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This is an edited transcript of the 02.16.24 IT Hour


  • Ken Russell, Chief Information and Innovation Officer at the New College Institute talks about the importance of and ways to develop an IT Strategy 
  • Becky Scott, Head of Community at JumpCloud weighs in to moderate the discussion and Q&A, and adds her perspective to Ken’s forecasts and comments on trends.



Becky: Ken, for those who haven’t seen you on the show yet, tell us who you are and why you’re here. 

Ken: I’m the Chief Information and Innovation officer for New College Institute which is a state agency in the Commonwealth of Virginia, and what we do there is work with all the universities and all the K-12s as a higher education learning center for the commonwealth. We’re one of five and my particular role on any given day is either the Chief Information Officer, normally, where I talk about technology issues, or I’m the Chief Innovation Officer where I’m helping develop new methods for leading the next generation of educational tools and technologies. 

Becky: We are going to talk about IT Strategy today, because we talk a lot about tactical stuff, how to deploy JumpCloud, how to use it, and talk about our product. It’s hard to talk about it enough because we’re so in the thick of things and in the weeds, so let’s take the time to step back and talk about why we need strategy, why it’s important, and why we should bother.

IT Strategy - Then & Now

Ken: The hard questions straight away. It’s funny I’m part of these CIO groups and something that people don’t usually talk about at least any more is strategy. Particularly IT Strategy. It used to be that the strategy process almost totally excluded IT. We were just sort of told, “This is the strategy. This is what the business or the organization is going to do.” The reason businesses do it is because if they’re a large publicly traded company they’re compelled to do so. It’s part of their numbers that they have to report - their activities, their growth plans, etc. 

The reason I think it’s finally getting in the game - There’s a couple of stories here. One comes from Jamie Dimon, the CEO of Chase. I’m paraphrasing but he said all organizations are IT organizations. So you can no longer have any technophobes, and I think that’s true. I think the days are long gone that you could be in an organization and not be at least conversant in IT. The other thing that happened is the pandemic which finally put us at the table at these discussions. 

So when the organization is having a strategy session, they get together and talk about the plan for the future and how to get there. Now IT is a big part of that. But it’s like a dog that’s trying to catch its tail. It finally does catch it and then doesn’t know what to do with it. One of the biggest problems that we had from an IT perspective was adoption of technologies. If you think about it, we were ready in 2020 with remote technologies and capabilities but it was hard to get the business to accept that we were ready. And then suddenly everyone was working remotely so we were finally at the table. 

But are we ready to talk about how we create a plan as well? Do we have an IT plan? And an organization plan? How does that work? I can answer those but I want to stop here for a moment and let that sink in. 

Becky: I think part of the thing is that all these conversations are happening at the executive level and they tend to forget to ask those who are down at the tactical level what they’re doing. It doesn’t happen all the time, we do sometimes have executives that talk to us about what we need and what we’re doing and ask us to contribute to the plan, but I’ve seen in really big organizations that they make their plans and don’t talk to people. 

But we’re dealing with smaller businesses that maybe don’t have a ton of people. So it’s on these people here in the audience to kind of do it all - the tactical stuff and the strategy. It’s actually harder to pull away and step back when you’re right in the middle of things and think about what needs to be done for the next three to five years. How do you recommend that people take a step back and strategize? How do you communicate it with the C suite? 

IT Strategy - Getting Started 

Ken: You have to show the value of IT and the best way to do that is to start your IT strategy plan. You have to have your own IT plan and it has to roll up to the organization’s strategy plan. So 2-5 years is a normal horizon to be looking at, anything less is more of a tactical plan. 

A good example of a strategy would be cost containment. Or revenue growth. When the organization is in cost containment mode, most of your efforts are around saving money or cutting costs, and that’s a very popular strategy. But once in a while, particularly in acquisition mode, you have a bucket of money for acquiring stuff. So modalities may be different based on the organization’s current direction. 

