CIO Spotlight: James Hannah, GDIT

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? “The high-end technologies such as AI/ML that are relatively new are the most difficult to fill. How do you go after talent and ask for 5-10 years’ experience when the technology has been around for only 2-3 years…”

Headshot of James Hannah, Global CIO & Senior VP at GDIT

Name: James Hannah

Company: General Dynamics Information Technology (GDIT)

Job title: Global Chief Information Officer and Senior Vice President

Date started current role: November 2021

Location: Falls Church, Va.

James Hannah is GDIT’s global chief information officer and senior vice president for supply chain. Hannah leads the company’s information technology strategic plan in the areas of enterprise, business application, data centres, wide-area networks, and customer service. He also oversees supply chain management, including direct and indirect procurement and sourcing. Hannah previously served as deputy chief information officer, overseeing the delivery of critical business systems, architecture, engineering, and operations for all GDIT corporate IT services. Prior to joining GDIT, he held senior roles in the financial services, healthcare, and defence industries.

What was your first job? My first paid job was a newspaper route when I was 10 years old. I delivered newspapers in a wagon around my neighbourhood.

Did you always want to work in IT? I did. My dad was an importer, and he had many computer systems in his office. As early as 8, I would go into his office to check out these dumb terminals and little blinking cursors. I always wanted to know how things worked. I fell in love with technology when I bought my first Commodore 64 from the money saved from my paper route job. It was an 8-bit home computer which I still have. That created the foundation for understanding and learning more about computers, coding, and technology.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? Oddly enough, I don’t have an IT degree. When I was in school, electrical engineering was offered instead of computer science or IT. During my senior year in high school, I took up a robotics project where I programmed a robot to make chess moves. That subsequently led me to take up electrical engineering at Hofstra University. For two years, I did nothing but programming in archaic languages such as Cobol, Pascal, and Fortran. So, I switched over to History and English and graduated with a degree in those subjects.

A few years later, I went back to school to get my MBA with a specialisation in E-commerce and International Business. During that time, I received certifications from Novell, VMWare, and quite a few from CompTIA and Microsoft. I leveraged these certifications to get my first IT job at a healthcare provider in Miami. Two years later, I went into the financial sector. For the past 14 years, I have worked in the public sector primarily in the defence and intelligence sectors.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. I have taken quite a few detours in my career. I started off working for a retail book company, then I moved into the healthcare sector, followed by the financial sector, and subsequently to the public sector where I am today. When I look back at my career, I feel fortunate that I had the opportunity to work and learn in various industries. This exposure provided me the opportunities to keep moving up in management while continuing to advance my technical acumen. Everywhere I went, I learned about new technologies, and I was able to work with smart people and learn from my peers. Along the way, I continued to earn and refresh my certifications to remain relevant to the business.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? The top priorities for our corporate IT teams in the coming year are investments in HR, financial and our growth systems. COVID has really changed the landscape from a hiring perspective, and this has led to a war for talent. As such, attracting a talented workforce and retaining them is a top priority for us to grow our business. We also want to modernise our financial systems. We went through a major upgrade to our financial systems in 2018 when GDIT acquired CSRA. The next step is to move our new financial system into the cloud over the next 1-3 years.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? From a growth perspective, GDIT has made a multi-million-dollar investment this year to accelerate technology to our customer missions. The investments are in six critical areas: Zero Trust, Automation for IT Ops, Multi-cloud Management, Software Factory, 5G and Mission AI/ML. Our GCIO team will be partnering with our CTO and Growth teams to bring our expertise into these efforts.

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 the conventional CIO role includes responsibilities it should not hold. I have worked at organisations where cyber, or supply chain doesn’t have a direct line with the CIO. I think it’s important that organisations understand their supply chain risk. CIOs need to know whether the organisation has a secured supply chain. I think it’s important that the CIO is tightly aligned with the CISO and Chief Supply Chain Officer to look at the broader view and the level of risk involved. At GDIT, both areas fall into my purview and are aligned. For some conventional CIOs, that is not the case, and they don’t have the alignment with cyber and supply chain like they should.

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? We went through a digital transformation when we acquired CSRA in 2018. We are now at a point where it’s more of an evolution. We are in a continual process of improving our people through targeted training, identifying process improvements, and ensuring the technologies that are in place provide the most value to the business.

