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CxO Corner: Jim Rutt, Chief Information Officer at The Dana Foundation

For this edition of the CxO corner, we talked with Jim Rutt, Chief Information Officer of The Dana Foundation. Jim is an IT veteran who worked his way up from the helpdesk and uses that seasoned knowledge to transform technology at his organization. Read on to learn more about his journey, what he’s interested in, what makes him tick, and how to get technology executives interested in your product. Enjoy!

How did you get your start in technology?

I didn’t get a degree in technology, I was actually in marketing right out of college. I heard about Windows 95 and wondered if there was a way to make a career out of it. I found a training school that offered Microsoft Certifications, so I took all the tests and got MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer). Jobs that required these certifications were in high demand. That was 21 years ago, and I have since worked my way up; I started at the helpdesk and gradually transitioned into the engineering field. I’m fortunate to have ascended to a leadership position about 16 years ago, which led to where I am today.

What do you think has contributed to the success that you’ve had so far?

I’m convinced that my willingness to fail is the reason why I am where I am today. A lot of people are afraid to try new things and make mistakes, but I was always more than willing to make them. The point is, you want to try and learn from somebody else’s failure, but you can only do that to an extent because past a given point, you will have to get out there and stick your neck out. You will have to show some value that goes above and beyond what everybody else is doing. The bottom line, if everybody else is doing the same thing then you will never stand out from that crowd.

What piece of advice would you give yourself when you were just starting out?

One of the things I would prioritize would be to hunt down a good mentor. Take it from me, the presence of a mentor is invaluable in that it helps to have someone with whom you can discuss some of the challenges that you run into on a day-to-day basis. For that matter, besides the work that we do with Work-Bench, I have built a mentoring program that transcends across other organizations and affinity groups. My objective is to make that platform of resources available to those who could use a little nudge in the right direction and guide them through the right framework. This is my way of giving back to the community.

How do you keep up your technical expertise?

Nothing worthwhile ever comes easily. It takes a lot of effort to get to where you aspire to go and all it takes is genuine passion for what you believe in. As is the case with any other profession, if you are just in it for the money or for the glory, then it really isn’t the right profession for you. I truly love technology and I’m passionate about providing value to organizations that I’m aligned with, especially automation. I’m always inspired by folks that drive quality programs, like TQM, Six Sigma, or Agile, to eliminate waste and get economy of scale. This is what makes the world of technology so appealing. We are headed to a point where we are expending less units of effort and yet we are extracting more value out of it. I can think of countless ways in which technology allowed me to improve a process and increase my benefit from it.

What is top of mind for you right now at the Dana Foundation?

Put simply, we are a grant-making organization. We provide grants for neuroscience and brain research and awareness. We own Dana Press, our publishing arm that produces a number of titles that discuss the brain, the growing awareness around it, as well as topics like aging in the brain. The other portion of our operation has to do with contracts. This is where I think our duties are not vastly different to that in the finance sector and other major industries.

Finally, at its core, the Dana Foundation is an endowment based foundation founded by Charles A. Dana in 1950. Our investments and returns on investments help fund our operating expenses.

Two things come to mind: on one hand, I am driving innovation wherever possible in a way that will eliminate waste and on the other, I am automating manual processes. When I am faced with a menial process that is simply consuming too many hours of work, I rid the process of all the major steps and I apply technology as disruptive innovations in order to bring some kind of value of it. That value doesn’t only translate to dollars, but also value to Dana and to its constituents.

What are you most excited about in the next year?

Of the top three innovations we are covering, Artificial Intelligence is leading the race for us. I see great opportunities for AI and machine learning to break down the barriers that we have seen around enterprise. The need for machine learning to work out things that are hard to automate manually is something worth looking into. Any technology that is able to bring data down to its most usable form solves a major pain.

From a security perspective, the biggest challenge for everybody in this ecosystem is to extract false positives from alerts. You can apply Artificial Intelligence and machine learning here to achieve that goal. We’re getting there. These two technologies are driving factors that are getting to a point where security operations programs can be truly efficient and justify cost.

One of my other points of interest lies in digital ledgers and blockchain. For trade organizations like ours who have a lot of contracts, I can see applicability. Is the technology ready right now? I’m not sure. But, given its benefits from an economy of scale perspective, it will definitely be a big focus of ours.

What about with machine learning and AI?

Absolutely. I think if you are managing data or have a need for reporting, machine learning and AI will definitely have a use case. At this point, it is just a matter of where your focus is. These options are changing at such a rapid pace such that it is tough to draw a line in the sand and determine what is going to work best to fulfill your given objectives. However, I am optimistic that we will eventually be able to sit down and find meaningful use cases.

Would you ever imagine AI to replace or augment the receiving and reviewing applications for grants?

