CIO Spotlight: Dave Whalley, ThoughtWorks

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? "Our major focus at ThoughtWorks in 2020 is data."

Name: Dave Whalley

Company: ThoughtWorks

Job title: CIO

Date started current role: July 2012

Location: London, UK

Dave Whalley is the Chief Information Officer for ThoughtWorks, a global software consultancy based in Chicago, and has more than 33 years of experience in the tech industry. Whalley joined ThoughtWorks in 2003 as a progamme manager in the London office. Before his current role as CIO, he was Chief Operating Officer. As the CIO for over 7 years, Whalley primarily looks after internal IT, which comes with some fascinating challenges with a company full of software delivery professionals.


What was your first job? I had a whole host of jobs while studying. They ranged from working in a bakery to a tannery (not pleasant). My first job on leaving University was with CAP Scientific (a UK software company) as a software engineer. That was great for me, as I had no formal IT background and it taught me the basics.

Did you always want to work in IT? Absolutely not! I fell into it by accident really. I was, I guess, a pretty average person leaving University with bills to pay and no real idea of what to do or where to go. I was fortunate to get the break I did. I've never had a career masterplan.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I studied various science subjects at school (Maths, Physics, Chemistry) and subsequently received a degree in Chemistry. Strangely, my passion is actually History, but I ended up doing a science degree. After University, I did research in Chemistry for a number of years which was my first experience of IT: coding a data capture sensor in 8086 assembler! I am not personally a great fan of accreditations in general. Some are useful, but I have always been of the view that experience is more valuable than a notional qualification.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. As I said earlier, I never had a career plan so I can't really say whether I experienced any detours. Once I realised I wasn't going to be a professional athlete (I wasn't very good) or a rock star (no talent) I've been lucky enough to work in an industry where there are multiple opportunities. I realised very early that I was an ok developer, but nothing special. My abilities were in operations, strategy and driving delivery and I quickly moved into project and programme management.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? Our major focus at ThoughtWorks in 2020 is data. We are building an analytics platform for the company and are moving quickly towards being a fully-fledged data driven organisation. Much of what we are doing in IT is connected to this initiative.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? ThoughtWorks has clear goals and measures for 2020 and beyond around thought leadership, revenue growth and profitability, and talent development. Myself and the other ThoughtWorks leaders are driving multiple change programmes to deliver against these goals.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? ThoughtWorks is a flat and constantly evolving organisation. I get involved in many things outside of what might be considered conventional IT. That is a good thing since I have exposure to many initiatives that would normally not be in the purview of a CIO.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? As a CIO you are always leading a digital transformation. With the pace of change, there is never a moment when you can say ‘done'. We are constantly evolving; all that changes is the pace of change. We are always driving across multiple horizons, such as revenue growth and operational efficiency. Balance is a constant question of priorities and discipline. Providing IT inside ThoughtWorks can be challenging since 7,000+ super talented IT people are a tough audience, but one of the advantages is that we can take the thinking and techniques from the work we do with our clients and apply that internally. A good example is using EDGE, a brilliant book we recently published, which talks about the techniques to use in making these kinds of decisions.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? We define success criteria for all levels of the work we do. We constantly (monthly) review the value we are delivering to the business and course correct as necessary.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? ThoughtWorks has done an amazing job over the years of maintaining culture through its recruitment, training and mentorship programmes. I have total confidence that everyone who joins our organisation will be a strong cultural fit.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? Senior tech leaders are always in short supply. Depending upon which region we are looking in (our IT function is distributed all over the world), great design skills are also hard to find.

What's the best career advice you ever received? Fix your team first. It is always tempting to push on with major initiatives even though you don't have the right team in place. Waiting until you have the core of what you need before going too far is always a temptation, but usually ends badly.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. We have a very detailed leadership development programme at ThoughtWorks. We are constantly reviewing performance and looking at succession planning for all key roles. Whilst we do have elements of formal training, the important piece for me is putting our up-and-coming leaders into stretch roles with appropriate support. Learning through doing, in a safe environment, is the best succession planning. I'm confident we have a pipeline of future stars coming through the system.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? Get the team you need, keep it simple, create clarity of what you are trying to do, prioritise ruthlessly and keep a clear head. Don't be afraid to make decisions. You'll get plenty wrong, but move on quickly. It's important to keep sight of the big picture; your role is to keep everything moving forward in the right direction; don't sweat the details. Constantly review your organisational structure, key leaders and their capabilities. The business around you will constantly change and you need to adapt quickly to changing circumstances...and never forget that there is a big difference between management and leadership.

What has been your greatest career achievement? I take the greatest satisfaction in watching others in my team grow and develop. I hope that I've been responsible for helping others over the years to fulfil their potential. Many have gone on to great things which gives me a warmer feeling than anything I've personally achieved.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? Not really. I've been incredibly fortunate to find a role I love and be surrounded by brilliant people that both challenge me and keep me honest. What more could one wish for?

What are you reading now? I travel a lot for work so I generally always have two books on the go; one fiction and one non-fiction. I am not a great fan of ‘management' books. I find that they usually comprise one nugget of useful insight padded out to several hundred pages or they are written by those who are better at talking about how to deliver rather than doing it themselves! As a result I find that they tend to be rather vague around the practicalities of what they are proposing. I love reading history and find it very insightful to understand how key figures in history made decisions in real pressure situations. I am currently reading Sacred Causes: Religion and Politics from the European Dictators to Al Qaeda by Michael Burleigh and Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, both of which are quite wonderful in very different ways.

Most people don't know that I… used to do stand-up comedy (not for long!) and ran a 2 hour 40 min marathon albeit more than 30 years ago!

In my spare time, I like to…try and improve my musical skills.

Ask me to do anything but… eat cauliflower. It is the food of Satan.

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