Grounded in the business: Good IT leaders think about more than just tech

March 08, 2012

IT professionals bring specialized knowledge to companies, but it's a mistake if they think of themselves as separate from the business, warns Avnet senior vice president and chief information officer Steve Phillips. Good IT leaders are grounded in the business, and approach technology as a tool.

"Don't think of business folks as being from Venus and IT folks from Mars -- we are one together,” Phillips says. “This can be a common dynamic with IT people who view themselves as technical experts, different from the business. From a leadership perspective, that's a bad thing. You want to view yourself as at one with the business."

Phillips, who represents his company on the department of information systems' Executive Advisory Board, is a frequent visitor to campus. On this particular evening, he was the inaugural speaker of the new Information Systems Department Esteemed Speaker Series. His audience was a group of undergraduate computer information systems and supply chain management students.

Opportunity ahead!

Avnet has two main businesses or operating groups, Phillips explained. Avnet Technology Solutions resells computers and computer products through the IT channel. Avnet Electronics Marketing sells electronic components to manufacturers. Avnet reached revenues of $26.5 billion last year. The company has grown fast via acquisitions -- more than 70 since 1991 -- absorbing senior leadership from the firms it acquired along the way, including Phillips. His job is to provide the most effective IT to enable one of the world’s best supply chains.

Today, Avnet operates in 300 locations spread across 70 countries, and given Avnet’s track record of double digit annual growth, the story's not over yet. That kind of growth presents an interesting challenge to the IT team: how to keep up with growth and facilitate it -- all the while keeping the company and its assets safe. For example, Avnet keeps 20 IT professionals busy working just in IT security roles.

But Avnet’s growth trajectory is in direct contrast with the supply of qualified IT workers, Phillips said. “This is good news for most everybody in this room -- many IT shops are beginning to see a shortfall in the availability of good IT skills in the market,” he said. Though the majority of job candidates have IT knowledge, he said “there is less supply of good people -- people who have in-depth skills, whether they are hard core programmers, whether they’re really solid network engineers, etc. -- there’s real demand out there.” Pauline Crone, Pauline Crone, director of staffing for Avnet, attended the evening's events with Phillips.

Phillips explained that U.S. companies are facing a “demographic challenge,” due to the impending retirement of people hired 25-30 years ago. These people are getting hard to replace, he said.

The IT skill set is a global qualification, he added, and IT professionals who speak English are at an advantage because English is the world’s language of business. University IT preparation in the U.S. is on par with schools around the world, but where American professionals have an advantage is language, he said.

As an example, Phillips described Avnet's global development center in Shanghai, where English proficiency is a must to speak with colleagues around the world. Because of this, the company provides English language training to IT employees at the center. Phillips said that on certain days, the group of about 50 employees at the Shanghai global development center speaks only English all day -- with each other as well as in conversation with colleagues and customers elsewhere. “Can you imagine this group here having Chinese language days?” he said. “Just think how hard that would be -- think what an advantage it is to be a native English speaker,” in the business world.

Top six things this CIO is thinking about

The talent shortage is one of six issues Phillips says are on his mind. Another is cloud computing. “It’s my personal view that [cloud computing] is actually going to dominate over time,” he said. “In 10 years time or so, a lot of an IT leader’s job will be about managing services delivered through the cloud. Today, they are running a lot of those services themselves, from their own data centers.”

That’s a big shift, Phillips said. IT leaders in the future need to be not only technically good, but also knowledgeable about services contracts, negotiating with vendors and managing long term relationships where they are not controlling the full IT environment, but where there is a service partnership.

In response to a question about the security of data in the cloud, Phillips said that he has confidence in established companies with a track record like Cisco, HP, IBM and Oracle, but is more cautious about the ability of smaller, less-established companies to offer cloud services securely over the long run.

A third area that claims mindshare: the consumerization of IT. “This is a trend that’s kicking in and it’s not going away,” he said. Smart phones are an example of the rapidly developing market for personal devices, he said. A former dedicated Blackberry user, Phillips now carries an iPhone … as did all 10 of the CIOs at a recent CIO roundtable he attended.

Many companies formerly issued Blackberries, he said, but the enterprise environment is shifting away from the company-mandated systems, smart phones, tablets or PCs and toward consumer choice. For example, Avnet is putting the finishing touches on what the company is calling a “bring your own device policy.” Today when you come to work at Avnet, he said, everyone is issued a company-owned laptop (no desk tops at Avnet anymore).

Change is coming though. In the future employees will be given a choice: continue to have a company-owned laptop or take an allowance and buy their own: “If you want you can spend more than your allowance, or less. As long as it meets minimum standards you can buy whatever you want.”

Phillips said he and his team like the idea because it gets them away from supporting a variety of devices -- employees will be responsible for that part. All of these machines will use a centrally maintained virtual desktop.

Another example of consumerization is the recent improvements to Avnet’s e-commerce site. The team approached the project with an eye to making it more like a consumer e-commerce site: easy to use. Knowing that the main audience is engineers, the site incorporates lots of data sheets and specifications. In a year’s time, Avnet saw an increase of just under 200 percent in revenues generated by the site. Phillips said the company thinks there’s still growth potential from the site.

Fourth, Phillips thinks about the IT spend. “I don’t want to spend too much,” he said. “I always think that for every dollar we spend on IT, the company has a decision to make: do I spend it on IT? Do I spend it on extra sales people? Do I spend it on better warehouses or more inventory? We have judgments to make.”

As well, Phillips said he thinks about making sure the IT side is ready for the growth the company expects in the next several years. “When I think about our IT systems today, I’m thinking ‘can I run them at twice the speed – twice the transaction volume that I am today?’ I need to be ready for that.”

“Truly scalable IT, that can run millions of transactions a day that the company and customers can trust – it’s difficult to get that kind of high quality,” he said.

Finally, Phillips said he thinks about the safety of Avnet’s IT and information assets: are all of the stakeholders must know that they can trust IT to be sure that their data is accessible only to those who are authorized to see it. That encompasses external and internal security issues.

Words of advice

Phillips offered his student audience some advice on how to be truly successful, in a challenging business world and in life:

  • “Work is important, your career is important, but be sure you enjoy life as well. Keep those things in balance, because it’s a recipe for being happy in your lives.”
  • “As you think about your professional career, always take accountability for your actions. Always be honest. Always be candid and express your point of view as you genuinely believe it.”
  • “Don’t worry about your next promotion. Just do the very best you can. If you do a good job opportunities will come to you.”
  • Build your network. “Make sure you are spending time maybe with professional groups -- something like SIM.”
  • Hold your decision up to the billboard test. “The billboard test is about ethical activity and behavior. Any action you take, and decision you make – how would you feel about it if that decision was posted on a billboard?”
  • “Take time to learn the company. Don’t just be the IT person who knows about the technology and the IT infrastructure and architecture. Know about your business and talk the language of your business. I think you’ll find that to be an incredibly powerful career advantage.”
  • “Think about how you can, in your role, accelerate the business’ goals. What could you do, what initiative could you take, to advance those goals?”

Then he told the students about the best advice he had ever received:

  • Be yourself. New graduates especially feel pressure to mold themselves to an organization, he said, but instead: express yourself. Being authentic will help you find the organization where you will fit and excel.
  • Live by your core values. Figure out what’s important to you and stick with it. Don’t compromise.
  • When the company is looking for someone to take on the tough, high risk assignments or ambiguous assignments -- step forward. Take some risk, he said. It will result in personal growth and increase your stock in the organization.