3 ways CIOs can embrace disruptive technologies without ignoring legacy IT

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CIO Data's Credibility Problem

Disruptive technologies are here to stay. We have the cloud and we have open source software. Because you can implement things in a safer environment that doesn’t disrupt your entire ecosystem or your entire data center, you can experiment faster. New technologies therefore will get a foothold faster and the pace of disruption will increase.

The problem is when you look at legacy environments and technologies. We’re an enterprise, so we have built legacy environments and applications. And you can’t just throw away legacy.  “Legacy,” by definition, has been around for years and works, even if it takes a lot of our budget to maintain and has some problems. People know how to operate around them, and they’re comfortable with the technology. And now you’re going to bring in something new that’s uncomfortable and unproven?

Therefore it might sound a bit counter intuitive to say this, but we believe that if you embrace disruptive technologies you will be successful.

How you go about realizing that success is different for every organization, but for career building you need to work with somebody who realizes, “If I build a legacy environment with hard walls, it will be unsuccessful very shortly.” Why? Because disruptive technologies inevitably get somebody on your leadership committees excited, and once they see good results in their own organization they are likely to say, “Why aren’t we doing that in our organization?”  The career-building CIO can then step forward and say, “Absolutely. We are prototyping it and we’re measuring it in our own environment, with our own use cases.”

How do you embrace disruptive technologies to the benefit of your career? Here are three ways:

  1. Create an IT Petting Zoo: An IT petting zoo is about bringing in disruptive technologies and prototyping them with end users. A collateral benefit of a successful prototype is that it makes a huge benefit for the CIO who championed it. It also creates a relationship with internal customers where they start seeing the CIO and the whole IT organization as an enabler as opposed to a place where all good ideas stop.
  2. Embrace a Chaotic Architecture: Jim Rinaldi, the CIO of JPL, has coined a new and exciting concept: “chaotic architecture.” It really says: “There is chaos, but if we take advantage of that chaos and have it as part of our architecture, we can move forward rapidly but in a structured way that will last.”
  3. Make Your End Users Part of Your Team: Success today means taking advantage of the workforce that you have. Why shouldn’t that include your end users as well as your IT people? Inviting them in to help disrupt your environment and help prototype those new technologies, such as Docker, means you’re building advocacy and testing it in real-use cases. If you want to take it forward, give the credit to the end users. It will then move forward faster as IT and end users are innovating together.

Changing a tire while the spacecraft is moving

Here’s an example of how legacy and disruptive can work together. With our current  

Curiosity on Mars, it took a lot of money and effort to create the legacy infrastructure and to operate it safely. How could we then infuse new technologies to search for new insights? Easy.  We copied the data straight into an analytics cloud and experiment quickly and actively by writing prototype analytics applications. Because it’s a read-only copy of the data, it doesn’t affect the operating mission. We brought in many new, powerful, and disruptive technologies in that sandbox environment and gained a lot of new insight.

We’ve had several new applications and ideas appear in weeks that have been infused into missions that are already flying, a feat that would have been very difficult before and could have taken years.

The result? A stronger bond between the mission personnel, the business-focused personnel, and the IT organization. All of which have positive repercussions on both JPL’s mission and on our careers.


Tom Soderstrom serves as the Chief Technology and Innovation Officer, in the Office of the CIO at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Los Angeles, CA and a member of the Enterprisers Editorial Board. JPL is the lead U.S. center for robotic exploration of the solar system and conducts major programs in space-based Earth sciences. JPL currently has several dozen aircraft and instruments conducting active missions in and outside of our solar system.

Tom serves as the Chief Technology and Innovation Officer, in the Office of the CIO at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where his mission is to identify and infuse new IT technologies into JPL's environment.He has led remote teams and large scale IT best practices development and change efforts in both small startup and large commercial companies, in international venues, and in the US Governm