But here’s the issue. If you build your IT Strategy in February when the organization is focused on cost containment, you’ll be focused on cutting costs - renegotiating contracts, service level agreements, and things like that. But let’s say in April or May some external force like an acquisition or a tragedy changes the company’s direction, you’ll have to accommodate the changes as best you can. You have to pay attention and listen to what the organization is doing and change as quickly. 

What you can’t have is what we used to have - a big book that you do every September or October. Work on it for a few days, put it on the shelf and bring it down next September or October. You can’t do that anymore. 

But it also reminds me of when our CEO would fly and pick up the airline magazine and say “Hey let’s do this”. That’s when you can say “It’s not in our strategy plan.” Then you can’t really have the CEO go against you because they’ve already approved the plan. They’ll continue to try but you have something in your arsenal that says “We have a line in there to evaluate new technologies, but we’re not going to implement.”

Becky: What do you do with CEOs that insist on it anyway?

Ken: At the end of the day if it comes down to a battle of wills you have to defer to the CEO because that’s their job. These folks are writing the checks. But I think our voice is stronger now, post pandemic.

Dynamic/Kinetic IT Strategy

Ken: We decided to make strategies more dynamic, because it really is a dynamic thing, where things change every single day. We actually call it Kinetic Strategy, based on the physics of it all. Most strategies are potential until they become kinetic or in action. So we came up with an approach that has four phases: 

  1. Approach - This is the process of listening and paying attention to what’s going on in your organization. Making sure you’re not just focused on the IT aspects of the business, but the overall business. If you work for a large publicly traded company you need to take time to read the reports for the stock exchange and things like that. If you work for a small private company, read the tax documents. Make sure you’re connected in ways that maybe you haven’t been before. Because it’s not just about how many servers you need and why. 
  2. Initiation - This is what some folks will call business requirements gathering. Taking the time to write down the things you’ve heard and shape them in a way that matters for the organization. 
  3. Fusion - This is where you blend it all together. You put it all down and start prioritizing. A lot of folks will have business requirements that they’ll use to get business objectives and what we call gap objectives. Gap objectives are those things that you know are important but you don’t know why, but you have an intuition about it. Some people call those future needs. 
  4. Measures - Notice that they’re not metrics. Measures and metrics are two different things. You need measures before you can get to metrics. Measures are things like “customer satisfaction” or “server uptime”. Metrics is the math, like 16% less or a thousand more of that. Measures will help you evaluate your progress against the larger organizational strategic plan. 

Strategies are designed to improve what is right. So a lot of folks will get stuck when they’re in the planning process. They won’t know what to do next. But there’s always something you can do to make it better and the best place to look for that stuff is to get different perspectives. What I do, and a lot of my CIO colleagues do is what we call a walkabout. They’ll walk among everybody and just listen. But “listen” is really an acronym that I talk about a lot: 

  • L - Learn as much as you can about your organization. Take the time and pay attention not just to what executives are saying but everyone else also - the partners, the vendors, the guy that started yesterday, the intern, whoever it might be. Listen and learn. 
  • I - Interpret what you’re hearing in a way that’s meaningful for the organization. That’s why strategy plans are so important. Because it’s where you actually communicate that interpretation. 
  • S - Shape what you’ve listened to, learned, and interpreted into how you can actually make it work for the organization. 
  • T - Transform what you’ve listened to, learned, interpreted, and shaped in a way that’s meaningful to the organization. Put down how you can transform the organization with this knowledge. 
  • E - Evolve into the organization that you need to be, not what you want to be, based on all that learning and interpreting and knowledge that you’ve gained. 
  • N - Nurture the organization through that evolution. A really hot term these past few years has been transformation. If you’re transforming you’re taking a turn in a different direction. So if you don’t take the time to evolve and nurture, the transformation will fail. 

