Red Hat CIO: Empathy will help partners win over CIOs

Mike Kelly, CIO of Red Hat

Mike Kelly, CIO of Red Hat

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD — With apologies to Mick Jagger, solution providers meeting with CIOs would be well-served to have some sympathy, have some courtesy, and some taste. That was the advice of Red Hat chief information officer Mike Kelly, who presented to solution providers at the company’s North American Partner Conference here, on why CIOs are fascinated by digital transformation, but sometimes slow to make changes.

A huge majority of CIOs recognize the value of digital transformation for their organization — about nine in ten. But only 16 per cent are actively doing it. Is it just that the concept is to new? Probably not. It’s been the catchphrase-du-jour for at least a couple of years at any technology or business conference. 

So what’s the holdup.

Well, it boils down to the fact that to really embrace some of the ideas of digital transformation, IT organizations have to be turned around 180 degrees from the direction they’ve been headed for more than 30 years. Life as a cost centre in business has trained CIOs and their teams to keep things as cheap as possible, which means keeping things as “vanilla” as possible — that is to say, purchasing software and systems, and customizing as little as possible. 

But to transform and organization with technology — you’re going to have to get pretty custom, otherwise you’re just competing against your competitors’ off-the-shelf technologies with your own off-the-shelf technologies.

“As promising as digital transformation is, I will put forth to all of you that we’re all a little stung by all of this, by the idea that every company is a software company and that we’re going to be building software,” Kelly said. “It’s not possible for us to learn everything overnight.”

Consider that comment comes from the CIO of a software company, and you get the feeling that sentiment could be amplified exponentially for the average financial, construction, or government CIO.

Another factor holding back CIOs may be their age. With an average age of 51, many CIOs have done this battle before, and may be reticent to set out on another make-or-break campaign — one that may be the last great campaign of their career.

So Kelly counsels partners to approach CIOs not with the glitz and glamour of digital transformation’s possibilities, but rather with a sense of understanding of the challenges and concerns they may have, and with suggestions for how they can help a customer’s IT department, define, plan, implement, and/or execute on their own digital transformation strategy, whatever stage they may be in, and whatever needs they may have in terms of support and guidance.

“Don’t come in and talk about the wonders of digital transformation. You will be overlooked,” Kelly advised. “Your understanding and your empathy to get where they’re coming from will set you apart.”

Kelly walked partners through Red Hat’s own digital transformation strategy, a multi-year journey that extends out to 2021. For core processes, increasingly IT will buy existing software — increasingly in cloud versions. And for everything else, they’ll write code. 

“Now we’re being told that IT should transform the company, and we get to write software. So now, when we have a business problem that we can’t fix with the tools we have, we build the solutions ourselves on our OpenShift platform,” he said.

At the same time, Kelly said the company — and others like it — has to look for very different skills in IT going forward — the creativity of code becoming as important as the pragmatism of automation and process design. However, he stressed that “as important” is key, and urged partners to make sure customers IT departments don’t create “classes of citizenship, where those keeping the lights on are as less important than the people doing new things.”

In fact, the two skill sets are not mutually exclusive, and especially as there’s a long run-up to these strategies being fully implemented, there’s plenty of time for those in “keeping the lights on” roles today to add the abilities needed to be on the “doing new things” side as well. Such learning opportunities are available to Red Hat IT staff, he said, should they be interested in doing so.

But partners should be “patient” with customers who are slow-moving, especially around developing skills. After all, many of them have spent 30 years or more outsourcing a good portion of their talent to third parties — a shift that certainly helped light the rocket for the modern IT solution provider channel — and are just now trying to develop the systems, processes, and culture to draw the right people into their IT department.

“Talk to them about what they’re doing, help them understand if they’re set up to be successful, and make sure their people are in line,” he advised partners.

And if they can do that, there will be a lot business for solution providers for years to come in supporting their customers digital transformation initiatives.