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Carole McCluskey is the Chief Information and Technology Officer of TrueBlue, a specialty employment service based in Tacoma, WA.

The role of the CIO is not what it used to be. Once upon a time, it was good enough to just go build stuff and that’s what our companies expected of us — to just go out and build things. Today, that’s not really our jobs anymore.

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My job is about how we make sense out of all these things that are in our enterprise — how do we make sense of shadow IT? How do we actually make the things that we bought, the things that we built, and the things our users are discovering on a  daily basis actually work for the business? How do I, as head of corporate IT, actually create value for my business?

Technology, de-mystified

Technology used to be this big mystery. I started in technology well over 30 years ago; I had a job working for a CAD/CAM software company and would travel all over the country selling software. There was no internet. There were no cell phones. At night, I would go back to my hotel room and I would use a calling card to call home. I think we had a 1,200-baud modem that we could dial into and get to a message board so I could get some semblance of technology downloaded to myself before sales presentations.

These were crazy times. And back then if you were in IT, if you were building software, everybody thought you were kind of a god. It was too crazy and mysterious. No one knew what it was. It was truly a black hole. And if anyone back then had said to me, “You’re going to have this amazing device that you’re going to carry everywhere, and you’ll use it to find out anything you want to know in seconds,” I would have thought they were crazy. But now that’s our reality.

Why consumerization of IT has created shadow IT

A couple of companies — Apple and Microsoft in particular — have perfected something that is really important to us, which is taking once-magical technology and making it accessible to everyone. Obviously, this is a good thing, but in some ways, it’s made our lives as corporate technology people kind of miserable because everybody expects really cool, simple, easy to use software all the time––whether in their work or in their personal lives. That great software isn’t necessarily available in the enterprise. That causes a lot of frustration from our customers. They say to us, “Hey, how come I can’t have the software that I want? I go download an app, and that app does like a hundred things. So why can’t you do that for me?”

They want to know how we deliver things that they need in the enterprise in the same way that they can as a consumer. That’s a big challenge for us because we’ve spent years of effort, and millions of dollars, on virtualizing our networks, building data centers, coming up with custom applications and everything else that we think were really important to the business, and they just want more.

We can deny that our users know better than us, we can deny that we’ve got a problem on our hands, but the reality is that we’re no longer the people that have to demystify technology, because our users know all about it. Our internal customers are the ones that are saying, “I want that cool thing for SEO. I want that awesome app for how I manage expenses, I want, etc. etc.” 

They’re already finding this software because the vendors and the companies that are out there building all of that great stuff are going directly to your business users. Our users don’t need us to find innovation.  The innovation exists out there in shadow IT-land. We can no longer expect that the business is going to care about the fact that we have to spend our time managing this monolithic, complex infrastructure because they’re going to just go around us.

The technology leader’s new mindset

I’ve observed that if we don’t go fast enough then what happens is the business goes around us. And then what we’re left doing is feeling like all we do is maintain the legacy while everybody else goes off and does something better. And we can’t be there. We cannot be in that place. The most important thing from my perspective is that in corporate IT or corporate technology we absolutely have to be the business, you have to be a value creator for the business. And in order to do that, we have to shift our mindset.

To start to shift your mindset as technologists, you have to think about what’s possible. You have to come to your job every day and think about technologies that allow you to extend the enterprise. This could allow you to get faster at bringing those great solutions you already have built or brought into your enterprise and leveraging them differently.

As IT leaders, we want to surround ourselves with amazing people who can think like the business. A lot of times we separate ourselves away from one another — business, IT, marketing, what have you. But you know what, the business is us now. We are the business. And we can’t afford to say, “Well, that’s marketing’s problems, that’s sales,” or “that’s finance.”

We’re all part of coming up with these solutions, so we all have to surround ourselves with people who can talk the language that drives value in your company. It’s important for the IT organization to look for and partner with people who have the situational fluency to join your organization or represent the capabilities of the technology group that you have working with you or for you.

Because technology has been so de-mystified, IT doesn’t necessarily need the gods who can design software. The most important kind of skill is the ability to, regardless of the situation, walk into a room and speak the language of the finance team or the marketing organization or the business analytics team. That capability is very critical.

The most important IT skill

The business wants to go faster than my team can move at this point, so we’re trying to speed up in two ways. One is that I can take the opportunity to reestablish the value of technology with my own point of view layered on top. And the other is to ask my team to kind of be more open to changing and doing things a little bit differently than in the past.

The reality is that the business has already gone out and selected technology without really going through the IT organization. My team could get totally frustrated and say, “well, you can’t do that. Shame on you for creating shadow IT,” or they can do things differently and say, “Well, you know what, there’s probably some great stuff there.”

The business users are the canary in the coal mine — they’re out finding this stuff for us. My team can learn through that and hopefully can create greater value for the business, because we have the tools and ability to say “Hey, let’s jump in. We’re going to learn something” and then take those learnings and deploy them everywhere. Shadow IT is here to stay — in fact, I say embrace it because it makes our organization better.

That’s why it’s so important to ensure that you’re empowering or hiring people in the organization who have that solutions mindset. I have the great fortune of having spent probably 20 years of my career on the selling side of technology, running professional services for technology companies and really got the benefit of learning how to have a solutions mindset.

I think if you can drive that into your teams so that’s the way they think, it really helps because it’s not always about the technology. Sometimes the easiest way to create change is to change your mindset.

For more about the evolution of technology leadership, take a look at our whitepaper, Leading the Emerging Composable Enterprise.