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David Rand
David Rand
7 min read

The new IT unicorn

Digital transformation is creating a critical need for one-of-a-kind IT leaders who can master business strategy, technological innovation, and empathy.
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Duncan Macdonald doesn’t view himself as just a tech guy.

As chief information officer at Swiss telecommunications giant Sunrise UPC, he sees his role at the $12 billion company not solely as an agent of digital innovation but as a force for unifying business and IT leaders around a shared vision for change.

“Shifting business culture toward a collaborative mindset is the key to starting a successful digital transformation journey,” says Macdonald, who joined Sunrise UPC’s parent Liberty Global in 2016 after nine years in technical positions at Virgin Media, the final three spent as CIO. “While the right technology and methodologies are important, changing hearts and minds in your organization is the biggest struggle. As a digital leader, your vision [must] set an agenda for pervasive business change.” Macdonald is not alone in his thinking. He is part of a new breed of technology leaders who recognize the value of understanding business needs and aligning everything they do and say around them.

"Shifting business culture toward a collaborative mindset is the key to starting a successful digital transformation journey."

According to the newly released The Future of IT research report from Pegasystems, digital technology continues to come on so fast and furiously that it is forcing a fundamental shift in how organizations staff and utilize their technical teams. Indeed, today’s CIO is expected to build teams that will help businesses understand which way the technology winds are blowing and ride them to competitive advantage.

This fast-emerging trend is already bringing profound change to the world of information technology. For example, The Future of IT research report asked 750 global IT leaders how they see their jobs changing as a result of digital transformation and how it’s accelerated since the onset of COVID-19. Not surprisingly, over one-third (38%) say they are working more closely with other functions of their organizations, including the C-suite, than they were two years ago. In the meantime, over two-thirds (68%) say digital transformation has moderately or significantly affected departmental structures.

It’s also influencing which competencies are most valued. Survey respondents expect hands-on skills like coding and data entry to become less important because cloud solutions, artificial intelligence (AI), and low-code applications are simplifying processes. More than 70% of senior managers say that future IT careers will require ongoing reskilling and training for emerging technologies. At the same time, it will also be vital to possess basic people (or “soft”) skills, such as leadership (38%), problem solving (37%), and emotional intelligence (35%).

The future of work - Graphic

Finding these new IT unicorns with the right skills, says Khalid Kark, managing director of the Deloitte CIO Program, is not easy. Even as organizations engage in a heated and ongoing war for talent, they typically discover these individuals are in woefully short supply. “It’s a lot easier to get a person with these enduring human skill sets and train them on technology,” he says, “than it is to have a deep technologist that you have to reframe and rewire to think about these things.”

But IT professionals shouldn’t expect employers to proactively provide all the training they need to stay current with shifting needs, Kark warns. It’s incumbent on workers to do their part as well. “If technology talent understands where the puck is moving and starts to shift skill sets to things that are going to matter to businesses, a lot of their jobs are going to be preserved, even enhanced,” he says.

One retail insurance company president and CTO interviewed as part of The Future of IT research report says his company prefers finding junior talent with solid people skills and then putting them through a coding “boot camp” to learn about technologies they’ll use on the job. A CIO at another company says he doesn’t believe all IT executives have to be technologists, since so much of what they do relates to the business.

“The ability to write code or manage infrastructure is becoming commoditized,” adds Pegasystems CTO Don Schuerman. “What you can never commoditize is the ability to listen, empathize, and be able to communicate connections between business and the innovative use of technology.”

"What you can never commoditize is the ability to listen, empathize, and be able to communicate connections between business and the innovative use of technology."

Don Schuerman, CTO Pegasystems

Work itself is likely to become both easier and more challenging because of digital transformation, according to the survey. First, with so many aspects of technical work and decision-making becoming more automated, many menial, repetitive, and unnecessarily time-consuming jobs will disappear. This will free IT leaders and workers to concentrate on more critical matters and add more value for their organizations, survey findings suggest. In fact, 66% of respondents think digital transformation will make their jobs easier, and 57% say it will lead to more creative work and better decisions.

At the same time, all this progress is a double-edged sword, the survey indicates. As everyone knows, when high tech makes more work possible, more work invariably comes about. Indeed, about 70% of IT leaders and 67% of respondents overall say digital transformation has increased workloads in the last two years. The speed of product innovation – and the pressure to keep up with it – has sped up as well, with more than half of senior respondents saying they expect to release products more frequently.

“If I release every three months, I’ve got to build really big things and I’ve got to cross my fingers and hope,” says the retail insurance industry CTO. “If I can release multiple times a day, I can build really small things and see what happens.”

Most senior leaders do not seem to mind the fast pace and added workload because they feel the upside of contributing more to their organization is worth the added effort, the survey suggests. Most (70%), for instance, say their executive role is more enjoyable because of this. Executive leaders in particular are also more likely to feel valued after completing transformation projects, the survey finds.

While digital transformation projects have been under way for several years and have only recently picked up steam because of the global pandemic, respondents say the journey is far from complete.

One government IT leader even goes so far as to say it will last forever – as will its effects.

“When you hear people talk about digital transformation, it’s almost like they’re pretending it’s this phase we’re going to go through and it’s going to end. But I have difficulty seeing how that could happen,” says the survey respondent. “As soon as everything gets digitized, then we’ll just cycle back through updating to new versions of these technologies, products, and services as they’re released. Digital technology is a continuous cycle that we have to go through. It will never end.”

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