So you want to be a CIO? Stop trying to be a chess master and start enabling other people to grow, says John Marcante.
CIOs: Get out in front of business needs with an early-adoption IT strategy
The average tenure for heads of IT in North America is 6.2 years, according to CIO Magazine’s State of the CIO Survey: 2015. Andy Knauf has that beat by a mile. Since joining the planning, design, engineering & architecture company Mead & Hunt more than 25 years ago as its sole IT worker, he’s led the firm’s technology evolution from “sneaker net” to hypervisors, and says he’s always been willing to take a chance on leading edge technologies that he believed would save money and provide a competitive advantage.
Now director of IT and a vice president and principal with the firm, he earned a seat at the company’s leadership table seven years into his career. Unlike many IT leaders, he doesn’t have to worry about business users banging down his door for the latest app. He’s usually found himself out in front of business needs, sometimes perilously so, he says.
As a 21-year-old he joined a 90-year-old “hometown” architectural and engineering firm with five standalone computers and one printer that was on the cusp of its first major technology-enabled transformation. The number of PCs quadrupled by the end of his first summer out of school.
At that time, he recalls, not everyone was embracing technology. “Management then wasn’t too interested in spending money on equipment,” he says. “I was working there for about six months and one of owners came up to me and said, ‘This CAD thing — it’s kind of a neat idea but it’s going to fail. I want you to start thinking about putting drafting tables back in the offices and not doing the CAD stuff.’”
After overcoming that sentiment, he avoided expensive CAD workstations for the most part and figured out how PCs could do the job. He migrated from an early primitive serial network to a newer one. He experimented with Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS), but determined that the greater bandwidth over the public internet was more advantageous than greater reliability. An early adopter of VoIP, he says the firm’s president at one point threatened to let him go if it didn’t work out. Similarly, he dumped Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) after workers using the company’s first implementation told him it was providing 85 percent of the performance of local servers.
Today, headquartered in Middleton, WI, with the firm’s 500 employees spanning a national footprint of 30 offices, Knauf has turned to a new hybrid cloud storage solution that’s particularly suited to the large files used by architectural and engineering firms, which he says is leading to greater collaboration among teams, both inside and external.
“We do not have to fly people from office to office for project coordination anymore so we’re saving money on that,” he says. In combination with videoconferencing technology, personnel in different offices can share files and screens, even with outside companies on joint projects. With architectural and engineering projects, he says, poor communications internally and with other firms and contributors is one common cause of profit loss.
Moving to the cloud means that any employee can work on anything from literally anywhere. That supports a culture that encourages employees to start in any office and to transfer to other offices to take advantage of business opportunities without losing team collaboration.
The collaboration enabled by the cloud ties into Knauf’s next innovation wave: knowledge management, to which he plans on dedicating a staff person. In part that’s aimed at capturing the learning of older staff, but more so aimed at engaging younger workers who are more attuned to collaboration, he adds.
That youth movement is at work in the IT department as well, he says. “IT professionals want to come and work for us because they know when they come here that they’ll get to play with the new toys. My department is getting younger and younger so I have to be able to keep up with the 20 year-olds who are like I was when I came in.”
Andy Knauf, vice president of IT and Principal, has been with Mead & Hunt for 24 years serving as the head of the IT Department. Andy oversees all IT-related purchasing, is responsible for planning and selecting vendors and for negotiating IT related contracts. He plans and implements additions, deletions and major modifications to the supporting infrastructure company-wide; implements network security, anticipates future network needs and identifies proactive solutions; oversees the planning and management of the company's telephone system and manages company-wide upgrade efforts; directs the CAD managers; and oversees the management of corporate help desk activities and resolves escalated issues.