/ 5 Lessons from an IT Legend

Ask Tony Scott to sum up his professional life and he’ll tell you he’s been both the luckiest guy in the world and the unluckiest guy in the world.

Odd answer coming from a man who’s held the highest IT post at Microsoft, The Walt Disney Group and even the U.S. government, right?

Not once you hear him out.

“When being recruited, I was always told, ‘Everything’s great here, there’s no crisis, life’s good, you’re really going to enjoy this job,’” said Scott, a Domo Executive Advisory Board member. “But in each and every case, within two or three months of me getting there, some really bad thing happened that caused us to rejigger IT and do something completely different than I thought I was going to do.

“But here’s the good news: That experience always led to the next great job, the next great challenge. And that’s why I think I’ve been the luckiest guy in the world, too.”

IT leaders can learn a lot from Scott, which is why he’s often called upon to speak at tech conferences and events. At a recent engagement, he revealed five of the biggest lessons he’s learned in his illustrious career. For CIOs and aspiring CIOs who missed it, here are those lessons.

Lesson 1 – The org chart may be the biggest obstacle you face

“In today’s world, the org chart is usually a vestige of times past,” Scott said. “It was used to align around functional things like finance, sales, operations, etc. And because budgets and things like IT initiatives are often controlled by the silos that are defined by the ‘org chart,’ enterprises can easily miss some of the biggest opportunities.

“That doesn’t work in modern times where information and data have to flow quickly and seamlessly across an ecosystem of internal and external players. If you want to transform, you have to bust through the org chart.

“I’ll give you an example. When I joined General Motors around Y2K, we were doing pretty well, but we had a big problem: It took us five years to design a car. Why? Because even though we had the finest technology money could buy, we couldn’t easily go horizontally across the enterprise in terms of sharing data. There were so many points where time stopped because information had to be manually conveyed or moved through some narrow pipe. In other words, the org chart got in the way.

“So, what we did was create a ‘math highway,’ if you will—a horizontal, east-west system so everyone could see upstream and downstream. The result? We designed a car in 18 months—the Cadillac CTS, which is still one of the most successful cars GM has ever produced.”

Lesson 2 – It’s important to spend time with people outside your organization

“One of the things I loved to do when I was CIO of Microsoft,” Scott said, “was go down and sit with our helpdesk people and hear how they were helping customers resolve some of the problems they were having with our software. They knew all the idiosyncrasies of our software and could advise on workarounds.

“Our engineering teams weren’t getting this information. So every time I listened to the calls, I got really new insight into our own products and how they were performing and what we needed to do to fix them.

“This culminated in a quarterly meeting with the product groups, where I’d bring in a list of the top 20 things that needed fixing, which was a direct result of spending time outside the org and listening to the voice of the customer.”

Lesson 3 – Practice makes perfect

“When I took the federal CIO job,” Scott said, “it was the last two years of the Obama administration, and the belief was not much was going to happen. But within two months, we discovered that the Office of Personnel Management had been hacked, and 21 million people’s identities were compromised. It was the first time the government had been hacked at that scale, and no one knew who was supposed to organize the response effort.

“Fortunately, we had a pretty good cyber team, so we said, ‘OK, if no one else is doing it, we’ll figure it out.’ And we did. But we also organized a lot of practice ‘crisis’ exercises for the rest of the federal government, and because of that, the government is in a much better place now when it comes to being able to respond to those kinds of activities.

“There’s a crisis around the corner for every organization; you just may not see it yet. That’s why I advise companies to practice having a crisis all the time. If you’re well-versed in how to handle a myriad of situations, you can respond quickly and effectively across the organization when one actually happens.”

Lesson 4 – Don’t create a “cool kids vs. not-cool kids” culture

“In response to the Obamacare crisis,” Scott said, “we brought in a bunch of folks from Silicon Valley and they worked hard and fixed a lot of the program’s problems. It was great as a crisis-response thing, but then we took it too far. We said, ‘Hey, you guys did a really good job, so we’re going to create a special space for you and give you some really fun and challenging projects to work on. Everybody else? Keep doing what you’re doing.’

“In effect, we were telling a large number of people that innovation was someone else’s job, and that all of the change we wanted to bring about was going to be driven by a small team of relatively new outsiders who were doing short-term assignments with the government.

“You can probably guess how well that worked. In about 18 months, the whole construct fell apart. You had this animosity between the ‘cool kids’ and the traditional staff, and things often went awry. A better move would’ve been to say to everyone, including the new talent, ‘We’re all on the same team. We’ve got a goal we’re all trying to achieve. And we’re going to have some fun doing it.’

“Be very clear about where it is you’re going and very clear about why it’s important, and how things are going change as you go along. Then let people choose if they want to be on that train or not.”

Lesson 5 – Don’t expect success right away

“When I was at Microsoft,” Scott said, “an event sparked some folks in the Xbox division to help put on an internal conference around best practices in terms of quality. It started with five people, but by the third year was attracting around 3,000 people from across all of Microsoft.

“The internal conference was something that just went viral within the enterprise and got us to a place where we could be much more effective as an organization in handling issues related to quality. It was not mandated from the top—it just grew organically because the content and practices were meaningful and helpful to a wide range of people across the organization. It took three years and a lot of effort but paid off in the end.”

“A lot of us techies often think, ‘Boy, if I could just find that great technology life jacket to jump into the ocean with, things are going to be great.’ But that’s not how it works. Jumping into the ocean and accomplishing something usually requires more than a good life jacket—it usually requires skills of many kinds, and the work of many people in addition to good technology.

“I often say, ‘You can have the best technology in the world’—which I think Domo is—’but if you’re not ready to jump in the ocean, or your team isn’t ready, success is not going to come overnight, no matter what life jacket you are wearing.’”

Tony’s Final Thought

“It takes practice, discipline, and hard work,” he said, “but if you do it right, you will have successes you can build off of and pretty soon you can have a really rockin’ environment.”

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