Staying Ahead of the CIO Career Curve

Oct 21, 2010

Pam Baker

Despite the changing role of CIO, one thing remains the same: the CIO is expected to be the king (or queen) of tech knowledge. It just will not do to be ignorant about a new technology the millennials are bringing to work, or slow to address the perennial "adopt or not to adopt" question in the C-Suite. Being able to champion one tech over another and achieve measurable, desirable results is a direct route to promotion.

It pays to stay ahead of the curve, but how, short of peering into a crystal ball, can you successfully predict what is coming next in the ever-changing fast-paced world of technology?

One of the surest ways to detect what technologies are coming next is to go directly to the R&D hubs. Regular visits to technology transfer offices at universities, labs and government offices will give you an early heads-up. Of course, those visits can often be virtual rather than physical as long as you know where to look.

You might want to begin my finding the technology transfer office at leading universities and simply asking what's new there. But some professionals go beyond this simple inquiry. For instance, Denise Beeson, a small business consultant and SBA loan advisor and an adjunct instructor in the Small Business Management and Marketing Departments at Santa Rosa Junior College, offers these sources as excellent predictors:

1. Federal labs are a good place to look for new technology developments since they receive the most R&D funding by the government. Try using the search engine at to see what's out there.

2. Use the search engine at to see what technologies have recently been patented and what prior art has been referenced. You will get a name and citation that may be helpful

3. Conduct a technical literature search through your industry professional association or your local technical library.

4. Research the "think tanks" in our nation. "I like Battelle since they produce a list annually of the 'hot' technologies," said Beeson.

5. Check out the PDMA, a new product development and management association that seems to have a pulse on what's happening.

6. Review the technology "matching" websites like

7. See the Licensing Executives Society International, the professional organization for licensing and their matching technology website within their members site.

"It takes some time to investigate all the above" said Beeson, but the leadership and competitive advantage such early information brings is well worth the exercise. However, a wily-nilly foray into the interesting world of R&D can also result in confusion or distraction. To avoid this problem, it is important to predetermine which lines of technologies are likely to impact your organization and which are merely interesting to you personally.

"I do my best to keep up with NASA's emerging technologies, of which there are obviously many," said Linda Cureton, NASA's CIO. "But I am more focused on keeping my fingers on the pulse of IT-specific technology."

Cureton "reads a lot" to keep up with the latest trends and news. She also gets information from her staff, including the many CIOs at the NASA Centers. "Some of our most cutting edge IT efforts can be found incubating at the centers. Under my watch, I'd like to see us to a better job of making sure those best projects and practices percolate to the top and get shared across the Agency."

Indeed, pushing technology throughout your organization is as much a leadership requirement as staying abreast of developments. And, sometimes the technology you most need to push comes from within. "There are heroes at our centers whose IT innovations need to be tapped across the agency," said Cureton. "We have our CIOs and many staff showcasing their efforts to spread knowledge across our IT organization."

It is important not to get myopic with internal technologies and remember to look up and out, too. While Cureton's meetings and summits include internal technology showcases, "perspectives from public- and private-sector IT leaders such as President Obama appointee Vivek Kundra, the U.S.'s CIO, and Google's Vint Cerf" are also regular parts of the program.

It is also important to recognize that IT isn't a solo gig anymore. "Leaders today who are facing extremely difficult problems with complex solutions need more than their individual heroics to prevail," said Cureton. "I stay up at night figuring out how to best tap into a high-performing team of senior leaders who have a group focus, shared direction, and who know how to harness their collective strength to solve their most difficult problems."

While many heads are certainly better than one, any group can be caught in circular thinking just as easily as any individual can. The search for "what's next" must continue on a daily basis.

So where else can you look for clues?

"Identify the venture capitalists that fund the technology you need to hear about, e.g., B2B or B2C, and follow their blogs to see who they're funding," suggested Phil Michaelson creator of KartMe, a Web organizer that quickly became an Apple staff pick. There are also a number of places a little closer to home such as lunches with peers from other companies where you can look for signs of change in the tech landscape.

Rich Morrow, principal engineer at quicloud, a tech firm that consults SMBs on how to securely architect, deploy, and maintain apps in the cloud, said he likes a good mix in learning avenues to help him stay abreast of tech changes.

Here's how he does it:

1. Topping his list are "Popular Today" site aggregators such as . "I read it every day, especially the Lifehacker and DZone sections," he said. "I'm not going to admit to clicking anything about lolcats."

2. A trip to a brick and mortar bookstore also ranks high on his to-do list. "Once a month, I'll peruse the book and magazine rack at Borders and read up on cool, interesting tech for five to six hours over a coffee & lunch."

3. Face-to-face meetups are a necessity too. "I attend about five to six meetups per month about topics that interest me or my clients ... nothing like meeting pros who can talk with you about their personal experiences with technology."

4. Social media also provides a daily dose of what's new. "Twitter Lists especially are very useful. If I find a new technology or company doing something cool, I check to see where they are listed and browse all their competitors."

5. Search engines such as Google can also provide quick clues. "If I find two to three players in a given area, I just punch their names into Google and see who else is in the space. Sometimes, I find an even better technology or company."

6. Real world friends are also invaluable sources. "I foster long-lasting relationships with folks who are experts in areas I'm not. When something crosses my radar that looks to be in their expertise, I'll often just IM or call them to ask their opinion about it."

Perhaps the most interesting finding in this poll of where to look to find what tech or trends are coming next was the total absence of any mention to follow the technology giants. Indeed, there were several strident warnings to steer clear of tech leaders in any given space.

"My No.1 recommendation would be to not listen to where the major technology companies are trying to take things," warned Babak Pasdar, president and CEO of Bat Blue, the official WiFi provider for ESPN's X Games. "The big organizations are where good ideas go to die."

A prolific and versatile writer, Pam Baker's published credits include numerous articles in leading publications including, but not limited to: Institutional Investor magazine,, NetworkWorld, ComputerWorld, IT World, Linux World, Internet News, E-Commerce Times, LinuxInsider, CIO Today Magazine, NPTech News (nonprofits), MedTech Journal, I Six Sigma magazine, Computer Sweden, NY Times, and Knight-Ridder/McClatchy newspapers. She has also authored several analytical studies on technology and eight books. Baker also wrote and produced an award-winning documentary on paper-making. She is a member of the National Press Club (NPC), Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and the Internet Press Guild (IPG).

Tags: CIO, R&D, careers, NASA, emerging tech,

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