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Life is not without its ironies. While the pandemic turbo-charged our dependence on technology for day-to-day activities like never before, it also clarified the importance as a leader to be thoughtful and strategic – to take a step back before leaping into the fray. Here are 5 lessons that helped me navigate the COVID crises that I believe we can all benefit from carrying forward into 2021 and beyond.
1. Slow Down to Speed Up
The necessity of responding effectively to COVID-19 as a Tech Chief compelled me to use my expertise to quickly identify technology solutions that would have an impact for my clients. While responsiveness in an uncertain climate is essential, it’s actually a strong technology foundation that allows agility and creates ballast for organizations looking to gain competitive advantage in uncertain times.
Lesson #1 is therefore that while it may not be as inspiring as the latest app, focusing on the “blocking and tackling” and building a strong technology foundation enables agility and re-invention. As a CIO, I constantly balance possible change opportunities with the readiness of my clients to accept that change. Knowing how far to push my clients is a key part of my role. Just because a technology is available, doesn’t always mean it’s right for them. Always consider how a new technology fits within the foundation.
2. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel
My role as the CTO of the New York Public Library proved to be a great training ground in how to manage the complexity of upgrading infrastructure, moving applications to the cloud, and building a digital repository. I devised a three-part strategy for the transformation. First, I had to upgrade the aging infrastructure. Second, I had to move the infrastructure and the applications into the cloud, to improve our resiliency, security, and functionality. The third was to figure out how to preserve the library’s physical assets which were expiring from age. We decided to digitize the assets to permanently preserve them. Within 5 years, the repository had over a Petabyte of assets in it and was continuing to grow. These resulted in a world-class computing environment, moving a beloved, trusted, public city library into the digital 21st century that can be accessed by future generations. Lesson # 2 – the secret to our success at NYPL was that the technology platforms and applications we used were all developed by best-of-breed providers. We recognized that we were in the data business rather than the R&D business, and as such, didn’t build anything ourselves. Instead, we took pride in working with and learning from industry leaders.
3. Future-Proof Your Thinking
The pace of change is so much more rapid than it was even five years ago. Being able to recognize that the landscape is evolving, pivot at speed, and adopt new technology within the organization is now an essential skillset for technology leaders. I am personally excited about the ‘internet of things’ (IoT) and the data that is being collected at the edge which will be enhanced by 5G capabilities. Also, AI and ML are on the cusp of making a ‘next level’ leap. I think there are lots of good applications of it, we just need to figure out how to use them responsibly. Lesson # 3 is that as a technology leader, we need to be constantly looking around corners and to remain open-minded and curious about what’s next. It is important for all leaders and aspiring leaders to ask questions; to challenge the status quo.
4. The Human Factor Remains a Top Priority
New technology comes with its own set of challenges. I believe the issue of privacy and security to be the most pressing. Data is being collected everywhere and often has proved to be more valuable that the platform it sits on. Hence, it is paramount to understand evolving data and privacy standards, as well as how to secure it and identify breaches. Then there are also moral and ethical issues around AI. While the opportunities are limitless, it is of utmost importance that we maintain our moral and democratic compass and that we apply technology in a way that benefits society. Lesson # 4 is that while it’s challenging to get the balance between innovation, opportunity, and ethics right, it’s a battle worth fighting.
5. Facts Matter – Strive for Balance
Another issue for me is information overload. Knowing what is real and what isn’t, has never been more important. This is where go-to trusted news and academic sources come into play. Two influencers I follow are Dan Fagella from EMERJ and Bernard Marr. Both Dan and Bernard focus on AI and it’s motivating to hear and read what they have to say. I also read the technology review from MIT and listen to several technology podcasts. Lesson # 5 is that it’s critical to continue to seek knowledge and to make a point of agnostically learning a lot from other technologists, business-people, and vendors. Doing your own research and triangulation in the age of ‘alternative facts’ ensures that you stay informed, relevant and are able to separate fact from fiction.
In summary, as we enter the ‘Next Normal’, I anticipate that the pace of change will be faster than ever. However, it’s important to remember that it’s not technology that leads the way, it’s people. Staying in touch with technology trends and solutions is obviously important, but so is staying in touch with your values and humanity. At the end of the day, technology is just an enabler and it’s the human values we apply to it that make the difference in how impactful it will be.