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Part techie, part people person? You're a business technologist

The SIM Boston Technology Summit puts a spotlight on IT folks who can help make the business go. Also in Searchlight: Who will buy Twitter? Microsoft opens AI group.

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: CIO Decisions: Facebook seeks to revolutionize the enterprise collaboration market:

Are you wearing sneakers on this casual Friday? Where were they made? China, Vietnam, Indonesia? If they're New...

Balance, there's a chance they were made in what was once an East Coast hub of industry: Lawrence, Mass.

Like its competitors, Boston-based New Balance makes shoes in Asia, but customized footwear -- shoes that customers personalize with their choices of fabrics, lacings and soles -- are built in the U.S.

"You submit your order online or in the store, the order gets transmitted to our factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and it's to the consumer in four to six days," said Chris Ladd, New Balance's executive vice president of global consumer experience.

Ladd spoke Thursday at the SIM Boston Technology Leadership Summit, organized by the Society for Information Management's Boston chapter, in Newton, Mass. On stage with him was Ravi Shankavaram, New Balance's vice president of IT.

The pair had a relaxed, jocular rapport, underscoring a key ingredient in the company's swift, made-to-order shoe delivery: lockstep cooperation between business and IT. It also put into stark relief the importance of becoming a "business technologist" -- that IT exec with business savvy -- in the so-called age of the customer. Information technology has given customers more choice than ever before about what to buy, where to shop, how to shop and how to complain.

Chris Ladd, executive vice president of global consumer experience at New Balance, speaks at the SIM Boston Technology Leadership Summit
Chris Ladd, executive vice president of global consumer experience at New Balance, speaks at the SIM Boston Technology Leadership Summit on Thursday.

Fitting it together

New Balance has big aspirations: transforming from a nearly $3.9 billion company into a $6 billion one in four years -- and in a market studded with big-name rivals like Adidas and Nike. It's pushing into global markets -- opening stores on several continents and massively expanding its online presence. That takes hand-in-glove cooperation between Ladd, "the idea guy," in his words, and Shankavaram. One maps out business plans, and the other figures out how technology can make them go.

Offering custom shoes, for example, begins with the materials and components that are available to customers on the website, Shankavaram said. When an order is made, it goes into the enterprise resource planning system and through "all the steps that people don't see" before it gets to the shop floor in Lawrence. Ensuring that customers can do this all with ease takes tight integration among business systems.

"We also have mechanisms here where if we run out of a certain part, like a green-colored tongue," Shankavaram said, referring to the part of a shoe that separates the laces from the foot, "we're able to shut it off right from the shop floor application, and it doesn't show up on the website."

Ravi Shankavaram, vice president of IT at New Balance, speaks at the SIM Boston Technology Leadership Summit
Ravi Shankavaram, vice president of IT at New Balance, speaks at the SIM Boston Technology Leadership Summit on Thursday.

People who need people

But being a business technologist takes a lot more than technical skills, said CIOs in a panel discussion.

Jascha Franklin-Hodge, CIO at Boston's city government, said his career went from studying at MIT -- "I'm on an extended leave of absence" -- to being a software developer to working for the 2004 campaign of Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean to co-founding a tech company. He's not good in a classroom setting, he said, but "soft skills" like communication, problem-solving and collaboration have helped hugely in his professional development.

"The ability for me as an IT person with a fairly deep technical skill set to also sit and have a conversation with a marketing person in which we are speaking the same language or with a finance person," Franklin-Hodge said, "has probably been my single biggest asset, because it means that I can work to bridge the gap that is so common in organizations."

Deborah Corwin Scott, CIO at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in Massachusetts' second-largest city, agreed that reaching out to constituents is critical for a technology executive today, even when reaching out isn't easy.

Working at a university, she said, with several hundred faculty members, "is like having several hundred CEOs," all with their own demands. Occasionally one complains more loudly than others, so Scott seeks that person out.

