It’s fun to think about the future of technology. We binge shows like “Black Mirror,” a series known for the fascinating – and sometimes disturbing – technologies at the center of each episode. We stream and share online videos with dancing robots and rocket ships designed for leisure travel.
But it’s not all entertainment for CIOs. Keeping up with emerging technologies is part of the job. Shifting business priorities, constant competitive pressure, and endless vendor pitches don’t make that job any easier.
[ What technologies should be on your radar screen now? Read also: 8 TED Talks on emerging technologies to watch. ]
We asked CIOs and CTOs for their tips on this perennial struggle. Read on for sage advice on keeping up with the most pertinent technology trends without getting distracted, how to prioritize fact-finding in your busy schedule, and which people in your organization you’ll want to put on speed dial.
Get intelligence from sales
Scott Terrell, CIO, HealthMarkets Insurance Agency: “A major ‘go-to’ source for our team is our sales force. We have a technology council made up of many top agents across the country who depend on our technology for efficiency and productivity in their selling process. They are on the front lines and interacting with our customers daily, so I make a point to communicate with them at meetings, events, or even via phone or email. I want to know what’s working, what’s not, and where we can make improvements that will make their jobs easier and still provide outstanding service to our customers.”
Confer frequently with other CIOs
Jason James, CIO, Net Health: “First of all, let’s give a shout out to The Enterprisers Project. The real-world insights from IT thought leaders allow me to gain insights about what has worked in their respective organizations without the noise and marketing hype from vendors. I also confer with my own network of CIOs and other IT leaders about what has and hasn’t worked well for them. CIOs are rarely shy about sharing insights about their favorite disruptive emerging technologies.”
Talk to the troops and attend boot camps
Robert Reeves, CTO, Datical: “You are probably a CTO because you like technology. Go figure. But you’re not a developer anymore. Much like a former infantry lieutenant that led a platoon of soldiers, you’ve moved into the flag officer ranks. That means you have a bigger stage, bigger responsibilities, and a bigger technology skill gap. But that doesn’t mean you should spend hours figuring out new technology alone. What I do is simply ask my technical team members what they think is cool and let them tell me how it works. This allows you to engage with your team on their terms.
“Furthermore, you’re encouraging Feynman’s first step in mastery: Teach it to a child. You are the child, the neophyte, offering your team a chance to educate you. This is an opportunity for growth for all parties.
“Of course, there is value in actually getting your hands dirty – seeing ‘the war from the front,’ so to speak. To that end, I attend tech conferences and come a day early to attend a boot camp. I recently did that at DataStax Accelerate conference and got a better understanding of Cassandra. I also got to test-drive their ‘Cassandra as a Service’ before it’s released. The boot camp was time-boxed and had a well-defined curriculum and path. Of course, I couldn’t go too deep, but it did help me understand the technology better and become more than conversant."
Pay attention to industries that aren’t keeping up
Robert Reeves, CTO, Datical: “I have a Google Alert for the phrase ‘Millennials are killing the’ and pay close attention to whatever the industry is. Not surprisingly, it’s not millennials to blame, but the industry’s inability to engage disruptive technology and use it.”
Timebox for research
Brad Pollard, CIO, Tenable: “My go-to source is my stakeholders. I listen to my users, my management teams, and what their business needs are. I work from the business need and then research technology solutions that fit the problem. The technology isn’t the driver, the business problem is the driver – technology is only part of the solution.
“I make time to do research. I set aside a few hours each week to see what’s new, what’s making headlines, and why. I keep a list of interesting technologies to check on from time to time, but I don’t let new technology drive strategic initiatives. If the technology is a fit for a business problem, we’ll embrace it. But we don’t try and fit the business to a disruptive technology just because it’s the latest thing.”
Empower your people to craft ideas based on trends
Craig Williams, VP and CIO, Ciena: “Leaders need to build a culture of agile innovation that focuses on the people within the organization, and invest in basics like time management, mentorships, leadership development and recognition. The key to keeping up with emerging tech is to first, invest in your people; second, understand the business problems; and third, align your talent to the business problems.
“My main operating priority at Ciena is developing internal talent and ensuring that everything we do has demonstrated value through our employees. Our vision is for IT to become the organization’s competitive advantage by providing technology solutions that have a visible and measurable impact on the business. The only way we can achieve this is by having a great team that is focused on problem-solving as well as recognizing the value in our employees’ ideas. Through engaging employees in this process and listening to their visions for Ciena, we’ve been able to stay on top of emerging trends as well as prepare for future ones.”
Talk to people…in all kinds of places
Robert Reeves, CTO, Datical: “I talk to people…a lot. I met a person in line at the airport wearing a soap brand shirt. I complimented him on the soap, as I use it in my workshop. As we chatted, he explained that he knows nothing about soap but does computer systems service. The soap company has a system to track RFID tags on hospital workers to make sure they are washing their hands and tracking how often. This is to help enforce sanitation but can also be used for tracing back the cause of infections. The actual soap they sell is not even close to the revenue on the RFID system. In fact, he wasn’t even sure the hospital used their soap brand. Amazing.
“You won’t get that sort of insight by reading market briefs or daily email digests. You MUST interact and engage with all people. Ask them what they do, how they do it, and why. You’ll be surprised by what you learn.”
[ What’s next in AI? Read also: 10 TED Talks on AI and machine learning. ]