Dear CIO, You have a tough job

I am asked to attend many events, host multiple roundtables, and nurture networking events as part of my current role. December of 2018 has been no different. I have detailed some of the lessons I learned most recently from the CIO community at events I had the opportunity to participate in the last couple of weeks. I learned a lot from the CIOs that presented and my single largest take away is that you have a big task ahead of you and don’t always receive the support you deserve trying to help you get your work completed.

Home Game
I woke up extra early so that I could make the long trek across Dallas to attend breakfast because I heard that we would be inspired by none other than Inky Johnson (https://thinka.be/2QTqhTn). For those that don’t know, Inky was destined for the NFL and was on the path to be one of the first in his family to get a college degree when a fluke tackle in one of the last games of the season left his right arm paralyzed. Despite this Inky looked at his injury, not as a setback, but the motivation to find the next path in his life. He got his degree and has become a difference maker in many peoples lives in his hometown of Atlanta. Just like Inky, each CIO must find a way to stay focused on an ever-changing path, and you have to learn to motivate your teams to adapt and adopt change with an open mind. You know this is no small feat.
It was hard to follow the opening that Inky gave, but your peers’ dove right in and started sharing. As I listened to the presentations, I learned what it takes to a build a data science team when you can’t find or afford an actual data scientist. If you break data science down into their parts, it turns out you can create a data scientist in a team format. To do this, you need equal parts mathematician, business subject matter experts, and data visualization experts. Throw them in a room together and give them some problems to solve and voila, you have a data scientist. The lesson learned here is that you have to think about how you are going to either level up the skills you already have on the team or how you will bring in external players to round out the skillset you need.
You also taught me that a successful transformation must drive economic improvement. I learned that as you work with your vendors to assist with your transformation, you have to demand flexibility from them. This flexibility achieves two significant outcomes. First, you gain long-term leverage over the same vendors that you are asking for this flexibility. If you aren’t locked into a platform, or software stack or infrastructure model and can move away at any moment without starting over, you can hold them accountable every time you come back to re-negotiate contracts. Secondly, you ensure that your migrations that do need to happen are completed quickly. This speed of delivery eliminates the opportunity for any nay-sayers in your organization to dig in and push back on the change.

Away Game
It’s dark, it’s cold, and only a single person is standing in the doorway. I figure I might as well be brave so I asked the Lyft driver to drop me off and I began the long walk up to the entrance. I was pleasantly surprised when she knew precisely why I was there and directed me to the escalators where my peers awaited me. This experience is how I kicked off the evening at Minute Maid Park in Houston for a networking dinner with many of your CIO peers. Hands were shaken, pleasantries were exchanged, and a couple of cold Shiner Bocks were consumed. Those Shiners signaled I was a “good Texas boy” and worthy of a conversation and I seized upon the opportunity. I learned that each of you has a different office space housing their team. I also realized that you don’t get out of the office to spend time with your peers as often as you like and I appreciate the opportunity to be welcomed into your circle of conversations.
As we all sat down in a unique venue for our dinner, Ben Hammersley took the stage as our keynote speaker. His bio includes Author and Futurist, and as he started with a string of witticisms, I thought comedian should be added to that list. He quickly turned serious, however, and got to the heart of the matter at hand. How do you and your fellow CIOs plan for the future?
Forecast horizons, or the distance into the future that you can see clearly, are continually shrinking. This shrinking horizon makes it hard for a CIO to create a long-term roadmap with any certainty. The accelerated pace of change causes this uncertainty we find in our environments. It is so fast that you can’t predict further out than about two years without risking tieing your organization down to a legacy technology or initiative. In comparison, if you think about a CIO in the not too recent past of the 1960s, they had the luxury of looking 20 years down the road with little risk.
To further complicate this roadmap challenge, vendors are proclaiming daily that their technology is the panacea that you are seeking. Surprise, it’s probably not. Technology itself won’t solve the problems that are causing your struggles. You need to realize that thinking about technology also means thinking about culture and politics and how they will impact or be impacted by technology. To better highlight this I learned a new term called the Overton Window (https://thinka.be/2C4Ddxf). The quick definition is that Overton Window describes the things that are acceptable to discuss in polite company. As this window has shifted over time, it has “uncovered” topics and associated technologies that had previously been taboo. If we can see clearly what is in this window and make a conscious choice to start talking about those things that aren’t in the window, we can get a glimpse of where the future and the present will intersect or skating to where the puck will be. This visionary view empowers CIOs to extend their shrinking forecast horizon and better plan for the future.
The thing that really stood out to me in his presentaton was when Ben outlined the next great threat to society. That threat is the new target for modern warfare. Cognition. It is becoming increasingly important for us to protect our ability to differentiate between information that is truthful or fake as nefarious agents are no longer content with merely hacking into your bank accounts or stealing your personal information. They want to infiltrate your mind and sow seeds of discord to the point that you no longer know what is real. Technology is the medium that is being used to perpetrate these attacks which places an enormous burden on the CIO. We are at battle, and you are the last line of defense. No pressure, and not like your job wasn’t fraught with enough peril already, but now you’re in charge.

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