IT's rising stars: Next-gen leaders transform the enterprise

Tomorrow's CIOs are already transforming enterprise IT, bringing fresh, sometimes radical visions of how technology can enable business now and in the future

Ask Armand Rabinowitz about his senior-level IT position at Hyatt Hotels, and here's what you won't hear: any talk of applications, architecture, virtualization or storage. No mention of data centers, networks or the cloud. Not once does he reference a single piece of hardware. Not once does he use the word user.

It's not that Rabinowitz doesn't care about those trappings of enterprise IT -- he does. It's just that he views them as a means to an end, and the end is what excites him. When asked to describe his job -- he's Hyatt's senior manager of IT process improvement -- he talks in a rapid-fire clip about creativity, change management, service delivery and the customer experience.

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"Really what I do is IT innovation," he says. "I came to Hyatt" -- from a career in the West Coast entertainment industry -- "because I saw there was an appetite for leveraging technology to change hospitality's sea of sameness." Rabinowitz, 37, specializes in wooing younger customers with a more high-tech, high-touch experience. One case in point: He took the lead in developing a new online lock system that allows guests to bypass the front desk by checking into a room via mobile device and then using their loyalty card as the room key.

Those kinds of customer-facing, tech-driven process improvements are Rabinowitz's passion, and he thinks and hopes that IT is headed toward more such innovations. "Traditionally, information technology has been the backbone of a business," he says, "but it was just keeping the business functioning and performing, not helping to drive it forward."

"Drive it forward" could be the motto for Rabinowitz and five other IT leaders designated as "rising stars" by their managers, who themselves were named Computerworld Premier 100 IT Leaders this year.

Too young to be baby boomers, too old to be millennials, these rising stars, all thirty- and fortysomethings, have years of experience behind them and years of growth ahead of them. Demographers would peg them as Generation X, but slackers they're not: If their bosses have reached the pinnacle of their careers, the rising stars are acting as their lieutenants, very much out in the field rather than waiting in the wings.

Though their titles, duties and industries vary widely, these rising stars all see themselves as facilitators who can fix business problems with tech solutions and, as Rabinowitz puts it, "conduct the orchestra of contractors and vendors" with which most companies now engage, thanks to outsourcing and the move to cloud computing.

That line of thinking is in sync with the marketplace, says John Reed, senior executive director at Robert Half Technologies, an IT staffing firm. "When you think about the role of an IT leader, the job is very different than what it was even just a few years ago," he points out.

As IT shifts from being a support function to being an engine for cost reduction and profitability, tech leaders need to be business-savvy strategic thinkers with top-notch communications skills. "You need to be able to think critically about using technology to achieve corporate goals," Reed says, "and then you need to make a compelling case in the corporate boardroom."

Above all, rising stars fear boredom and crave creativity. "Having a creative component is important to me and to people of my generation," says Rabinowitz. "Industries that have been around a long time have a tough time changing, but we value creativity and change."

So does Rabinowitz's boss, John Prusnick. "Armand has the ability to think creatively -- I won't say 'outside the box,' but in different boxes. You can put him into a situation with new parameters and he adapts well," says Prusnick, director of IT innovation and strategy. Those are qualities tech staffers need at Hyatt, which has a small IT footprint thanks to an early move to the cloud and multiple partnerships with third-party providers. "Most of the people we have on our respective teams are not managing technology but managing business relationships," says Prusnick. "It's a critical skill for the new modern IT professional."

That's a sentiment that's widely held in other industries besides hospitality. "These days we're seeing a significant difference in who's getting hired and promoted," says Marshall Oldham, director of recruiting at IT staffing firm TEKsystems. "During the dot-com boom and the early 2000s, you got hired and promoted if you had a specific level of technical expertise that other people didn't have," he says.

Now the questions have changed, Oldham says. "Do you fit into the corporate culture? Do you understand the line of business? Can you manage people? These have all come to the forefront."

Here's how these rising stars are answering those questions in their own unique ways.

Lynn Costa, 43

Vice president, Shared Services, Scholastic, New York

What she does: Lynn Costa joined children's book publisher Scholastic four years ago, at the behest of her boss, senior vice president and CIO Saad Ayub, who had also been her manager at The Hartford Insurance Group. Since he knew what she was capable of, Ayub felt comfortable loading Costa's plate high.

As vice president of shared services, Costa functions like a divisional CIO, overseeing corporate enterprise applications like Workday for HR. She is also responsible for access management, help desk, mobility strategy and other software-as-a-service (SaaS) initiatives. "It's most exciting how we're leveraging technology to improve productivity," says Costa, who has 60 people reporting to her and serves some 8,500 U.S. employees.

What she brings to the table: Costa's specialty is identifying processes that support change. "It's really solutions and problem-solving," she explains, "putting the right organizational structure in place to get things done." Specifically, Costa identifies the structure, governance and standards that now underlie enterprise architecture, project management, business analysis and ITIL functions at Scholastic. "It's changing the way IT is working," Costa says. "IT needs to work cross-organizationally, in a matrix environment."

Her vision for IT: "With the evolution of technology -- SaaS, cloud, mobility and consumerization -- the role of the CIO and his or her reports is changing," Costa says. "It's a consultative model versus an execution role." In the past, Costa had been tasked with overseeing ambitious application development projects, but that's changing. "More and more we're leveraging what's already built and provided to us via software as a service," she says. "Our role now is as a strategic business consultant, to understand what they're trying to get done and to leverage the right technologies for them."