"The reason they're complaining is nobody's solving their problems," she said. She talks about what the problem is and asks what can be done to remedy it. "And if you do get it right, they're your biggest evangelist."

Jascha Franklin-Hodge, CIO at Boston's city government, speaks during a panel discussion at the SIM Boston Technology Leadership Summit on Thursday. Also on the panel are Deborah Corwin Scott, CIO at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Peter Moreau, senior vice president and CIO at Amica.
Jascha Franklin-Hodge, CIO at Boston's city government, speaks during a panel discussion at the SIM Boston Technology Leadership Summit on Thursday. Also on the panel are Deborah Corwin Scott, CIO at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Peter Moreau, senior vice president and CIO at Amica.

'No one's grading you'

The importance of being able to communicate resonated with Tim Ogawa, CIO and head of IT operations at Boston Architectural College. He said it's often a component of the IT role that is underemphasized, perhaps because it's a skill that's harder to measure than others.

"As a technologist you can say, 'Oh, now I know how to do this code; now I can build this project; now I know Salesforce cloud; now I know how to do this," Ogawa said.

But in communicating with people, especially those outside of IT, "there's nobody that's really grading you and saying you're getting better, so it's harder to keep motivated to get better other than just understanding that it's completely vital to your success."

CIO news roundup for week of Sept. 26

While SearchCIO was learning about becoming a business technologist at SIM Boston conference, here's what was grabbing headlines:

  • The Twitter chronicles. Rumors continue to fly that the San Francisco microblogging company is preparing for a potential sale, with companies including Google, Salesforce and Walt Disney lined up as potential suitors. The bid could be as high as $30 billion, according to Recode. "Twitter may appreciate merging with a technology company as opposed to a media company, where it may have conflicts over content," Bloomberg reported. The company's existing user base and database could help Salesforce build tools to connect sales, marketing and customer service clients directly to Twitter, while Google could use its extensive advertising operation to reap profits out of Twitter. It would also boost the search giant's efforts at trying to figure out social media, Wired reported. As for Disney? Well, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is on the media and entertainment conglomerate's board. Acquiring Twitter would expand Disney's media footprint, which now includes ABC and ESPN; pundits at Citigroup explain why the acquisition might not be a deal come true for Twitter.
  • Microsoft's move to "democratize" AI. The Seattle-based tech giant said Thursday that it has created a new group called the Microsoft AI and Research Group that will focus on the company's AI initiatives and will help accelerate the delivery of new features to its customers, according to a press release. The group, which includes the company's Cortana, Bing, Ambient Computing and Robotics  teams, will be led by Microsoft veteran Harry Shum and have over 5,000 engineers and computer scientists. "At Microsoft, we are focused on empowering both people and organizations, by democratizing access to intelligence to help solve our most pressing challenges," Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in a statement. In other news, the company launched new Azure features at the Microsoft Ignite 2016 conference, and its Windows Server 2016 and System Center 2016 will be available in October.
  • Unprecedented AI partnership. Facebook, Microsoft, IBM, Amazon and Google are teaming up to create a nonprofit called "Partnership on AI," TechCrunch reported Wednesday. With the rapid advance of artificial intelligence, the organization will work to "study and formulate best practices on AI technologies, to advance the public's understanding of AI, and to serve as an open platform for discussion and engagement about AI and its influences on people and society," the organization's website states.
  • BlackBerry quits on hardware. The troubled phone company will no longer design and build its once iconic smartphones, the company said Wednesday. BlackBerry will outsource the task to partners, a move that will help the company focus on software development, according to a press release. "This allows us to reduce capital requirements and enhance return on invested capital," said John Chen, executive chairman and CEO at BlackBerry, in the statement.

Check out our previous Searchlight roundups on Google's Allo smarter messaging app and Uber's self-driving car event.

Assistant editor Mekhala Roy contributed to this week's news roundup.

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