CIO Spotlight: Chris Hummel, BlackBerry

What's the best career advice you ever received? "Balance ambition with patience."

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What was your first job? While I'd love to say I immediately started out in this industry, that's unfortunately not the case. Running the risk of aging myself, as a youth, I started out delivering prescriptions and stocking shelves for a pharmacy, pumping gas (now I'm really aging myself), then into several summers of flat roofing (hot asphalt and all) and landscaping (decks, planting trees/shrubs and learning that sod is laid green side up) while I was in college. I will admit there were a number of valuable life lessons learned during these times and I've never once regretted the experiences gained. Professionally, my first full time gig was in the telephony space with Northern Telecom (Nortel Networks) installing and commissioning digital multiplexing systems.

Did you always want to work in IT? It was during my college studies (primarily those times in the lab) that I discovered my passion for technology. The challenge of designing, building, testing and optimising something which improves our daily lives really hit home with me and it grew from there. Discovering the extent to which productivity, mobility, or efficiency improvements can be enabled with innovative technological advancements was exciting and fulfilling.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I'm an Electronics Engineering Technologist with a Major in Telecommunication Systems. I've possessed numerous certifications over the years including a Project Management Professional (PMP) designation.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. After finishing college, I joined Nortel Networks and started off installing and commissioning the latest digital telephony systems across Canada. This opportunity fed nicely into my newly found passion of implementing something that delivered an immediate, tangible enhancement to an end user's experience. As the demand for wireless systems started to take off, I took advantage of this growth opportunity and transitioned into leading commissioning and integration projects in expanding network facilities for Canadian and eventually international customers in an expat capacity. It was these four years as an international expat that I earned the most valuable professional and personal life experiences that have established the foundation and perspective to how I live, manage, and lead today. Isolated in a foreign country, with a new customer, language and culture barriers, and limited available support, forced me to embrace my independence and find ways to deliver the project at hand.

These were life altering experiences for me and I still leverage many of those skills that I gained in Mexico, Brazil, Chile, and the Caribbean. From here, I progressed to developing and delivering wireless training programs, then into multiple leadership opportunities where I led teams spread across multiple global locations delivering leading edge telecommunication projects in the Caribbean and Latin America and later for the Asia Pacific regions. Ultimately, I joined BlackBerry just over 10 years ago and transitioned into a more traditional IT role in a range of leadership positions covering application integration, data management, IT Service Delivery and Business Applications Solutions.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? We have a number of initiatives including the cloudification of infrastructure, services, and solutions, identifying opportunities across the business for further automation and self-service, and the delivery of application and tool optimisation through proactive upgrades, implementation of scalable solutions, decommissioning of unused aging assets, and the addition of new features and functions.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? Our top priorities this year include focus on building strategic relationships with new and existing customers, articulating the immediate value we can bring to the Internet of Things (IoT), and how we're uniquely positioned to offer the most comprehensive, end-to-end Unified Endpoint Security solutions available today. Our IT organisation will support these goals by continuously improving the support and enablement of our business partners with secure, reliable, and cost-efficient IT solutions. The foundation of our strategy is built upon a customer centric framework and partnership, delivering scalable and secure consolidated business solution platforms, and streamlined operational support processes designed to not impede the time to market.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? I don't think it's a case of one size fits all. There are a number of factors which come into play when determining the roles and responsibilities of CIO's today and flexibility is key to enabling the benefits of consolidation when appropriate. The role of the CIO has been, and needs to continue to evolve as quickly as we witness major technological advancements (think IoT, AI) come into play. One of the fundamental responsibilities that must remain intact throughout this evolution is the engagement of the CIO (and CTO and CISO for that matter) in business and product planning to influence corporate strategy.