Customer experience and operational efficiency are two areas all CIOs focus on daily. It’s our operational excellence in the way we fulfil our obligations and service level agreements to our customers that separates us from our competitors. At GDIT, we share our customer-zero stories and lessons learned with our partners and customers. It’s these shared experiences and our transparency that potentially become a mechanism for growth. 

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? As a systems integrator that serve federal agencies, digital maturity is different depending on our customer’s mission. Speaking to our internal operations, the technologies and capabilities that we put in place prior to the pandemic enabled our employees to pivot and work from home overnight. We accomplished this utilising various technologies that we had deployed as part of our digital transformation. We leveraged technologies such as virtual desktop and application delivery, VPN technology, and a BYOD model where employees could stay productive and do their work with their own devices. The fact that we were able to serve our agencies successfully during such a critical time showed our digital maturity.

We are currently moving into a data governance and analytics model across our HRIS and financial systems. This will provide us faster insights across our corporate data. The key performance indicators in place will assist us in shaping our decisions and help us quantify the value of IT for the business.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? From a culture standpoint, curiosity and continual learning are the most important aspects of building a sustainable culture. You run the risk of becoming stagnant if you are not curious about how things work, how to continue to evolve your business, and how to improve and innovate for your customers.

To cultivate this culture, we have developed internal programs such as an Innovation Tank and Employee Enrichment and Experience program office (E3PO). The Innovation Tank embraces the “Shark Tank” concept where employees pitch an innovative idea to a group of sharks within the firm. The best ideas are rewarded through peer recognition and corporate-sponsored awards. The E3PO program provides unique insight and mentoring into how teams operate and serves as a lens to view the bigger picture of how departments work together to accomplish company goals.

You need to build a culture where employees are encouraged to try new things. You must feel safe enough to take that leap outside your comfort zone, knowing that it’s okay to fail or find that something is not the right fit for your career. If you can build that culture that is based on trust rather than fear, it will open doors for people. I have benefited from such a culture at GDIT. I started as a line engineer and within 12 years became the company’s Global CIO.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? The high-end technologies such as AI/ML that are relatively new are the most difficult to fill. How do you go after talent and ask for 5-10 years’ experience when the technology has been around for only 2-3 years? Take 5G for example. It is a relatively new technology and finding experts in this field which is still developing is hard to find. That being said, in today’s job market, it is becoming difficult to find talent for any position. Even in mature areas such as cloud, it’s difficult to find the right fit because the market is so competitive.

What's the best career advice you ever received? The best advice I have received is to say yes to opportunities whenever they come. Even if it’s scary, it’s always good to take that leap of faith and try something different. And following that advice has led me to some very fulfilling jobs in different commercial business sectors and areas within GDIT.

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. I do. I had a succession plan for each area of my organisation prior to taking on this role as a Global CIO. And when I came into this role, the first thing I was asked was “Who will replace you if you go one day?” So, I have created that replacement pipeline and it’s very important to do that as a leader. I am mentoring my replacements to the point that they will be able to step into my role seamlessly.

One of the challenges is that the internal training opportunities that will give them the experiences they need are not there. So, we have partnered with organisations such as PWC and Deloitte that have training programs. We have also partnered with other vendors such as Microsoft and Oracle that offer boot camps and other educational opportunities. Employees who are looking at the CIO path can leverage these experiences.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? Always take on new challenges and opportunities as they come. Really stretch yourself, get out of your comfort zone and continue to learn as much as you can. You will never know everything. The best leaders are the ones who listen more than they speak.

What has been your greatest career achievement? Coaching and mentoring my employees over the years has been my greatest career achievement. Years from now, no one is going to remember that I was a CIO. What they will remember are the opportunities I provided for them. Many people who have worked for me have grown in their careers significantly over the years. Being able to mentor and coach them and give them the confidence to try and reach for their dreams is what I consider my greatest achievement.

Looking back with 20:20 hindsight, what would you have done differently? I would have completed my undergraduate degree in electrical engineering. While taking a different path has led me to where I am today, I think sticking with engineering would probably have enabled me to get here faster.

What are you reading now? The Age of AI.

Most people don't know that I… Like to surf.

In my spare time, I like to…Go for nature walks with my family and dogs or spend time at the beach.

Ask me to do anything but… Eat sushi.