CIO Spotlight: Jeff Atkinson, INAP

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? "I would say that for the most part there is no "conventional" role anymore. Each organisational environment is different and will require various roles..."

Name: Jeff Atkinson

Company: INAP

Job title: CIO

Date started current role: April 2019

Location: Reston, VA

Jeff Atkinson, DM, PhD, PMP, has 20+ years of managing complex teams in high technology sectors and within numerous functions including IT, Engineering, Operations and Corporate Development. Atkinson recently joined INAP as CIO & CISO and most recently served as CEO of a software development firm in the healthcare industry. He has managed over a dozen mergers and acquisitions programs from initiation, through diligence and deal work, and integration and has significant experience working internationally. In addition to his professional experience, Atkinson also served in the US Army on two occasions; first as an armored soldier and then as a commissioned Communications Officer where he served time as a platoon leader, operations, and logistics officer.  

What was your first job? My first job as an adult was as an Armor Crewman in the US Army, which I entered right out of high school. Though after discovering I had computer knowledge and experience, my unit transferred me into the Admin group. It was there I got my first real IT-related experience.  

Did you always want to work in IT? No, but it was always an interest, and many jobs involved some aspect of IT. When I initially started college, it was as a Computer Science student. However, I soon discovered that I didn't have a passion for programming, but I did enjoy putting systems together, doing networking, etc. I transferred to Information Systems and that set me on my IT path.  

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? As noted above, my undergrad was a BS in Information Systems. While in my second enlistment with the Army as a Signal Corps (Communications) Officer, I received my MS in Technology Management (fancy name for IS). Later I did a PhD in Engineering Management and a DM in Organisational Leadership. 

After getting out of the Army, I moved into the management ranks fairly quickly. The only certification I have is not IT related (per se) and that is my Project Management Professional (PMP), which I have held since 2004.  

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. Not sure I would call it a path so much as a sojourn. I have taken opportunities as they have presented themselves; most often for the challenge. This approach has taken me away from and back to the technical fields from time-to-time. I would say the biggest detour would be the few years that I worked primarily in Corporate Development. My program and project management skills were utilised to conduct full lifecycle corporate development from diligence through integration.  

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? INAP is focused on growth, both organic and inorganic. This drives IT to make sure we are providing the right systems and services to allow the business units to flourish. This will be done through new system deployment, as well as upgrades and integrations of existing systems.  

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? The top priority is making our systems as comprehensive as possible but also user friendly enough to keep the business units working at optimal efficiency. As part of this, we have a number of initiatives already ongoing to consolidate support systems and deploying newer technologies to support team development and operations. 

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? I would say that for the most part there is no "conventional" role anymore. Each organisational environment is different and will require various roles, including CIO, to hold responsibilities that they might not in another organisation. For some organisations, I see the roles of CIO and CTO blurring. CIOs might be more than just IT, and CTOs might be more than just engineering and development. 

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?  It has to include both. Doing one without the other makes no sense. As IT, our customer is our internal workforce primarily. As noted, we need to help them do their jobs as efficiently as possible, but they need to be comfortable and knowledgeable of the systems we give them to work with. If that aspect is achieved, they succeed (which leads to revenue growth), and we all succeed.  

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? This is something that I am still just starting to touch the surface as I begin my tenure at INAP. My initial assessment is that we have a lot of strengths but still some challenges related to integration of diverse systems, growth, etc. We will begin to measure our success against key indicators such as Customer Satisfaction (MTR, MTF, Service Desk response time, etc.), Financial (performance vs. budget), and most important, Alignment to Strategy.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? As a geographically dispersed workforce, the key to good cultural fit is being able to work efficiently and effectively with your teammates wherever they may be. To foster this, the IT group is working diligently to provide every means possible to make everyone feel connected-from collaboration tools and connected systems to a new intranet portal, etc. Most importantly, as a diverse team ourselves, IT must "walk the talk" and make sure we are using those tools and connecting as a team as we want others to do.  

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? IT roles are becoming much more dynamic and less specialised. Therefore, the best IT personnel will be diversified and need to have a range of skillsets. It may be less about finding those personnel and more about creating them within the team you already have by providing those opportunities for growth and training.

What's the best career advice you ever received? My approach to my career has always been guided more by observations that I've made rather than guidance from anyone; specifically, observations of my family. I hale from Western Pennsylvania and my parents, as well as my siblings, were primarily factory workers of one type or another-basically punching a clock every day. I vowed that would never be me, and though I have never had to do so literally, whenever a job began to feel that way to me, I knew it was time to find my next opportunity.  

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. I stressed to my team from Day One that I believe in what I learned in my Army days: Always train your replacement. I have started to put this into action with my direct reports. It has not developed into a full-blown succession plan yet, but we are on our way.  

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? Take chances and challenge yourself. If you stay in the same position too long, you will never learn anything new and will pigeonhole yourself, likely leading to less opportunities.  

What has been your greatest career achievement? I think it's been the diversity of my experiences­ - having worked in many different capacities beyond IT such as Engineering, Operations and Corporate Development. I have also been fortunate enough to have done this in a few different industries.  

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? Looking back, I might have stuck it out in a few places longer than I did because the next challenge took me outside of the organisation. However, I do not really regret any of those moves. 

What are you reading now? I am always reading a couple of things simultaneously, usually at least one non-fiction and one fiction. Currently they are: "The Return on Leadership" by D.L. Brouwer, who is a friend and former colleague "The Miracle Morning" by Hal Elrod "The Naturalist" by Andrew Mayne.

Most people don't know that I… am a bit of a movie and TV addict. I probably watch way more than I should, but in my defense sometimes it's there for background noise. I am much more effective working with the TV or music playing than with peace and quiet. I am one of the original "multitaskers" (which I know is now a dirty word).

In my spare time, I like to…play or coach sports. I still play some on my own but I also coach (at least for another year or so until my kids head off to college). I also started doing Obstacle Course Racing (OCR), primarily Spartan races, a couple of years ago. I am by no means a top competitor, but I finish and it's a great personal challenge. I have participated in eight so far, completing seven. In my second ever race, I broke my fibula on the course but came back seven months later to not only run another, but complete my first ever Trifecta (all three race levels in one calendar year). I am one race away from doing so again this year.

Ask me to do anything but… You can ask me to do anything but just don't expect me to say yes. I know what I like and don't like and am usually not shy about telling anyone that I know well what I think. However, as for an answer to this question, I will just leave it at that without any specifics.