In 1986 I joined the retailer Argos as a fresh-faced graduate. I would love to say that it was all planned and I had a career path in mind and this was just the first step, but the truth is, I fell into the role after a recommendation from an Argos HR Manager who presumably saw my awkward bespeckled and somewhat geeky exterior as perfect IT material. These were the heyday of Big IT.
The '80s and subsequent '90s were awash with huge IT departments, multimillion pound contracts, big vendors and computers the size of small houses. I worked on mainframe computers, mini computers and eventually personal computers almost all of which would be unrecognisable museum pieces to today's IT professionals. These environments demanded a particular set of skills from those that managed them. The IS Director (for these were the days before the term CIO became popular) were there because they understood a complex, technical world full of flashing lights and scary acronyms. This was an impenetrable landscape to the outsider and companies needed someone to govern and control a large complex cost centre filled with large complex contracts managing large complex machinery. The personal attributes of those IT directors were centred on control, governance, policy, and standardisation. After all, when you have paid several million pounds for a mainframe computer you want to make sure that everyone uses it.
We are now at a point where most of this is consigned to history, but the habits and behaviours of '80s and '90s IT leadership have lasted a generation and only now are we seeing a change and a new breed of leader emerging. Today, if you are in your late 30s or early 40s and entering senior leadership in IT the chances are that your career has roots somewhere in a '90s (or possibly late '80s) company. You may have been exposed to a world where IT held power through control, or through budget or through the standard method of declining business requests through sucking of teeth and stroking of beard combined with technical monologues on why something wasn’t possible. But the internet has changed that. Or more specifically, software delivered over the internet has changed that.
Hardware specialism has given way to software generalism. The ability to buy a solution to a problem without worrying about any of the underlying technical complexity has pulled the metaphorical rug from under traditional IT leadership. With the maturing and commercialisation of cloud services we have, in 2015, arrived at an age where software is king. The era of IT Directors managing large complex data centres in isolation, and in complete control, is over. The very power base of the old ways of working is crumbling and the roles for them, whilst they will not disappear overnight are going to decline over time.
The new job description of a CIO is quite different to those mysterious office-bound figures I reported to 25 years ago. It involves relationships and transparency, collaboration and business value. These are not the skills of old and we need to recognise and support this. The great digital leaders of the next decade will need to understand their business intimately; they will be the masters of change and they can only do this if they are intimately familiar with the business they are changing. They will be highly skilled at relationships because their colleagues will always have a choice; buy externally or go with IT. And finally they will need to be fleet of foot; agility and responsiveness are key in a world that changes day to day. No one wants to hear about five-year road maps any more.
This change, which has come about in less than a decade, has consequences that could potentially run very deep in our industry. We find ourselves at an inflection point in the collective career path for IT. We must recognise and promote different talents and abilities to those that we grew up with; being a technology leader because you are good at technology will no longer wash. Doing what we have always done will only get us what we always got as the saying goes, and if technology and digital leadership wants to be seen as something other than a technical facilities manager then we need to do something very different.
Technology has always been about business change; and while it was wrapped up in complexity and contracts years ago, the layers have been peeled away but the heart of what we do remains. We are business change leaders. We just need to start acting that way.