The Robots are coming — has anyone seen the CTO?

The year is 2016, and technology is everywhere. No longer confined to the dark corners of an IT department, it has become part of our core; the driver of business models and propositions, the engine behind the value that your company generates.

If you look around and you think that’s not the case, your organisation might already be an endangered species — one that an algorithm or robot could soon render obsolete.

This is no exaggeration. Just consider two developments from the last couple of years.

First, Facebook putting its weight behind a VR-obsessed pioneer through it’s $2bn acquisition of Oculus means that soon VR will be part of our everyday existence. And if one of the most forward-thinking companies out there- one with very deep pockets — is making a push towards this new, virtual reality, then competitors will not be far behind. This is clearly evident with the launch of PS VR.

Second, deep learning is starting to creep up on every aspect of our lives. Even my mum knows that AI is on the way to make everyone unemployed.

So, what happens if you blend VR and deep learning? You end up with an alternative reality, one that is driven by an intelligent machine. If you then factor in the overwhelming speed at which technology is moving forward, then the consequences start to defy comprehension.

It always surprises people when I remind them that the iPhone is already 9 years old. If a connected box of tiny processors and a touch-screen changed human society almost beyond recognition in 9 years, imagine what the overlay of physical reality with virtual and intelligent objects could do to the human species.

Tech giants know that we are at a tipping point, and are embracing it with a vengeance, hoovering up every disruptive startup technology they can find along the way. But what if your company is not an ambitious startup or a tech giant? How do you deal with the fact that the world is being turned upside down by technology? How will it affect your business model, your operations and your strategy over the next 5 years? Crucially, how do you avoid going the way of Blockbuster, Kodak or Game?

A good place to start is having someone to navigate these treacherous waters. But here is precisely where the crux of the problem is.

If you scan the FTSE 250 directors list, you are likely to find people who, on the face of it, could fit the bill, for example, the CIO . According to Wikipedia “information technology (IT) director is a job title commonly given to the most senior executive in an enterprise responsible for the information technology and computer systems that support enterprise goals”. If this is true, on a good day this person decides if you use a Mac or a PC.

That used to be the case some years ago, when the advent of computers and computer networks meant that companies had to put someone in charge of equipment supplies and systems management. In those days, managing a workforce of people that one could phone up when Excel crashed (again) and having someone who could do a cost-benefit assessment on a piece of technology for the business seemed like a good idea.

Sadly, in the age of the robots that’s not going to cut it.

You need someone who has a much more strategic view on Technology beyond the realms of “Information Technology”. Someone who can create technology not just apply it.

Failing to find the right person in IT, the search for the tech guru often moves in another direction , usually arriving at where the smart MBA-educated CEO sits. This is a very dangerous game. With many parts of the business fighting for their attention, CEOs are forced to build a strategy about an incredibly complex subject without the most basic aptitude or knowledge of its fundamentals.

Even worse, when all else fails, many companies turn to the Chief Marketing Officer. Because he or she is seen as “creative”, and might even have commissioned a website or two in the past, some companies seem to think that marketing should be in charge of guiding the organisation through the most technically disruptive decade humanity has ever seen — to the dismay of users who will inevitably have to endure the CMO’s legacy for years to come. Seeing a “marketer” trying to pass as a nerd in front of a bunch of tech guys reminds me of this scene from Austin Powers.

The problem with these approaches is easy to spot: those tasked with driving tech innovation have never written a single line of code! And even if they have, their everyday roles are so broad they don’t have the time to give technology the attention it deserves. I wonder, how many of these companies would have a CFO that never did accounting before?

At We Are Hive we work with many types of companies: big and small, corporates, well-funded and mature startups; as well as investors and early stage entrepreneurs. The stark contrast between meeting a kick-ass startup team, followed by sitting down with a company that does not have a single technical person you can talk to on their leadership team is brutal. Throwing an acronym here and there, or doing a code academy course on the fundamentals of Javascript is not enough. I want to meet people that have spent significant time in their careers writing code and managing and designing systems, people who actually understand how computers and servers work.

So, now that the robots are finally coming, how come these people are still so hard to come by?

Take the example of a boutique fashion company. They are really into their craft, invest in R&D and have an online channel to sell their goods. They are located just yards away from very well-funded tech startups that are disrupting the fashion industry yet no one has seemed to notice. When I asked who controls their web properties, they pointed at two dust-covered PHP developers. (One of them smuggled me a note saying “please take me with you” on my way out).

Another example is a large publicly traded company; a modern and visionary one, one where wearing jeans is OK and meeting rooms have amusing names. But despite several team restructures, it’s still impossible to find someone to talk tech with; there is no dedicated R&D budget nor a clear process for anything to do with technology. Technology is an afterthought for the different department heads who need to heroically and surgically cut out a small chunk of a budget to do temporary fixes. Because there is no CTO pushing through a coherent tech strategy there is very little they can actually do so, eventually, no one cares.

It’s hard to understand why this is happening.

There could be something about the mindset of those in charge — often people for whom computers are something that snuck up on them in the middle of their careers, not something they grew up with. In some ways, it seems they are waiting for the problem to go away. It won’t.

It could also be lack of visibility. Sometimes, there is simply not enough pain for the leadership to take notice. Small cracks and tech problems are shuffled around between departments, slowly accumulating in the corridors until someone stumbles, falls, and breaks their neck.

Ultimately, neglect seems to come from an inherent disrespect for technology, a failure to understand its place in the world and its impact in the future of humanity.

A leader’s fear of dealing with anything technical cripples any understanding of how technology can benefit the business, how it can integrate with brick and mortar operations, how it can benefit their customers and, perhaps more importantly, how it can help sell more stuff.

A good CTO will protect the business from all this neglect, foresee opportunities and inject tech goodness into every part of the business where it can generate value. He or she will also think about the organisation as a product, as something has to respond to customer needs and constantly adapt and iterate.

Having a CTO is, simply, a must. Just as Google has promoted an engineer to CEO and Facebook’s CEO continues to thrive on his knowledge of technology, companies need leaders who understand the opportunities and challenges that technology brings.

So even if you don’t consider yourself a tech business, chances are you already are or soon will be. If you plan to still be in business, you’ll need clear, savvy technical leadership to navigate the mind-blowing, society-disrupting, business-busting opportunities that lie ahead.