CIO Spotlight: Chris Howard, Slingshot

Discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. “Training up in tech has some special issues… The biggest challenge with filling higher-up roles is that there’s always going to be a people management piece. You’ll have to find someone who can both understand the tech and values people.”


Name: Chris Howard

Company: Slingshot

Job title: CIO & Chief Product Owner

Date started current role: August 2016

Location: Louisville, KY

Chris Howard has spent the past 20 years creating innovative technology solutions. He’s built products that generate an average of $25 million annually without breaking a sweat. Howard believes that technology can help drive business, not inhibit it. He views his role as simply making technology work for Slingshot’s customers.

What was your first job? My very first tech job was with Six Flags here in Kentucky. I helped manage IT at Kentucky Kingdom. Eventually I moved up to a roll where I was traveling around the country to different parks and implementing tech I wrote.

Did you always want to work in IT? Honestly, no. I actually started college as an electrical engineering major; I hated it. Some of my friends were in the computer science major, and they really enjoyed it. I had taken some programming classes in high school, and decided to take the chance. I switched my major halfway through college to computer science, and never looked back.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? As I mentioned, I had taken several computer programming classes in high school, and received a degree in computer science.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. That first IT job with six flags is where my tech career starts. I designed and built custom software for the parks. One of my projects had me designing the hardware and software for the gate system, where you get your ticket scanned to enter the park. I travelled all around the country to help implement it at each park.

Years later, I was watching a documentary with my children, and saw that Disneyland in California had actually implemented the system that I built. I think that’s pretty cool: that my tech has gone father than I could ever imagine.

From there, I moved to Corelogic. My main goal was to help rewrite and update legacy systems within the companies they were acquiring. Overtime I worked my way up. I helped run the individual product companies after corelogic acquired them. Then I began overseeing an entire tech division.  Finally, I saw myself in a corporate role where I was helping piece tech products together.

And now I’m at Slingshot. When I started here, my main goal was to help implement the lean UX methodology. And that’s where I’m at today!

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? There isn’t any specific tech initiatives for us; we help other companies develop custom software. But I can certainly talk on the changes I see coming in the tech industry.

When I first started at Slingshot in 2016, we were mainly building backend systems and core software initiatives. Nowadays, most of the tech we build is customer facing; that’s partially thanks to our UX design team being brought on. The move has been form web apps to mobile apps, and from on premises systems to cloud based ones.

I definitely see tech teams moving in that direction too. Our portfolio had been more saturated with mobile and cloud work, and I only see that growing.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? I'd say that our goals for 2022 are to expand our team even more. We've had record growth over the past few years, and want to keep that train going.  

We support other businesses through tech; the software and products we build can help in a variety of different areas. One product we built helped shorten claims turnaround time by 20%, and daved 7,000 pages of paper per week.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? Before, CIO’s main goal was to manage risk; their main focus was ‘keeping the lights on.’ There was a huge emphasis on security, both for the tech and for the company’s longevity. And those things are still very important.

Moving forward (and I already see lots of companies moving this direction), I think CIO’s are going to have a future mentality. Making time to think on product creation, potential future tech to utilise, innovation directions, and long term road mapping.

Teams should be equipped with processes that help them experiment, try new things, and be creative. Those things take effort; tech teams are going to have to rethink themselves and their mindset get to that point.

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? Again, this is hard to answer, since we build software for other companies. I think the products that we're building have started leaning away from internal efficiency and more towards enhancing the customer experience.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? Again, I think this is different for Slingshot; how we measure success is different for each project. We dig in and find out why the product is begin developer, and evaluate metrics from there.

In general, if the users are able to easily understand and utilise the product we’ve built, then we’ve built a good product.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it?  At Slingshot, we always look for open minded people. You’ll fit in if you’re unafraid of change or adapting. We’re definitely not a corporate environment; our roles and responsibilities aren’t rigid.

It’s a collaborative environment. We help and rely on each other to be successful. I’d also say that as a group we’re a pretty quirky bunch.

So I’d say you’re a great fit at Slingshot if you’re open to change, willing to collaborate, and don’t take yourself too seriously.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? If you’re hiring for tech in 2022, then you know that basically any role is difficult to fill. Everyone needs developers right now, but it’s harder to find specialised ones. For us, that means any developers that specialise in mobile development.

Slingshot also has a harder time filling positions, as we really work best with ‘self starters.’ Since we don’t have any management level people ‘breathing down’ our developers, we look for developers who we can trust,

What's the best career advice you ever received? I want to touch back on the adaptability aspect of tech. Years ago, I had a boss that was a real pain in my ass; he was kinda brutal. He would harp on following a strict process. But the way we did tech then is completely different than how we do tech now.

The tech industry always has something new, and it’s always changing: the devices we use, the tech we write in, and the way tech is built. If you’re able to come into the tech space with an open mind, you’ll be on a much better path. That’s because what you do now may not work in only a few months.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. Training up in tech has some special issues.  I have a buddy that worked at a larger company; they were very corporate. He would talk about how he wished he could move up, and I asked him ‘how do you feel about managing people?’

The biggest challenge with filling higher-up roles is that there’s always going to be a people management piece. You’ll have to find someone who can both understand the tech and values people. Not to pat myself on the back, but I truly value and appreciate my team.

You truly have to love the people side just as much (if not more) than the tech side.  It’s been years since I’ve coded anything myself, but I’m successful in tech because I know how to bring the right people and experts together.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? If you want to be an effective leader, it’s going to take time. Because tech is a very complex industry that’s always changing, you’re going to want exposure to different aspects and areas. Not to mention you’ll also want exposure to product development and the people management piece I mentioned earlier.

So I’d say the three building blocks of a successful tech leader in today’s world are understanding tech, appreciating product, and respecting people. As you can imagine, that all can’t happen overnight.

What has been your greatest career achievement? There’s not one that individually stand out. I’d say my most recent that I love is helping grow slingshot into what it is today: a fun and exciting tech company.  Thanks to all our hard work, Slingshot has a great future. We’ve built a company where great people get to interact with and build great tech.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? Hell yah! I think anyone would go back and do things differently if they could. I love where I ended up: I have an amazing family and love what I do. But if I could go back, I would’ve focused more on my early career on the product space instead of just IT.

What are you reading now? I really enjoy learning about history, and right now I’m reading a book on Abraham Lincoln.

Most people don't know that I… I’m currently restoring an old car, and have been working on that car for 10 years. It’s nice to check out for a bit and work with my hands. I really enjoy the problem solving aspect; it’s the same treason I love my job.

In my spare time, I like to…Get outdoors as much as possible. I especially like hiking and camping with my family.

Ask me to do anything but… I should probably say something in business, but honestly it’s cleaning a bathroom. If I get two, I’d also say I hate doing the dishes.