Role of the Chief Information Officer

Contributed by Brad Englert, a career IT professional and leader and valued member of the Austin Forum advisory board.

Brad Englert

After serving for seven years as the Chief Information Officer at The University of Texas at Austin, I’m often asked about the experience and the evolving role of the CIO. Here are some thoughts:

Information Security Leadership

Own it, lead by example, set high IT staff expectations and accountability, and communicate to your constituents the urgent need to be continually vigilant and uncompromising. Information security threats are 24x7. Someone is always trying to break in. State sponsored hacking has mushroomed over the past few years, as evidenced in the presidential election meddling by Russia.

Russia, North Korea, China, Iran, and eastern European criminal cartels are always probing for weaknesses. Ask your Chief Information Security Officer to test your IT organization, practices, and facilities to verify that you are leading the way by example.

Moving IT Services to the Cloud

Focus has shifted dramatically from buying and managing infrastructure and technical resources to managing vendors and the services they provide. UT Austin has moved to a number of cloud services: UT branded Gmail for students and alumni, Canvas learning management system, Box for file sharing, Qualtrics survey tool, Office 365 for staff email, Amazon Web Services, and Workday HR/Payroll. The most successful cloud offerings are designed for the web from the ground up.

The dark side of the cloud is when companies try to shift legacy applications designed for servers in your data center to the cloud. This panicked attempt to catch up by traditional product vendors simply does not work. Trust me, I learned this the hard way.

Changing IT Roles

With the transition to the cloud, we now need highly skilled vendor managers, contract negotiators, and service managers. We also need more specialists in data integration, security, and privacy. Data enterprise architects are necessary to successfully determine how to best take advantage of cloud services. In the future, we will need fewer systems administrators and application developers.

Data Analytics and Artificial Intelligence

How can we build data analytics to best support executive decision-making towards achieving institutional priorities? Since the late 1990’s we have a number of tools to make this happen. But these tools have been cumbersome, expensive and typically require costly, expert staff resources. Big data and artificial intelligence portend greater insights, yet many organizations are not yet exploiting the opportunity due to the high barriers of entry. When will we break through?

Focus on IT Workforce Hiring and Retention

In academia, we actually can commit to real work/life balance for our IT workforce. Being able to offer work/life balance is a definite competitive edge in a booming high tech city like Austin, Texas. Serving 52,000 students, 4,000 faculty members, and 21,000 staff at one of the top 25 public universities in the world is meaningful work. Plus you get to work in a fun environment with cool colleagues, train on the latest technologies, have plenty of stretch opportunities to build skills, and enjoy flexible work schedules and telecommuting. This is a winning proposition which speaks to all generations, especially the Millennials.

Relationships Really Do Matter

The primary role for the CIO is to build strong, trusting working relationships at many levels. This will never change. You must build authentic relationships with those you serve, executive leadership, your boss, your direct reports, your staff, peers, influencers, and strategic vendors.

Best advice I followed from a 40-year faculty veteran soon after becoming the CIO at UT Austin was: “Get out of the office and let them know that you give a damn!”

Final Thoughts

The CIO role is challenging and the average tenure is three years. CIOs usually get fired for one of three reasons: an information security breach (even if it’s not their fault), email problems, or troubled HR/Payroll/Finance implementations.

An executive leadership transition would be the other most common reason for a CIO to leave. You have to recognize that when it is time to move on, don’t hesitate to move on.

Brad Englert is the founder of Brad Englert Advisory and an author, advisor, and technologist. Brad worked for Accenture for 22 years, including 10 years as a partner. He then served The University of Texas at Austin for eight years, including seven years as the Chief Information Officer (CIO).