Digital Transformation: why perspective and roles matter

Digital Transformation.

This is a huge topic for many of you. Perhaps you’re driving your own enterprise transformation or you’re about to. Getting it right could mean the opportunity to drive amazing macro value. You could help build the next generation of software and services that customers want and use. Your career could be defined by it.

I’ve been lucky to play a part in two and I’m currently in the midst of some of the most meaningful, challenging and impactful work of my life. It’s going really well. But we’re not done and progress hasn’t come without several lessons learned the hard way.

Thanking those that have helped me, I’d like to give back and share my perspectives on two (of many) topics at the core of enterprise digital transformation. As I can’t share some of the specifics of my current role, I’ll be sharing some of what I’ve learned through the experiences of others.

I hope you find these thoughts useful in your efforts to drive change.

Key topic #1: Leaders need perspective. It can be learned.

Two months ago I was lucky to hear Jamie Miller, the CEO of GE Transportation, speak at an off-site meeting. She is very bright and hearing her speak about GE’s on-going transformation was an excellent opportunity to learn about her challenges and approaches taken to transform GE Transportation into a platform company.

She shared stats that GE Transportation manages over $1 trillion of assets and that the data derived from the operations was potentially becoming more valuable than the assets themselves (think of insights delivered as a service for uses cases including optimization, etc).

The key takeaways I took from the conversation:

1) Her background.

She joined GE in 2008 as a Controller and Chief Accounting Officer (she came from an accounting firm prior); however, after this post, she was promoted to Chief Information Officer for GE.

Jamie didn’t study software engineering. And although she didn’t discuss this, her move from Accounting/Finance to CIO made sense from a traditional enterprise IT lens — if someone identifies IT as a cost center, who better to run IT than an accountant?

If this assumption on why she was hired is off, it doesn’t matter (not meant to trivialize nor hurt feelings, she’s bright and very likely deserved it). What’s more important, is that after years as CIO, she is now CEO of GE Transportation. The leader of this enormous enterprise, that manages $1 trillion dollars in assets and is becoming a platform company, lived technology day-in and day-out as the leader of a massive technology organization. Because of this real-life learning, she brings a distinct, technology infused perspective to her leadership post.

How many other 100-year-old companies can you name that have a former CIO/CTO as CEO or CEO of a subsidiary?

Would this even be a topic if we were talking about native digital/software companies (Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Facebook, et al)? I’d argue that if this were a conversation about the technical perspective of Satya Nadella it wouldn’t matter. But here, when talking about the digital transformation of a historically industrial company, it definitely matters.

2) Perspective can be learned. And it can make you competent and credible.

Jamie told us: “GE is a software company”.

As of late, so have other CEOs of industrial companies. For example, Mark Fields, CEO of Ford, has stated recently that (April 7th article): “[We have to be a software company]…we have to disrupt ourselves…we saw what happened to the handset makers. We’re determined to make sure that doesn’t happen [to us]…our platform is the vehicle.”

What made this interaction with Jamie memorable is how she demonstrated competency (and empathy for the challenges that face her digital vision) in a very real way.

During Q&A I asked Jamie about the GE Predix platform and how GE approaches the sharing of code (and knowledge) across the enterprise. In other words, how did a company of her size make progress at helping someone in location Z, know that team ABC in another location, already built a similar service so that they wouldn’t have to built it all over again?

She responded that GE did have something. I forget the name, but the key is that she started telling us about GE’s enterprise Git repo, the philosophy behind it and that there was a website and a community, etc.

Stop. How many CEOs do you know of that know about the value of Git, why it matters and how it relates to one of the pillars of their corporate strategy?

I really don’t believe that she planned to name drop Git, nor to completely and competently explain how the concept of a code repository is driving the adoption of her enterprise platform and digital business strategy. However, in this fluid moment, she demonstrated that she has a deep understanding of technology and how it fits into GE strategy at a foundational level.

Again, I’d bet that Mark Zuckerberg knows about Git, Jenkins and how both fit into Facebook’s philosophy on scaling, code quality and re-use, but this is the CEO of an industrial company undergoing digital transformation. This perspective really matters when she’s sitting down and reviewing a company strategy based on transforming GE Transportation into a platform company. It also matters when she’s managing her directs and planning talent strategy.

Key topic #2: Roles will change. Words matter.

If you are at an organization undergoing transformation, it is highly likely that the roles and organizational structures around you will not fit your desired end state.

How many of you work at a company that has a line between “Business” and “IT”?

Do you know anyone who would self-identify as being from “the business”?

Do you ever use the words “the Business”?

Do you work at an auto manufacturer that now wants to be a software company or at some other industry undergoing a similar change imperative?

Then what really is your business? And have the meanings behind espoused or assumed titles truly changed?

When I worked at Microsoft Bing, we had business managers who would track core or run-the-business metrics. General Managers (GMs) were responsible for org P&L. Product management was responsible for product level P&L, voice of the customer, product strategy, backlogs, product marketing and even setting sales quotas. Engineering (Dev/Test/PM) built our software as a service.

In all that time, I never heard anyone call out any person or group as “the business”. We all partnered in efforts to achieve our KPIs.

When I speak to peers at Google or Amazon, I hear similar responses.

If your business is truly software, then the business is technology. To support this worldview, there is no room for historical demarcations, only functions. You sell technology. You create marketing plans for your technology. You develop technology.

So it’s essentially circular. The business is technology…and “the business”, as a phrase or role descriptor, is meaningless.

In this new world, many of the roles that “engaged with IT” or “engaged with the business”, will likely change.

However, your organization will still need bright people in a variety of roles to achieve its goals. You will need to hire some with new perspectives, but you can’t achieve what you must without your team members who built the foundations that are allowing your company to fund or even contemplate this transformation. Look back at Key Point #1 above — I’ll bet you will have a significant opportunity to help your existing team members find roles that are a great fit for your new imperatives.


Digital transformation is hard. Posters on the wall are not enough. It requires a multi-faceted approach across people, process and technology.

However, if you are in an industry that is feeling business model pressure from non-traditional companies across the digital spectrum or more importantly, from customers that are expecting new approaches to service and highly iterative approaches to service delivery, Digital Transformation is a survival imperative.

Luckily you can have a big impact on the success of your program through your own actions. When preparing for your challenge, keep the following in mind:

1) Get perspective. This post isn’t about CEOs. It’s about leaders with and without titles at all levels of the organization. If you’re in a role that is not historically digital, then get in front of it. Digital perspectives can be learned.

And if you are in a digital role and feel yourself a native, you don’t get a free pass. Success is a team sport. Help your peers get perspective. You’ll only move as fast as the perspectives of your key influencers and/or decision makers.

2) Think about roles and the context behind codified terms.

While you’re at it, take time to understand how your organization is structured, the roles that support your current model and the terminology that is used to describe how you operate today. Use this learning to set a course for your transformation:

- What are the roles that you need to achieve your goals and how does that overlay onto your existing organization?

- What is the hidden meaning behind the terminology your organization uses and how must your lexicon evolve?

- What opportunities do you have to identify smart people on your current team and to help them find success in pursuing the new roles and KPIs you have set to achieve your digital transformation?

Let’s fight the good fight and keep the learning flowing.