Q&A: Staffing Trends 

Becky: Brandon has a question about how you feel about staffing trends in IT. Do companies tend to over or under staff?

Ken: The trend I’m seeing that I don’t like is that they tend to use contractors more than full time employees. I think that’s understandable because it makes it more flexible but it also takes away the intellectual capital. I think HR is challenging staff to be small and nimble to the point of being dangerous. I think that’s the challenge in most organizations. I think it’s important to keep intellectual capital inside the organization. 

Becky: But sometimes when companies are really small, when they don’t have the knowledge internally, doesn’t it come in handy to find a trusted partner who can scale for you until you’re big enough to be able to hire internally? 

Ken: That is a strategy - to develop trusted partnerships. But there’s a difference between vendors and partners. Sometimes you need a vendor to buy devices, or copies of something. You get the cheapest price because it’s all the same. But when you need someone to go through the muck with you, configure a data center or something like that, you want a partner, not a vendor. The difference is that a partner will answer a call at 2 am on a Saturday morning and help you through the issue. A vendor may not. So take the time to develop those trusted partnerships. 

Becky: Brandon wants to know how you choose when to use an MSP or build that knowledge in house. 

Ken: It depends on the project and your existing staffing level. When a project comes along and you don’t have the staff to do it and it’s hard to get full time staff on board, you do have to go to an MSP. The other reason is expertise. It’s hard to maintain expertise at a particular level for projects that start and then finish and go away. 

Becky: Brandon wants to know how you see trends in regards to employees moving companies more and more as it’s becoming less advantageous to stay with the company forever. I mean that is something we see right, get a raise or a better title and they job hop. 

Ken: I can tell you a very real story, with very real companies about poaching. Let’s say there’s two large retail companies and a large bank in the same city. One retail company would bring in young talent because they were cheap, get them trained, get them all the certifications so that six or eight months later they’re really valuable but still being paid as if they’re new hires. Then the other retail company would come poach them because they were already trained. 

Finally the two CIOs of the retail companies met and agreed that the poacher company wouldn’t try to hire people from the other retail company for two years. If someone wanted to apply that would be fine but they would hit a wall of resistance if they went over. But in a free market, guess what happened? The bank took them all by paying them way too much money. 

So the executive saw people leaving for an extra dollar, but they also saw people coming back. Six months later at the bank those employees realized that they had it good at the retail company. Maybe they weren’t getting paid as much but they were given a lot of training and nurturing. Some organizations may pay you more money but they may not nurture you. 

When we talk about employees moving, it’s about at what cost. What price are they willing to pay to get that extra dollar? Are they going to work extra hours, drive farther, be in a more stressful work environment? All of these things have to be thought about before moving, not just the pay. 

Wrap Up

Becky: What I’m seeing in the last 4-6 months is that it’s getting harder to job hop because of all the tech layoffs. I saw a statistic saying there were fewer tech layoffs even though it seems like a lot right now, but I’m seeing a ton of people out in the job market now. So it’s harder to job hop because so many people were dumped out from big companies. 

And the pay is starting to shrink a bit on those same jobs from a year or two  ago, during the pandemic when they were paying really well. So we’re actually seeing a different trend that it’s getting harder to job hop. I think poaching could still happen but employers are seeing hundreds and hundreds of people applying because that’s how many people want the open jobs, even though they’re paying less. 

Ken: Yeah marketing pressures have a lot to do with it. The pendulum swung to the other side after the pay increases right after the pandemic. Now it’s coming back. I think a lot of folks ramped up last year thinking there will be a huge need for IT talent and then realizing that the projections were off. So companies do what companies do which is to act in their best interest. 

The best way I’ve found in my career to manage this is to be unique and valuable. Particularly IT Admin folks. I think there’s always going to be a value for IT Admin folks. So don’t get discouraged. 

Becky: Thank you all for joining and we hope you have a great weekend. See you next Friday!

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‎03-08-2024 09:05 AM
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