As troublesome as it is to write this – I’m entering my third decade of IT in the AED space – it does allow me some sense of perspective. There is a change underway in our IT leadership, and it is an opportunity for firms to step up their game, tech-wise.
For as long as I’ve known CIOs in design firms, they’ve always “fallen” into the CIO role. They were Architects with some level of technical expertise or interest, one thing led to another, and boom – CIO. Larry Rocha at WATG. Ken Young at HOK. Even Joseph Joseph of Gensler, with a deep IT background, started as an Architect.
If you consider the timelines involved, it makes sense. While our industry didn’t accept the shift to digital as quickly as some others, once the ball started rolling, it started rolling quickly. In a rush to catch up/get current, firms first looked internally for whoever had even a basic understanding of pcs, servers, and networking. I’ve heard stories of people being tapped on the shoulder just due to their knowledge of WordPerfect.
It worked for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, these trailblazers were already familiar with the unique culture of design firms. Second, their knowledge of the business allowed for close alignment of technology with firm leadership. Maybe not all spending was optimal, maybe there were skinned knees from the learning process, but it was an effective, practical solution. This differs significantly from other support groups such as HR or Accounting.
The downside – if there was one – is that people were needing to learn a new career from scratch. They had gone to school to be Architects, and now a significantly different path lay before them. For many instances where technology was truly someone’s passion, I’m sure there were those who accepted the role because it was a safe landing space for continued employment. For some, with a decent-sized pay raise.
These leaders – predominantly white and male – just a side note – started entering into their 50s and 60s in the 2010s. As they transition into (happy!) retirement, firms now have a wider range of choices for their replacements.
The good news is that we are now seeing the first wave of “pure” technical professionals. Those who always intended to have a career in technology. Those who have an existing knowledge base accompanied with a passion for the work. And in many cases, they can still come from within AED firms. If we consider the Larry Rochas of the world as Gen 1 CIOs, the time is now for Gen 2. IT from the ground up.
The pluses are that there will be a deep understanding of technology, the ability to discern cutting edge from bleeding edge, the ability to implement and manage with a lessened reliance on external contractors. And if they’ve spent their career supporting designers, they’ll understand the culture and the business.
However, even with a common culture, firms have their individual quirks. One of these is the perception of support groups vs. the designers. I’ve worked with firms that considered support groups to be monolithic, faceless automatons that just get replaced as needed. Only the voices of designers held any weight whatsoever. If this is your firm, a “pure” IT CIO will struggle to achieve that which a “hybrid” CIO can do – even if the hybrid CIO is demonstrably worse – due to the oversized emphasis on a design background.
I’m not passing judgement on that per se; as one of the Morlocks, it’s easier to see that stratification. Every firm is different. But I would contend that firms that can promote that pure IT leader – the Gen 2 – will benefit from it. As much as Gen 1 was critical for the evolution, Gen 2 will be as the Internet Age matures.