This content is part of the Essential Guide: CIO role in digital transformation

CIO position: Evolve conference shows many ways to manage IT

The recent Evolve Technology Conference's Outlier Award program revealed varied takes on IT management philosophy and approaches to the CIO position.

The annual Evolve Technology Conference, which ran last month in Las Vegas, put the spotlight on the CIO position and drove home one point in particular on the top-level technology management job: There's more than one way to do it.

Trace3, an IT solutions provider based in Irvine, Calif., hosts the Evolve leadership and technology event, which attracts numerous CIOs and IT managers who discuss emerging technology and business trends. The conference program, which this year included keynotes from retired NFL quarterback and five-time league MVP Peyton Manning and entrepreneur and author Peter Hinssen, culminates with the Outlier Award. The award recognizes a technology manager who "consistently delivers dynamic innovation and outstanding leadership," according to Trace3.

I had the opportunity to speak with the eight finalists for the Outlier Award at the Evolve conference. I was one of seven judges pulled together from the ranks of CIOs and tech writers to evaluate the candidates and cast our votes. The two-day process revealed a variety of takes on IT management philosophy among those holding a CIO position or similar tech role.

Harnessing emerging technologies

Some of the finalists take a deep dive in technology. Darren Haas, senior vice president of software engineering at GE Digital and the Outlier Award winner, is the technologist's technologist. Haas co-founded Siri and is one of the personal assistant application's original developers, harnessing in recent years such technologies as Apache Mesos, an open source cluster manager. After Apple's Siri acquisition in 2010, Haas helped devise Apple's proprietary cloud services platform. Haas now is pursuing a similar task at GE Digital, where he supports a number of initiatives, including an edge-to-cloud IoT deployment.

Outlier finalist Ravi Nekkalapu also deals with cutting-edge technology in his role as CIO and head of IT at Drive Shack, a company that's building virtual reality golfing complexes. He didn't have much of a choice: The virtual reality- and augmented reality-driven golfing systems Drive Shack envisioned didn't exist when he took the job in 2016. Nekkalapu had to evaluate technology and vendors and essentially build everything from scratch to equip Drive Shack's 60,000 square-foot facility in Orlando, Fla. The prospect of fielding new technology attracted Nekkalapu to the Drive Shack assignment, but perhaps not the sport of golf. He acknowledged he had little interest in golf prior to joining Drive Shack from a previous IT management role at Wyndham Worldwide.

Building the foundation for innovation

Innovation is well and good, but the technology foundation must be rock solid. Philip Irby, Outlier finalist and CIO at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas said he takes an architecture-first view of IT, in which stability is the core objective and security is "part of our DNA." In his IT management philosophy, innovative systems can be built on a reliable and secure platform. To wit, the hotel resort and casino has launched a new online component to its rewards program that delivers offers directly to customers' mobile devices.

Stability as the foundation of innovation is also a key theme for Michael McGibbney, senior vice president of delivery and operations at SAP SuccessFactors and an Outlier finalist. For a SaaS company such as SAP SuccessFactors, which provides cloud-based human capital management software, the ability to handle peak usage periods is critical for customer satisfaction and retention. McGibbney's IT team created a "Service Delivery & Operations" organization to focus on peak-season performance.

For Paul Chapman, who holds the CIO position at Box and an Outlier finalist, his role might be seen as creating the cultural conditions in which innovation can occur. He emphasizes people, rather than technology, as the key to maintaining the accelerating pace of transformation. At Box, which has a heavily millennial workforce, Chapman's to-do list includes working to create a new-look workplace that's collaborative and employs such features as voice-enabled conference rooms.

Aligning with the business mission

Some CIOs may see their roles as driving new technology adoption or taking a more pragmatic line on innovation. Others, meanwhile, put a premium on the CIO position as business partner.

The Outlier finalists demonstrate there's no common path to a CIO position or an IT management role.

For Michelle McKenna-Doyle, her role as senior vice president and CIO at the National Football League ranges from working with team owners to upgrade stadium infrastructure and the fan's digital experience to expanding the league's business partnerships. As for the latter, the Outlier finalist sparked an initiative to land multimillion-dollar corporate partnerships with technology giants such as Microsoft; the NFL had previously cultivated ties with established consumer brands. The CIO also created a career path for technical personnel within the NFL. Today positions such as chief architect carry the same weight as senior vice president.

At Western Digital Corp., Terry Dembitz, vice president of IT and Outlier finalist, helped build out the Office of the CIO to include an IT Business Partner Program, which serves as the business advocate within the IT organization. IT staffers within the IT Business Partner Program work with the business side on technology roadmaps and individual projects. One especially large project was getting Western Digital and two acquired companies -- Hitachi Global Storage Technologies and SanDisk -- on one ERP system. Instead of selecting one of three companies' ERP systems to standardize on, Western Digital opted for a fourth approach: Adopt a cloud-based ERP system. Dembitz's thinking was to "turn integration into transformation" and position the company for the future.

The "businessperson-first" philosophy informs Bryan Kissinger's outlook as vice president and CISO at Banner Health. A few months after joining Banner Health in 2017, the Outlier finalist gained support from the health system's clinical leadership to deploy a single sign-on system that aims to save each clinician several hours a week in multiple, manual logins. Banner Health uses Imprivata's single sign-on technology, which integrates with its Cerner electronic health records system. In another IT initiative, Kissinger said Banner Health is looking to invest in technology startups that can advance the health system's patient care mission.

The CIO position: Horses for courses

The differences in technology management approaches stem to some degree from the workplace milieu. A greenfield operation, for instance, is going to call for a tech-heavy approach, at least during the early going. A manager's educational and professional experiences also play an important role in shaping a CIO's IT management philosophy. CIO and technology managers participating in the Trace3 event come from a range of backgrounds, including finance, business administration, IT and military.

Indeed, the Outlier finalists demonstrate there's no common path to a CIO position or an IT management role.

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