AI will definitely augment some processes, but I’m not so sure about AI replacing the whole bulk of the process. There has always been this huge debate about how AI is going to take a ton of jobs out of the ecosystem. When you look at the movement from on-prem to cloud, a lot of people are worried about what’s going to happen to traditional IT departments. My reasoning is that you can move and change and the same principle applies to AI. There is always going to be some kind of human oversight or some type of human involvement because no one is going to step back and leave everything to the machines. The challenge is not necessarily worrying about mass job elimination. The actual challenge is to look inward and ask yourself the right questions: What is it that you can do and how can you improve? Additionally, understand that when you have much lower level tasks at hand, the need for automation will always be there. You can debate me on this, but even from a cost reduction perspective, in spite of AI playing a tremendous role, there will always be humans.

Do you find that you have to create a lot of training and learning programs for new technology adoption?

Yes, that’s precisely what it is. That’s the cost built into adopting new solutions. You have to train your support staff and you have to train the folks that use it. It’s a marketing campaign. For every new solution you bring in, you will have to deal with its different intricacies. Could it offset some economies of scale that you derived from another solution? What kind of security risks are you bringing in as a result of knowing that humans are always a big security risk? People tend to ignore such questions when they are selling into an organization, but from the practitioner’s side, it is very important to get a good understanding of the bigger picture and get a sense of what you will be dealing with.

Have you found the role of the CIO change in your career of being in technology?

It’s interesting to look at the demographics of the CIOs that are out there in the industry. A lot of them that I have met so far come from a risk background. There is not a tremendous amount of CIOs who have actually started from the very bottom and made their way up. A lot of them have solid management backgrounds backed by organizations like Accenture or other big consulting houses. The problem is that they haven’t had the chance to see things unravel at the street level. That’s what I think differentiates me from the rest because I started at the ground level, so I truly understand what the impact that an organization has going all the way down to the support team.

As for the ask of the CIO, I think people are always innately wondering as to what we do. Nobody really understands technology and that’s fine. In their defense, I don’t understand how water comes out of my faucet and that’s okay. One of the tropes out there is that CIOs are intimately involved with the business. Given the level of skills you need, you have to be so well versed in the business, and know how to market solutions internally when you are addressing a specific need. You need to adapt the risk perspective to understand the financial impact. CIOs tend to downplay the technical aspect of the job, but they need to be somewhat fluent in a lot of these innovations rather than just keeping track from a 50,000 ft view. I said it before, but unless you are drawing from hands-on experiences, explaining a solution to an end user is tough.

From where you sit, you see a lot of emerging technology startups and vendors who are trying to break into this space. How would you advise them to break through that noise to get to you?

The noise is deafening because people like myself probably get about 100 emails a day. LinkedIn invitations flood through the roof along with at least five to ten cold calls a day. It’s getting to the point where we can’t even remember the names of the companies that initiated contact. I think the biggest reason why we can’t remember them is because they all sound the same. More precisely, all the emails look the same, all the introductory approaches are generic techniques, and everybody just wants something out of you.

If you do want to separate yourself from the pack, then why not offer something of value? There are a couple of ways to do that: Rather than asking me to take 15 minutes out of my schedule and look at one of those emails, why not offer something that will help me? Think about it, you have a great network and you can offer that to a prospect. In our case, we are always looking for peers of ours to network with and bounce ideas off of.

One time, I had a company call me up and ask me to be involved in one of their advisory boards. Now, that really caught my attention. On one hand, it fed my ego, and on the other, it gave me the opportunity to network with key players from peer organizations. That was an opportunity that I might not have gotten on my own and that is to me an interesting value proposition. This is not me telling to make the sale right away. Go build a loyal set of people and treat them right because they can really help push the sales momentum for their solutions. That will save you from being trapped in a sea of noise and instill some level of trust.

What would your advice be to enterprise technology entrepreneurs who are just getting started now? What advice would you have for them about selling into the Fortune 500?

First, it’s important to understand that the reality in the New York Enterprise market is a lot more different when compared to the one in Silicon Valley. The New York scene is unique. As an entrepreneur, your approach is to understand that this is a world that’s driven through fostered interpersonal relationships. You have to understand that just because you build something, people are not necessarily going to be attracted to your product. At the end of the day, people talk to people that work in the same field that they do do.

What advice would you have for a young technologist, fresh out of college, who is trying to solve the pain points that enterprises have?

Seek out a mentor. Talk to people that are working in the kind of positions that you aspire to achieve one day and reach out to them. You need to bring in a different kind of value proposition and I love the fact that I have had that opportunity to mentor young technologists personally. I would recommend against sending CRM emails. Instead, be as personal as possible when reaching out. Have an understanding of what you are getting yourself into. Look at your prospects’ needs and be as analytical as possible. My final advice would be to approach individuals as you would in a networking situation. Your goal is to add value wherever you can. Also, a little dose of humility will go a long way.

Connect with Jim on LinkedIn.

Know any other early-adopting senior executives in IT whom we should feature? Let us know. See our past profiles here.

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