On July 22nd, Innovate@UCLA hosted the sixth Virtual Series event of 2021, “How would you evolve the role of the CIO” moderated by Karl Mehu, GM, Slalom Los Angeles. 2020 and 2021 was an extremely turbulent and difficult year for businesses and IT leaders as the sudden and continued COVID lockdowns forced a massive shift from the office to in many cases 100% remote only workforces in a matter of sometimes days.
The distinguished panel included 3 CIOs from very different businesses bringing their unique perspectives; Theresa Miller, CIO Lionsgate, Tammy Choy, CIO The Aerospace Company and Thomas Phelps CIO, Laserfiche.
Even though they are in very different industries, some common themes emerged from the terrific hour session. The first theme was that the COVID lockdown pushed the business and IT to work together quickly to pivot and figure out how to keep people working on their day-to-day jobs.
Theresa Miller pointed out that entertainment has had so many disruptions in the last 10 years and this was yet another disruption both good for Lionsgate (launching the STARZ streaming service) and very bad in terms of movie theater closures. Thomas Phelps smartly asked the audience who had even heard of Zoom just 2 years ago. Tammy Choy had a unique challenge where 80% of her users are STEM graduates including 25% with PH.Ds which means as she put it, I have 4000 mini-CIOs that are very computer and technology savvy.
The second theme was not just the abandonment of “waterfall” development where we create specifications and eventually come up with a solution but the full embrace of agile methodology and development. All three panelists pointed out that the COVID lockdown and disruption shifted the focus of both management and users from as perfect as possible to a focus on speed of solutions. There was a balancing act where the technology leadership asked if users would tolerate a version 1 of an imperfect solution to get that solution much faster. The resounding answer was yes!
As an example, Theresa Miller at Lionsgate had a major issue because many of the critical jobs in film production require specialized high-end software and tools that were all at the office – for example video and sound editing. She worked closely with her cloud partner Amazon to figure out ways that these critical jobs could be accomplished remotely to keep productions on time, on budget and on track.
Thomas Phelps talked about one of the cautions being that this can bring technical debt as developers are pushing out “good enough” solutions to meet critical needs and the panelists agreed that all their businesses are more willing to try new things as long as there is a plan to build it the right way in the future. In fact, all the panelists talked about how rolling out solutions quickly allowed them to learn quickly what worked, what didn’t work and what users really wanted which again validate an agile, iterative methodology for creating solutions.
The panel talked about a strong shift to a cloud first approach both internally and with external vendors utilizing Software as a Service. There was agreement that cloud should be viewed cautiously, and safeguards need to be put in place both for privacy concerns as well as cost concerns. One of the evolving jobs of the CIO is to help the business understand that it may be the same or even more cost to go SaaS or to the cloud, but that cost will be closely monitored and the value of concentrating on innovation vs. maintenance makes the switch worth it to the cloud/SaaS vendor.
The third topic was social responsibility and social change both personally and for their corporation. The Aerospace company is a huge supporter of STEM initiatives from elementary school to college and Tammy started out in aerospace as an intern. She is paying it forward by bringing in helping to bring in interns in all areas of their business. Theresa at Lionsgate is supporting women in technology, green workplace initiatives and Lionsgate is supporting social justice and adding people of color’s voices in all areas of the business. Thomas and Laserfiche are subsidizing technology at the K-12 level, getting more Wi-Fi points, refreshing technology, and helping to ensure that the next generation has the technological tools and access to be successful.
The last topic was interestingly focused on the non-technology side – the human element. All of the panelists agreed that we are in many ways in a post-office workspace where hybrid workplaces and workforces will likely be the normal work setting. The Covid lockdown as a natural experiment; Can we run our business mostly if not fully with remote workers?
Even though the answer was yes in most cases, there was still a strong sense that when it was safe that people wanted to see each other in person. Multiple panelists talked about lunch get togethers at the office where people would come in, share some time together over lunch and then either stay in the office OR head back home.
Thomas at Laserfiche shared a story of someone that lived in Riverside, California and it took them 3 hours one day to get to the office due to traffic at 8 AM. To paraphrase, Thomas said that in the future, this person should come in for a team lunch to share in the wonderful team building experience in person and then head home the 60-70 miles for a 1-hour commute rather than 3 hours.
The evolution of the CIOs role is really the evolution of most businesses since we have proven that the remote or hybrid work model works. The CIO is in many cases far more trusted having weathered the very difficult COVID lockdown and the integration of the CIO into the core business functions are stronger than they have ever been at many companies