Agile has changed the CIO & CTO role

Being the CIO of a business using Agile methods for continuous delivery has changed the leadership style in a positive way

Agile is not just the preferred method of developers, a growing number of senior business technology leaders have become advocates of Agile. CIOs and CTOs reveal that as their role becomes increasingly customer focused, they have had to change their leadership style to embrace Agile and to lead in a totally different way.

Agile is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as: "quick-moving, nimble and active". The truth of enterprise technology is that for much of its early history, despite claims otherwise, technology did little to make a business nimble. Enterprise technology is complex and organisations are difficult beasts to manage, so the past is not entirely to blame.

The last decade has seen a set of truly rapid enterprise technology developments. Early adopters of cloud and mobile based technologies disrupted markets previously considered strong and stable, but as technology adoption was only part of the story, the move to continuous deployment enabled these challengers to reimagine markets, such as retail, travel, media and recruitment.

Agile as a methodology is the acceptance of change and uncertainty in projects, according to analyst house Gartner; a major departure from years of technology deployments following a rigid production line process, a method borrowed from manufacturing. 

Michelle M. Coelho, a research director at Gartner says Agile: "has nothing to do with technology. It's a mental shift in how we approach projects."

"It is important to remember Agile is a thinking process, so you have to focus on the people, the automation and the customer," says David Espley CTO of global legal and information services business LexisNexis. Espley is one of the new age of business technology leaders that is comfortable with the change in leadership style needed in an Agile organisation. The LexisNexis technology leader doubles up as head of platforms and is therefore responsible for the product that is LexisNexis.

"If you have great people, always assume everyone is doing the right thing at the right time with the information they have to hand. The whole point of Lean and Agile is to get things in front of people to make commercial decisions," he says.

Ian Cohen, Chief Product & Technology Officer at transport services business Addison Lee Group agrees: "Management takes talent and turns it into performance. Leadership is different, it is about galvanising people around a clear and compelling vision of the future," he says. Cohen's job title tells you a great deal about how IT leadership has changed, in part, as a result of changing working practices. The initial relationship the customer has with Addison Lee is not with the black people-carrier, but the organisation's technology channels.

"So many good leaders destroy their own vision as they become micro-managers. You have to embrace the uncomfortable ‘get out of the way' part ," Cohen says, reflecting the same levels of trust Espley has for his team. 

Iterative business

"We have to enable the LexisNexis business to be fast and efficient and to delight our customers."

As a software-as-a-service (SaaS) offering LexisNexis has adopted the processes of continuous delivery pioneered by consumer technology players.

"We have moved to a continuous delivery platform with weekly updates, it is such a better way of working and it is a great way of building relationships," Espley says with enthusiasm.

"If you don't know the customer then you are flying blind." In the face of changing marketplace, Espley's strategy enables the global organisation to be involved in constant dialogue with its customers and to be discovering and in some cases anticipating their next set of demands. A service that improves and is aware of your organisational needs will be difficult to churn from, no matter the appeal of cheaper startup offerings. "You are running experiments all the time and you are watching how people use them," he says.  

Moving to continuous deployment and regular updates has meant that Espley has re-engineered the technology team, his DevOps engineers are supplemented by a platform product team to ensure reliability and scale. Legal customers demand 100% reliability. 

"I'm an advocate of Agile and have done Agile at every company I have been with. We always have to remember the values that started Agile; empowering people to make the right decisions quickly," Espley says.

"We do 10 week use cases to run through and understand the business need, and to build a working thing. In the past people have spent millions on building something then they ask the question," says Julie Pierce, data and digital director for the Food Standards Agency, on how she uses Agile methods for data and data lake projects.

New leader

Wendy Pfeiffer, CIO for global technology provider Nutanix adds that this is challenging the wider culture of organisations:

"Some of the blush has come off the rose of digital transformation because there is a need for the business to continuously reinvent themselves. Digital transformation is not a separate function."

Pfeiffer highlights how many are struggling with the transition, enterprise IT provided the technology that operated the business process to source, make and supply the goods that were the remit of the organisation. The advent of ‘digital' has swept all that aside, LexisNexis can trace its origins back to publishing; in the digital era organisations build direct relationships with the customer and no longer deliver books to a wholesaler, but a direct subscription to lawyers or for Addison Lee travellers. 

Mark Lockton-Goddard, CEO of change specialists embracent and formerly CIO of energy firm Drax and financial services firm Fidessa, describes the modern role of the CIO as being Chief Engagement Officer, promoting all areas of the organisation to engage with new technologies, new ways of working and new ways of engaging with the customer. 

With the adoption of continuous delivery the CIO therefore is no longer the captain steering a multi-year programme that will culminate in the launch of a major new product. If the CIO is a captain, it is close to a sporting analogy, iterative development moves IT into a team that is not only contesting this season, but has an eye on the next season too. The Agile CIO is therefore crafting a team that will be competitive in the next competition and all the contests that follow. Crafting that team requires the CIO to be agile themselves, taking time to listen to the customer, consider the environment the team works in, be at the forefront of leading the wider business from its purpose to its revenue and of course the technology it uses. Just as the sports manager cannot enter the field and strike for the win, the delivery has to be the responsibility of those agile and adept to deliver a result.