Why Your Company Needs A True Technology Executive Preparing for the Future
The world is beginning to go though a revolution on par with the invention of Solid State electronics... or slide rule to computer... or Bronze to Iron... or multiple book to double entry accounting. Choose your favorite analogy. It’s big! Just as these other revolutions required business to migrate, prepare and change, so does your business need to migrate, prepare, and change for the Artificial Intelligence revolution.
From the Consultant’s Desk, looking at the many companies that I do business with, I see a very common trend. Executives, given charge of the technology of a company, e.g., CIOs and CTOs, are focused on business needs. And rightly so, however, in the push to satisfy individual business needs, the decisions made are made in specific silos.
As an example, a business is looking to improve its Human Resources processes by purchasing and using a new HRIS system. (AWESOME!! I love it when companies see the benefit of new technology! I digress…)
Don’t Get Stuck in Silos
The company information executives will often then create a project to determine and satisfy the business needs. When the program is deployed and live soon, about a week away, someone will want to use data from the new HRIS system to do something else. Or someone will discover that their work now is very repetitive and will want some automation done. It is then discovered that the program that was just implemented has very real compatibility or integration issues. This is where I see the differences in companies that have someone in charge of their Technology rather than just in charge of the Technology department or technical strategy.
So… What the heck are you on about, Meyer? What I find is that company executives are awesome about managing the budgets of their teams, and good at hiring people, but they are not good at managing their own technology. I often see companies that purchase technologies that have duplicate functionality, little to no interoperability, or are only used for a very small fraction of their total functionality. What I mean about purchasing in a silo is that the project needs are met, but the thought to how that technology fits in the overall organization is, at best, an afterthought.
In thinking for the future, if you are using a program that has no interoperability, that means that your new fancy AI stuff can’t work with it. An entire section of your data and functionality is left out of your AI play.
Executive Presence for Technology, Not Just Technology Organization
The business needs an executive presence to look at the overall technology needs, AND make decisions that will satisfy the business while ensuring that the company has the ability to grow technically with a minimum of technical debt.
What is Technical Debt? That is technology that needs to change to be modernized. Technical Debt is as real as financial debt. Just as if you don’t pay a financial debt the amount that needs to be paid becomes larger and larger, if technical debt isn’t resolved, the amount that needs to be paid to resolve that debt becomes larger and larger.
I like to think of a company that invested in an On Premises ERP system. They did not invest in the upkeep of this system, payment on the debt, and eventually the time came to start to sell their products online. Because their system was not kept up, they were not able to directly update their inventory, payment, and other aspects with what was going on with their online sales. All entries needed to be put in manually, taking up a good deal of their employee’s time. Not only was this inefficient, but it caused issues in timely shipping, and transposition mistakes. The company eventually had to take part in a very expensive and difficult migration to a cloud-based ERP. Because the program’s data structure and functionality was never updated, the migration was very difficult as the way the new program worked and stored its data was radically different. This is a great example of technical debt. This example also gets a bit worse. When the CIO of this company made the decision to purchase this ERP system, they did not take in to account the interoperability of the program, rather it satisfied the business’s immediate needs. What they found was that the new program did not work well with the website’s eCommerce platform, and therefore could not be easily connected. This led to yet another costly and painful migration of their eCommerce platform.
I’d like to say this is something of an extreme case. It isn’t. It is extraordinarily common. Business run on Excel spreadsheets and document-based database systems. Business critical programs run on versions of programming languages so old there is no possible method of migration.
What I have found with companies that invest in someone who is directly in charge of their technology is that projects and purchasing comes with an additional focus. The business needs are taken care of, but at the same time the technology needs of the company are also met. Dollars, time, and effort are all saved because systems work together, or there are means for these systems to work together. These companies are ready for the future and can immediately take advantage of the revolutionary changes occurring. They, naturally, will be ahead of the curve, and will ensure that their companies have the competitive edge sooner, and deeper than the other guy.
How should the job be structured?
This is going to need to be a position that can make and enforce decisions that may ruffle some feathers and have financial impact on the company. Therefore, in my opinion, this position needs to be at least at the Director or Senior Director level, depending on the size of your company. Ideally, this person would report to the CEO. Why? While this person is in the technology field, they really need the autonomy to move without pressure or influence from the technology team. One of the main issues with technology organizations is inertia. They do things a certain way, because they have always done them that way. This position should be able to look at what is current state, work with executives on strategy, and make technical decisions that fall within the strategy.
What does this position start to sound like? Well, what I’m describing is a Chief Technical Officer. However, it is a CTO that is focused on the technology of the company, and not the technology organization.
I like the term of a Chief Technical Officer. However, the job description and the person hired for this position often seem like the Chief Information Officer: a business person put in charge of a Technology Department. They are pulled into the aspects of the running of the business information systems, and people management rather than the management of the technology.
A CTO should not be leading engineering teams, they should be looking at the solutions architecture, and the languages that are being used in engineering. In other words, the technology stack that the engineering team is using.
A CTO should not have support groups or infrastructure reporting up to them. They should be concerned with the state and interoperability of the programs being used. They should be looking at the current state and future state of technology, and what are the hardware and support needs of the company. In other words, they are looking at the technology stack that the company is using. I’m not saying that the CTO should not have reports. I'm saying the reports for the CTO should be other technology individuals able to look at a focused technology stack and ensure that their stack works with the other stacks in the company.
For instance, in a large organization, you may have a Director of Technology that oversees the infrastructure and operations while another Director of Technology focuses on the engineering stack.
Who do you look for?
A person in this position needs to be a technologist. Someone who has spent a good deal of time doing solutions architecture, in many different situations. This person should be well versed on emerging technology and should be active in multiple user and product communities.
What that person is best at really is going to be a function of your company’s business. If you have a manufacturing company, you are looking for someone who is heavier in infrastructure and back office. They need to be versed in ERP systems, inventory, and warehouse management, as well as PLC management.
If you are a company that does a good deal of your own development, you are looking for someone who is strong in applications development and solutions architecture for custom engineering. They need to be well versed in back-office automation, and how DevOps can be used to improve overall velocity.
My overall conclusions are that the Chief Technology Officer should, again, be focused on the company’s technology stack. Direction here pays dividends in that it is easy for the company to automate, report, make decisions, and inspire innovation. The company should have its technology work with the business to ensure that the company is the fastest and easiest to do business with. The technology should act as a force multiplier for the individuals working for the company, so that the company may do more with the headcount that it has.
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