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Guess CIO talks IT job skills and a CIO lesson learned

Guess CIO Michael Relich, one of the four finalists for the 2013 MIT Sloan CIO Leadership Award, has been a technologist in the retail industry since graduating from college. He sat down with SearchCIO's Linda Tucci at the MIT event to talk about the IT job skills he looks for in a prospective employee. It's a tall order -- think business acumen plus technical smarts plus a willingness to delegate. Also on deck: the risk every retailer faces from today's consumer.

Listen to Relich talk about building a killer iPad app for the Guess buying team in part 2 of this SearchCIO Innovator video.

You manage a global team of more than 100 people. What sort of IT job skills are you looking for to get you through the next couple of years, and why?

Michael Relich: Well, it all depends on what position. But, for my management, I always require people with good technical skills and good domain skills. To me, if someone comes into a meeting and starts using acronyms and confusing users, I go ballistic. So, to me, you have to understand the business, and you have to talk to them at the business level. How can you solve a problem if you really don't understand the business; and, second, how are you going get their trust? Because these projects aren't IT projects, they're business projects.

Then again, you have to have technical skills, because, otherwise, you're going get snowed by outside vendors, you're going get snowed by your own staff. You need adequate technical skills to be able to execute. And I hate micro-managers. So you need people who are strong enough to, basically, go and delegate, but [who] know people need direction and how to jump in. And that's hard. And that's why I've had so many people work for me for a long time, because when I find someone like that, I keep them.

Are there any particular skills you wish you were better trained in as a CIO to do the job you do now?

Relich: That's interesting. I've been in this industry a long time. But looking back at it, I started out more in technology. I was an assembly programmer, and I always thought it was about being technical. I wished [I had learned] early on -- and I learned half-way through -- that no one cares what's under the hood, they just want the car to drive. So it's really knowing the business and being able to be persuasive, to sell, and to show that you understand their problems. And I wish I'd latched on to that earlier.

What would you say is the biggest risk to your business going forward, and how are you solving, or at least, hoping to mitigate that risk?

Relich: One is [that] fashion trends are changing rapidly, and you've got a lot of low-cost, low-providers, like Forever 21 or H&M coming in, who put out fashion very cheaply. So, I think that technology has to be used to shorten the supply chain. Because you need to be very close to the market to get "trend-right" goods in the right places at a low cost. And that's all about the supply chain.

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Before, retailers didn't have that problem; if you were a great brand, you could be a mess -- if people want your product, you [could] charge huge margins to cover up for those sins. That's going away, and that's not just for Guess. I think that applies to any retailer.

On the other end, big data does apply. Before, everything was merchant-driven -- let's just get good product. Now, basically, consumers aren't brand-loyal that much anymore. But we have so much data on them. [We] have loyalty programs, and we know what they buy. You've got Internet behavior, what they're clicking on, what they're looking at. With iPhone applications, or with smartphone applications, now you can actually look at geographical proximity. So, I think there's a huge opportunity to combine all of those together, to really be one-to-one targeting, and what I call retention -- to retain your best customers and get more of their spend. Retailers, not just Guess, who don't jump on that trend, are going to be left behind.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, executive editor.

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