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 BlackBerry transitioned from a position as pioneer and leader within the smartphone market to the security software and services space, so too was there a need to conduct a digital transformation across IT and business systems. Our strategy to accomplish this goal, has entailed the development of a comprehensive, strategic redefinition of our technology services to deliver simplified, agile, integrated, lower cost solutions. The execution of such a technology simplification strategy is focused on enriching customer experience as well as accelerating revenue growth by extensively leveraging SaaS applications, avoiding customisation while advancing and modernising secure, mobile and agile user enablement.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? Possessing the ability to track, monitor and report key performance indicators (KPI's) and metrics which are tied directly to your strategic objectives is an essential requirement to understanding organisational performance. We've found it very helpful to categorise our strategic objectives into four fundamental areas:

  • Financial - Decreasing operating costs. Increasing profitably. Increasing revenue.
  • Customer - Improving service availability. Improving service delivery. Improving customer relationships.
  • Internal Processes - Enhancing security posture. Improving operational maturity.
  • Organisational Capacity - Improving knowledge and skills. Improving employee engagement. Embracing a "Winning Culture".

Against each of these categories, we retain a set of measures and targets to quantify the organisation's performance against these objectives. Furthermore, any of our key active projects or initiatives which are expected to deliver tangible deliverables to achieve these goals are documented and monitored closely to govern fulfilment of ROI.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? At BlackBerry, we're passionate about cultivating and embracing a "Winning Culture". A strong, unified culture aligns the organisation with a common vision to achieve our goals, fosters the attraction and retention of top talent, and strengthens our brand identity. The key to cultivating an engaging culture starts with developing a mission statement, values and rules, establishing and communicating a balanced scorecard, defining your desired culture, constructing a plan and finally execution and monitoring of results to allow for continuous improvement. Before you can implement broader culture change across an organisation, you need to be aligned on what behaviours you need to embody to support this initiative. 

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? Data management (analytics), AI, some SaaS based business systems as well as the cybersecurity job markets are highly competitive at this time. It's therefore critical that attraction and retention priorities do not focus solely on commensurate remuneration, but also in fostering a corporate culture that engages employees with challenging, rewarding and motivating work.

What's the best career advice you ever received? Balance ambition with patience. Opportunities will become apparent at the least likely times and you need to be prepared mentally and professionally to strike at a moment's notice.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. In addition to maintaining an up to date succession plan for myself, it's incumbent upon all of my leaders to possess a documented succession plan that identifies immediate successors as well as other potential candidates ready in either a shorter and longer period of development. Our succession planning articulates areas requiring development for each aspiring leader and must include a concrete development plan with timelines to develop potential successors. It's absolutely imperative that IT organisations are not only conscious of where their critical and scarce skillsets reside, but have the appropriate retention plans in place coupled with mitigation plans to ensure business continuity remains intact in the event these individuals depart the organisation.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? Establish the habit of staying current with industry trends in information technology. Leverage sources of industry research, know and follow the influencers, and participate in community mindshare organisations. Never shy away from asking questions and seek counsel from the highly intelligent team you've hopefully taken the time to surround yourself with. Lastly, in addition to maintaining a strong technical repertoire, complement and continuously refine your business acumen skills. You'll benefit from them.

What has been your greatest career achievement? Leading and motivating highly skilled teams through periods of technology disruption and global financial turmoil.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? See my advice to aspiring IT leaders. These are the lessons learned along the way.

What are you reading now? I recently completed Leadership and Self-Deception by the Arbinger Institute which was recommended to by a colleague and friend. I'd highly recommend folks read this for an alternative perspective to leadership behaviours. For a work/life balance, I'm also in the middle of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. It's a good read.

Most people don't know that I… Have a passion for angling, both freshwater and hardwater.

In my spare time, I like to…Unwind through some very challenging CrossFit workouts several times per week. I've been at it for 10+ years now and find it goes a long way towards putting your work (and personal) life in perspective. I also try do at least a couple Sprint distance Triathlons each year, coupled with getting out for some fishing and spending time with family and friends.

Ask me to do anything but… Sit in a meeting that takes longer than it needs to.

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