At the 2016 MIT Sloan CIO Symposium, “Uber-ization” reigned as the buzzword of the day.
John Burke, CIO at retail electricity and natural gas provider Ambit Energy, launched an organizational transformation that assigned software development teams to lines of business. This change, coupled with a transition to agile practices, accelerated their IT development and deployment of business-critical systems and empowered internal leaders to prioritize their own needs.
Burke recently won the Enterprise CIO of the Year award from the Dallas CIO Leadership Association. We asked him about his transition to agile and to share advice for other CIOs considering the move.
The Enterprisers Project (TEP): One way you ensure that business value is delivered at rapid pace is by closely aligning software development teams with internal leaders. How does your organizational structure contribute to Ambit’s overall success?
Burke: Traditionally, our IT group would get together and prioritize all our projects, then we’d let the executives pick their priorities and we’d go out and execute. But this meant that our business partners would sit around and wait, hoping we’d get to their project at some point, which frustrated them. So around 2011, we did an experiment where we let the developers and project managers work with the project owners and their analysts to decide what they wanted to build. The IT team would then have a one- to two-week sprint to show near-term results, which our executives loved. This began a long organizational transformation where we allowed our business partners to organize and prioritize their backlog and work with the development team to get it done.
This new structure opened up lines of healthy discussion between IT and the business, encouraged team-building, and helped to empower IT to speak up when an idea or method wasn’t going to work. There’s a new energy and culture within the company now. The IT guys are having fun with tech, and so is the business. IT feels like they can come to work and make a difference — they have a purpose and a drive. It’s a huge differentiator.
TEP: As you moved more toward agile practices, were there cultural shifts that needed to happen? How did you address those?
Burke: It was a painful time — we grew very fast, entered markets quickly, and created some technical debt. People were frustrated, so I pulled my entire IT group into a room, listened to everyone’s frustrations, wrote them down on a whiteboard, then sent the notes to the team. It was cathartic for everyone. They wanted change.
Of course, the next step was to take action. After talking with an agile evangelist, I brought the team back together and discussed it with them. A majority of the team was for it, so we launched a pilot. There were some frustrations along the way because change is tough, but eventually, we started seeing wins — and I’d champion those wins through email. Eventually, we moved it to other teams, and it was more of the same: reinforcement, support, and promote wins.
TEP: What advice would you give to other CIOs who are looking to make their IT orgs more agile?
Burke: If you don’t have any experience with it, you should find a really good evangelist who you can talk to. Then, figure out if this can actually work in your company and construct a strategy. If you see agile working, call the entire team together and ask for their opinions. Most people will probably be up for it because it’s something they want on their résumés. Then pilot it — start with one agile team, pull in the business leaders, get them engaged, coach them through it, and expect people to sometimes do things wrong. That’s okay. Promote the wins in that early pilot, and once you feel you have your basic structure down, begin rolling it out more broadly.
TEP: In 2010, Ambit was named the “#1 Fastest-Growing Private Company in America” by Inc. magazine, and today there are more than 700 employees. What are some of the talent lessons you’ve learned as you’ve grown rapidly over the years?
Burke: One of the key things that we did was to develop career paths to promotion. We included descriptions of what a person needed to do to achieve a promotion. We wanted to be transparent on what it takes to meet qualifications in order to get promoted to a new role. We also have tracks for people who are happy staying on a technical or non-leadership track. And if they want to move into leadership and management, we support that as well because we’re always looking for leaders.
TEP: What is an important leadership lesson you’ve learned over your career?
Burke: First, you need to find the best people for the job and figure out how to afford them. Nothing beats getting the right people on the bus. It saves a lot of time, energy, and frustration later down the road. Also, talent attraction and retention are huge. You have to be genuine and give people a purpose when they go to work. It’s my job to give that to them and to communicate it. And finally, meet everyone you hire. I make it a point to talk to everyone and make sure they understand our vision and that they have that passion. Because if you get their heart, you get their mind, and their mind is what you want.