David Paschane, 43

Director, Office of Strategic Services, National Capital Region IT, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Washington

What he does: David Paschane heads up a small office with a big impact on one of the largest bureaucracies in the country. As director of the Office of Strategic Services at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Paschane works with a five-member team to solve organizational problems using technology and applied science.

"We're like in-house consultants," Paschane explains. "We define and measure key elements of the organization -- how information systems work, what people know and don't know, the triggers by which things get done -- and once we do that, we apply IT in a very clean, contemporary way" to help improve performance and, as he puts it, "debureaucratize" departments. Thus far, the Office of Strategic Services has taken on some 15 case studies, all aimed in one way or another at optimizing performance of people and departments. "If we can get 100,000 veterans to stay in school this semester because we fixed a problem within the GI Bill processes, that's a win," Paschane says.

What he brings to the table: Paschane may work in IT, but he's not necessarily of IT. With a master's degree in behavioral-organizational research and a doctorate in medical geography, Paschane's specialty is the really big picture -- applying science and technology to human and organizational development. He developed and now champions a discipline, the Performance Architectural Science Systems (PASS), that taps the power of operational analytics, advanced media and emerging technology to help organizations shift from heavy bureaucracies to what he calls "light enterprises" -- which feature increased capability, reduced costs and the ability to innovate.

His vision for IT: "The future of work is changing very quickly, and few CIOs get it yet," Paschane says. "They're not dealing with technology; they're dealing with knowledge workers." A successful information leader's No. 1 goal should be figuring out ways to support employees to help them achieve a higher level of concentration and deliver high-value output, he says. To that end, his group is testing tools like a "very fast continuous virtual desktop" and a dynamic online workspace that encourages productive collaboration. "CIOs who see the shift realize the richest opportunities are not in the consumption of technology but in the value of information to the organization," he says.

Bill Mayo, 47

Director, U.S. Commercial IT, Biogen Idec, Weston, Mass.

What he does: When Bill Mayo showed up for a job interview at Biogen Idec two and a half years ago, he was upfront in confessing he hadn't thought about biology since high school and didn't know much about the biotech industry, where Biogen Idec has carved out a niche developing treatments of neurodegenerative diseases, hemophilia and autoimmune disorders.

That didn't faze Greg Meyers, Biogen Idec's vice president of IT -- he had recruited Mayo for what he did know. Thanks to long stints at two blue-chip consumer products companies, Gillette and Procter & Gamble, Mayo was an expert at supply chain technology, just what Meyers was after. Biogen was expanding into new markets and developing an increasingly complex set of supplier, contract manufacturing and distribution relationships.

Now, as head of Biogen Idec's Commercial IT group, Mayo works closely with business unit leaders to make projects happen. "The question is always 'How can IT help the sales, patient services and marketing teams?'," says Mayo. "In the broader sense, we ask, 'What do we as a company need to accomplish? And how can IT help?' "

What he brings to the table: As a biotech outsider, Mayo's value add is his ability to question. "Because I don't have a preconceived notion as to why this industry works the way it does, I don't come in thinking things have to be done a certain way," he explains. "So for everything from leveraging the ERP tool that we bought to establishing good change control, I'm always asking, 'Why are we doing this?' 'Why don't we have an approach for that?' " Mayo says. "I bring that different perspective."

As he rises through the ranks, Mayo finds his role changing; he's becoming less of a technologist or even a business leader (he has an MBA from Northeastern University in addition to an undergraduate computer science degree) and more of a big-picture visionary.

His vision for IT: "I can't think of a single job in our organization that is not hugely reliant on IT; you have to understand IT to do the job," he says. That pervasiveness of technology throughout the company, coupled with cloud computing and the consumerization trend, could well spell the end of old-school IT, Mayo predicts. "Companies are not going to own data centers or host their own applications. In 20 years or whatever, the notion of a separate IT organization as a keeper of the data will be gone. IT becomes part of the fabric of the organization," he says.

Under that scenario, Mayo sees IT managers like himself not necessarily being expert in this or that technology of the moment, but fully embracing the role of tech leader. "It's a bit of providing inspiration, a bit of being a mentor, a bit of giving good advice and a bit of getting out of people's way," Mayo sums up. "The value I can give the IT organization is to help other people be great."

Leigh Ann Thomas

Senior business relationship manager, American Water, Voorhees, N.J.

What she does: Leigh Ann Thomas is the first person to hold the title of senior business relationship manager in the Information Technology Service department at American Water, the largest investor-owned water and wastewater utility in the U.S.

In the new role, her sole focus and purpose is to demonstrate the value of IT to the business. Beyond that lofty goal, Thomas finds herself working without a road map. "It's intriguing," she says. "I define my role day to day. There are no best practices. It's a completely blank canvas."

Since June 2012, when American Water vice president and CIO Mark Smith handed her the new responsibilities, Thomas has been working her way through a five-step process to put together a model for the role, starting with a "listening tour" to collect feedback from both the ITS group and multiple business partners -- no small task in the large, geographically dispersed company. "There are a lot of stakeholders," Thomas observes. The next phase is to prioritize that feedback and "zero in our energies" on IT investments with the biggest payback for the business side.

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