the question you need to ask.”

He pointed out that his business is often exploring numerous interesting, exciting projects. But at a certain point, the business needs to start seeing results, or at least the potential, otherwise there is no chance of the solution coming to market.

Meanwhile, the IT leader of the asset management company has come to a similar conclusion. That’s why he has introduced what he calls the “So What Factor.”

“Someone will have this great idea, and I’ll ask them: ‘So what?’ Doe it generate more profit, does it bring more revenue? Does it reduce costs, or add some level of customer satisfaction?”

He went on to explain that if you can’t answer “yes” to any of those questions, it’s time to drop the idea. “I appreciate the effort, but move on!”

As a result of this kind of thinking, IT leaders should start measuring their success with a few more useful metrics, said the enterprise information software CIO. To him, everything should be about tracking outcomes. “What is the speed to value, how long until this makes us money,” he asked. AS IT leaders, we need to find metrics to ensure we stay on track, and that our fun and exciting projects aren’t merely invention – but innovation.

The retailer CIO was quick to point out that the focus on money has nothing to do with greed. “It’s not because we are hard nosed,” she said. Rather, it’s all about connecting what IT does with something meaningful to the business. Revenues and costs are simply the purest ways to do so.

Part 4: Who to hire (and how to do it)

As the way IT delivers value to the business evolves, the kinds of people fit for the job is changing too.

We saw above already that the use of cloud services and outsourcing is eliminating technology specialist jobs, such as networking and server admins, at many companies. But hiring the kinds of people that would actually be right for the job is equally difficult for employers.

“You want to find people that can embrace this new change, those are the people you hire,” said one CIO. This means finding the kinds of resources that have an apt understanding of the business, are able to communicate those needs and drive a strategy to address those needs.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a wealth of ready candidates out there, that fit the bill. A few IEF members reported vacancies that last months. Especially in a market such as Toronto, the talent pool is extremely small, and most good candidates simply aren’t looking for a job – they were scooped up long ago.

Still, there are a few strategies IEF members employ to identify good talent and workers that will fit in to this modern world of lean IT.

One popular approach was asking candidates to display their business acumen with a written, essay component of the hiring process. “If I was CIO, what would I do?” That’s one question a CIO asks every potential new hire. He asks them to write an essay on that topic. The result displays far more than the ideas the candidate has: it shows how well they understand the industry, how curious they are, how innovative. It says a lot.

Another IT leader said that it’s often better to hire a business expert and train them in technology than it is to do the opposite.

“Character is 90 percent of the game,” he said. “You can train people to be technology people. Savvy business people are far more valuable.”

Lastly, another leader said that the best people to find your new employees are your existing employees. They know best the kind of cultural fit you will find with a new hire. They also have put their neck on the line making the referral, so you have a good chance of getting good options. At least two leaders discussed how they offer large sums of money as incentives to employees to find great new talent – one business pays $5,000, for example, anytime a good new recruit is kept on board for a certain period of time.

Part 5: Advice to a younger you

You can’t help but notice that the leadership at this table is very aware that their world is changing. It’s not the same job as it was several decades ago, when most of their work began.

As such, when they were asked what they would tell their younger self, given the chance, the answers they gave were revelatory. Listed below, the advice serves as a powerful guidepost for anyone in IT, whether CIO or just starting out.

Be Bold:

This IT leader works at a national bank, one of the most risk averse, tight buttoned industries. But, if he could tell his younger self one thing, it would be to do just the opposite. “I’d say be bolder. People who succeed take big risks.”

Ten Thousand Hours:

Another CIO present referenced Malcom Gladwell and that famous rule of spending ten thousand hours on any given field to become an expert. He feels that IT leaders of the past were very spread out. Today, to survive you need to be a specialist, an expert. “You don’t want to be a mile wide and an inch deep,” he said.

Focus on the Edge:

If you want to change the world, you need to focus on the edge, said this leader. This is true on the small scale, for innovating your business, too. “Keep your eyes on the edge. Not the now. Not the far off future.” It is this narrow slice of time where the big ideas once thought impossible can happen.

Stick to Your Guns:

The CIO of a national retailer said she spent far too much time chasing the latest trends and buzz of technology. Instead, she should have been more focused on the decisions she made, and block out everything else. “Find out what you want to do, and focus on that. Don’t get distracted.”


The world is changing for aspiring IT leaders.

Gone are the heydays of the network admin or server specialist. Today they are being outsourced and automated. This change has rattled the hiring market, putting a premium on evermore rare business-ready technologists.

All these changes underline a more massive shift in the IT industry – what purpose it plays to businesses. Today lean IT reigns supreme. The goals of which are quite simple: raise revenues, and cut costs. Anything else, you’re just playing around.

Remember to ask “Why,” and “So What,” and you will be one step closer to building the kind of IT team these executives see as the future.

Download the full report here

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