4 IT leadership skills for the next decade: Alabama CIO of the Year winners share

From hiring constant learners, to prioritizing user experience, here are the key leadership skills award-winning CIOs say will be important in the decade ahead
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2020 trends

The skills CIOs say they need on their teams is shifting with the rapid pace of technology and business change.  In the decade ahead, highly-prized technical skills will still be important, but CIOs are increasingly pointing to soft skills - also known as core skills - such as curiosity and empathy, as traits that are highly-valuable in their evolving IT organizations. 

We caught up with four of the CIOs who recently won the 2020 Alabama CIO of the Year ORBIE Awards to find out how what skill they believe will be most critical for IT talent in the next decade and why. The awards were presented by the Alabama CIO Leadership Association, a professional community that annually recognizes CIOs for their excellence in technology leadership.

Read on to see what skills these award-winning IT executives will be prioritizing in the years ahead. 

1. Curiosity to keep up with emerging technology

Leadership CIO of the Year 

Michelle McKenna, CIO, National Football League: In the decade ahead, IT talent must be focused on continuous learning to keep pace with the change in technology. Consider, for example, the impact artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) will have in the future. Transformation will continue to arrive at a rapid pace with business leaders learning more and more about how to run their business through these powerful technologies. IT teams must be ready to deliver. Working with these systems will be quite different from traditional software development and IT professionals will need to develop entirely new skill sets and even mindsets.

AI and ML are only one example of the type of change we can expect to see. New types of networks based on 5G and beyond will mean a next-generation of cloud computing where we won't just be "moving" to the cloud, but totally re-thinking how applications are architected, with more computing at the edge. The number of devices connected to our networks and systems will grow by orders of magnitude with every pallet, product, ticket, or piece of equipment having the ability to be in communication with our systems in the cloud. These billions of connected devices will need some level of configuration and monitoring, which will require a radically different approach. And there's more: voice applications, wearable technology, new types of currency and payment systems  –  the list goes on and on.

[ What can edge do for your organization? Read also: How to explain edge computing in plain English. ]

Being great at continuous learning starts with a fundamental character trait: Curiosity.

Being great at continuous learning starts with a fundamental character trait: Curiosity. When screening job candidates, IT leaders should focus first on a candidate's passion to understand this ever-unfolding world of technology, prioritizing a curious candidate over an applicant with any one specific skill or technology platform experience. Second, IT talent needs to be taught how to learn, and they need to be supported structurally in their learning. Learning is not about reading and memorizing information anymore, but about the continuous interplay between doing, hitting problems, and finding solutions – whether from books, articles, podcasts, or trial and error. This requires a certain mindset that can be taught and reinforced. 

Fill your teams with those who love to constantly learn, give them tools, and encourage their exploration. IT leaders who do this will be better prepared to weather whatever the next decade of IT transformation brings.

2. Adaptability and willingness to reinvent yourself 

Global CIO of the Year 

John L. Fallis, VP & CIO, Drummond Company, Inc.: When hockey great Wayne Gretzky was asked how he scored so many goals, he said he would skate to where the puck was going – not where it had been. Similarly, I believe technologists who want to keep their skills fresh in the coming years will need to look ahead to where their field is going, and take ownership of moving their skills in the right direction. And while the use of some technologies will shrink but remain needed (COBOL anyone?), others will rise and fall within a few short years. 

How will any technologist be able to decide what to learn and what to ignore? The simple answer is they won’t.

Therefore, I believe the IT talent that stands to be the most successful in the years to come are those who develop the ability to learn quickly through different modalities. Rising IT stars must also understand and anticipate the end of a technology before it arrives. Instead of hiring for any one skill, CIOs should look for IT talent that demonstrates adaptability, awareness of technology trends, and a willingness to reinvent themselves if the market calls for it. Given the ever increasing rate of technology change, these skills will position IT teams to skate to wherever the future takes us.

3. Ability to focus on continuous improvement to daily operations

Large Corporate CIO of the Year 

Jamey Taylor, CTO and Chief Information Security Officer, StateServ-Hospicelink: Creating a culture of operational excellence is critical to the performance of your business during the ceaseless and dramatic changes we’re all facing. In fact, behind security, operational excellence is the most important fundamental an IT organization needs to be successful. The good news is employees can contribute toward achieving operational excellence at every level of the IT organization.

The IT workforce must ask itself the following questions to drive continuous improvement to daily operations. Based on the responses, you can develop an action plan that takes risk and ROI into consideration. 

  • Where do we have single points of failure in our technology or – more importantly – in our people?
  • Where are we failing to be proactive to events?
  • What else should we measure to improve accountability?
  • Where are my top performers spending cycles on repetitive tasks?
  • Where am I relying on "tribal knowledge" instead of a scalable process?

IT organizations must employ a repeatable strategy to drive success in the face of the ever-shrinking time horizons for disruption, innovation, and evolution in our business . Giving IT employees ownership over their operations boosts stability in what is arguably the most volatile career field a person can choose.

4. Ability to put users first through user experience design

Corporate CIO of the Year 

Mike Northrup, SVP & CIO, America’s First Federal Credit Union: In the coming years, there will be no shortage of need for IT mainstays like network security, data privacy, software development, and technical support. However, an area I expect to join those ranks in the coming years will be user experience (UX) design. 

IT organizations are moving quickly to enable self-service from mobile devices, apps, and websites. Looking ahead, the ease of use of these platforms – and the intuitive design to help customers navigate them – will be a huge differentiator. That’s why I believe the ability to develop and deliver experiences that are easy to understand and put the user first will become a critical employee asset. Ultimately, many businesses will need to wow customers with a simple platform that is both powerful and delivers speedy functionality. Technologists who can put users first will have a leg up in the years to come.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Ginny Holden is an independent consultant who brings the practice of IT to life through memorable storytelling.

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